‘And a bad time was had by all’ Melbourne – a terrible but fairly illuminating meeting.

Vasili Efanov - An Unforgettable Meeting
Vasili Efanov – An Unforgettable Meeting

It is impossible to define a new politics without an analysis of capital, on the one hand, and, on the other, without a practice of struggle and a practice for utilizing counterpower (Lazzarato 2015, 25).

On a recent trip to Melbourne I attended a meeting billed as an ‘anarcho/autonomo/commie’ met up and discussion. It was all and all a pretty terrible experience. I left the meeting feeling depressed, confused and wretched. Of course this is not remarkable. Life in general, and especially in late-capitalism, can be a pretty dispiriting affair. In a discussion with Mark after the meeting he pointed out that it was also an ‘illuminating’ experience. I think this is true. My hope here is to attempt to express what was illuminating about this meeting, and I believe it may be of interest or use to a wider group of people than those who endured the unpleasantness itself. Here I wish to touch on why some meetings are terrible, the difficulties of communicating in the absence of a shared political language, two important bifurcations in anticapitalist thought (over how the relationship between revolutionaries and the rest of the class is imagined, and over the way that we understand the dynamics of race, class and struggle in Australia) and finally the role of ‘theory’ and the persona of the ‘theorist’ in all this.

What made this meeting even more noticeably horrid were two recent positive experiences of connecting with anti-capitalists up and down the East Coast. One was last year – a party in Fairfield, Sydney that brought together at least two generations of comrades over food, drinks and open and informal discussions. The other was a highly structured meeting in Newcastle organised by Common Ant. Interestingly the Melbourne meeting had neither the warmth, affability or camaraderie of the gathering in Fairfield nor the depth of discussion and shared work of the meeting in Newcastle. Rather its uncomfortable mixture of lack of structure and lack of warmth was the worst of both worlds.

‘I’m struggling to work out what this meeting is about….’ – Rascal

So what was so bad about this meeting? You had to be there but in short it was a two hour long exercise in people struggling to communicate – and seemingly to be aggressively committed to miscommunicating. Part of the problem was a lack of any unifying concept. The broad label of the meeting was ‘non-Leninist’: but this doesn’t in fact signify any substantial level of commonality. Rather embarrassingly the meeting had been called in part due to my presence in Melbourne. I had assumed, as did two very close comrades from Sydney who also attended, that this was due to an interest in the work that I had been doing here and at With Sober Senses. In particular we thought the recent debate over the Social Strike would be a focus. Some comrades from Melbourne did seem interested in this – all of them were people I already knew and we shared a broad generational experience. However it seemed that many of the comrades attending from Melbourne had little interest in either (fair enough of course) but were motivated by the specific concerns and issues of struggles: especially the opposition to Reclaim Australia, fascism and racism more broadly. Other comrades from Sydney had a broad critique of the ‘Left’ (for a lack of a better term) and its reliance on class as a the name of the substantive antagonism in Australia and argued against both the above positions in the favour of starting something new arising from the opposition to White Supremacy.

These cleavages were expressions of deeper differences. There were those of us who were at least over thirty, I think to a person university educated (a high proportion with post-graduate degrees), and steeped in various forms of Marxian theory – specifically so-called ‘autonomist Marxism’ being a shared reference. Many of the other comrades from Melbourne were much younger, had a more classically anarchist politics, and there seemed to have a greater variety of occupations and education. Based on what comrades said there were experiences of unemployment, study, construction work and care work. As such there was a generational and political division. The meeting was mainly blokes and mainly blokes spoke. As Rascal said to me – ‘ you never feel so alone as when you are with people you think you are close to.’

Of course such differences aren’t a problem. The problem was that there was no framework or context for a coherent relationship. No point was given – a shared experience, a text to read, a presentation from a speaker – which would allow any meaningful or substantive engagement or discussion. Since it was also though a meeting – under the fluorescent lights of a Trade Union building – there wasn’t the atmosphere for a loose and genial occasion where people could get to know each other in a way that allowed these differences to find an expression. It was both too formal and too informal. Rascal made the critique that such meetings despite the commonly shared desire to increase participation create spaces where those with (to use a horrid term) ‘social capital’, such as white guys who have been to uni, feel the most comfortable talking.

I couldn’t help think about the discussions organised when I was in Revolutionary Action. Here we would have long informal discussions that were rich and joyful. This was possible, on reflection, because the discussion days happened in the context of an organisation that has it is core relationships of solidarity. These relationships were built through a constant weaving together of of our lives, shared involvement in struggles and a lot of time spent together. Nick in particular spent a lot of time going from house to house drinking tea, talking politics and talking about our lives. We talked the organisation into its existence. The rise of the alterglobalisation movement and the historical possibility of this moment was the necessary context. When this historical moment ended, as the relationships fell apart, the organisation on a formal level dissolved. Some of us though still walk together.

So two general rules: if we are attempting to get comrades from different places to met each other we should through a party, have a BBQ or organise a dinner. If we want to have a serious discussion perhaps a shared point of engagement and some structure would help.

‘Anyone can speak Troll. All you have to do is point and grunt’ – J.K. Rowling

 

 

“Up to you. Follow your intuition. Would you mind, Denis, actually, if I just took this piece of tofu?”

“That’s a marshmallow,” Denis said (Pynchon 2009, 12)

There was no shared language – and communication was difficult at best. Common words such as ‘class’, ‘race’, ‘the Left’ even the notion of ‘we’ had no shared meaning in the meeting. Thus their use seemed to intensify differences.   Personally I felt this bizarre experience of people seemingly disagreeing with what I was saying by making arguments I agree with. In fact to my mind the whole meeting was one of people furiously disagreeing with each often when there were common points of commonality. The rough attempts people made to clarify what was being said seemed to exacerbate things even more. Comrades were very conscious of the split between the language of people inside the room and those who are outside of it – but the splits inside the room seemed to be just as much a problem.

But perhaps this is thinking the problem incorrectly. Language is never stable. Language is always broken. Meaning always slips and slides outside and away from words. We can only communicate with each other through effort, from a willingness to make meaning. This happens in our everyday conversations. We work to get through inescapable misunderstands to grasp context and pull out shared themes. Why does this break down in ‘political contexts’ why can’t we grasp and hold the various different ways 20 people in a room may use the term ‘class’?

This chimes into another concern that I often hear in anticapitalist circles: that our language is a problem. The way anticapitalists discuss their ideas is too far removed, too intellectual, too insular to connect with the experiences of ‘ordinary people’ (whoever these mythical creatures maybe.) Thus we need to express ourselves in a more common way. Certainly a valid critique and also a valid desire. But the problem is that there is no common language. All of us all the time speak in dialect whether we are talking about how to make biscuits or discussing Adorno. Sure we want to talk with as many people as possible, to make our shared experiences common, to engage in politics with each other, to see our differences clearly but such encounters are premised on our ability to work to make meaning across the multitude of dialects rather than seek an Ur-language.

Real points of difference.

All this said there were two real lines of substantive disagreement. The first over how to think about the relationship between revolutionaries and the class and the other over the relationship between the social relationships of class, the social relationships of race and the effort to emancipate ourselves.

On the first question there were three positions. I was in one position that wanted to start from class composition. That is any political project had to start from a project of investigation into how work(wage and unwaged) exists today, the various lines of antagonism, forms of ideas and organisation that exist and proceed from there. ‘For each historical phase of class struggle, we identify a compositional type of working class, which is at its core not only its location in the overall process of production, but also the series of experiments with struggle, comportments, and the way determinate and life needs come to be renewed and newly defined’(Negri 2014, 11).

The critique of this made by other comrades was that such an approach was a form on anthropology that involved training microscopes on daily life. Rather the problem was that anarchist politics existed in tiny a demography and geography – that is young people in the inner city. This had left the working class more broadly to fascist and reactionary politics. The problem was then how to sincerely and genuinely reach out and build from the community up. Why did we lack the ability to do this? What kinds of actions would be useful? How should we find points of common agreement?

Against both a third position was that such approaches that relied on a split between the activist and the ordinary other was a problem and a dead end. Rather we needed to start from our own conditions and material needs and work out what kinds of forms and struggles could realize them in a way that resists recuperation and points to a larger transformation of society.

I think everyone in the room in someway agreed with elements of all three positions at some level. But they do point towards clearly delineated projects (though of course the same person could be involved in all three.) It is worthwhile to mark these differences clearly and try to circulate the experiences and verdicts of each attempt.

Parallel to this was a debate about how should we understand the substantive antagonisms in Australian society: race or class. Now such debates are old but this one had new elements. On one hand there was a position that said that the social relationships of class mark the main antagonism, but race (along with gender) is an inescapable part of these social relations. The other position argued that not only are the social relations of race the main antagonism in Australian society but they are fundamentally irreducible to class – and that the Left (including most anarchists) are attempting to place these struggles into old and largely irrelevant bottles. This seems to me to be an incredibly important debate about how we understand the very nature of Australian society, radical struggles and the future we could move into. We didn’t get to this point in the meeting but I think it leads to two different understandings: either Australian society is a capitalist one built on colonialism and racism and emancipation is communism, or that it is a settler-colonial and white supremacist society which happens to be capitalist and emancipation is decolonization. This debate matters I think and needs to be treated very seriously.

In a more specific sense the meeting has forced me to reconsider some of my basic formulations. In my work at With Sober Senses I often typify Australian society as being in condition of social peace built on the prosperity of the mining boom. However the point was sharply made to me that this period that I call ‘social peace’ was marked by the Northern Territory Intervention, a murderous border régime and high rates of domestic violence and murder. So whist the conflict between capital and labour in the workplace might be fairly muted life for many life is far from peaceful.

‘…theoretical reflection and critical thought have the same task as the sentinel’ – SupGaleano

In the lead up to the recent Zapatista seminars Critical Thought versus the Capitalist Hydra SupGaleano described the role of the theorist as similar to the ‘sentinel’. ‘Whoever works on analytic thinking takes a shift as guard at the watchpost’ (2015). It is a powerful image. Theoretical work is part of a larger process of struggle, an attempt to map out the terrain that struggle happens on. However it has its own dangers – that sentinels can become ‘priests’:

Although they are only sentinels, they behave as if they were the leading brain which mutates into criminal tribunal whenever convenient. From there, they order everyone around, judging, absolving, or condemning. While we recognize the fact that nobody pays any attention to them—reality always being so markedly rebellious—it does nothing to restrain them from their (not infrequently intoxicated) delirium.

Secondly they can suffer from the ‘Night Watch Syndrome’:

Well, it turns out that after some time, the sentinel “exhausts” his capacity for vigilance. This “exhaustion” (which we Zapatistas refer to as “Night Watch Syndrome”) consists of, broadly speaking, the development, after some time spent on watch, of a type of “looped perception” or “recorded perception”. That is, the night watch reproduces the same image over and over in their conscious perception, as if nothing ever changed, as if any changes were part of the image’s normal state of being.

For those of us who do theoretical work this is a useful lesson.

Appendix:

Below are more notes taken of the discussion at the meeting.

Melbourne discussion

  • Care work – funding as discipline
    • How do you withdraw your labour?
    • The lack of full time work.
  • The role of fascism as the image of the working class.
  • The inability to transcend our limitations
  • Why aren’t we credible?
  • Composition as inward looking anthropology.
  • The continuation of social democracy – deep and all covering; mainstream trade unions.
  • Class composition – based in white supremacy.
  • Race – social democracy arises from genocide, anything from here will reproduce it; we can’t start from here – we start from something new
  • You can’t start from the material composition of capitalism without factoring in race.
  • Composition isn’t just an idealised material starting point
    • The question of composition is to have a working understanding of why things are the way things are now and how do we shift it.
  • Self-identification of working class politics – most people don’t identify with what they hate.
  • Social strike – a way of trying to generalise a problem to a community of people wider than the issue.
  • Everything seems to happen in a geographical bubble – not much of an attempt to organise in peoples actual lived communities.
  • Engaging with people who already fit into a set a criteria
    • How do we take the social strike and engage with a wider group of people?
  • Anti-racism what is tangible ‘community organising’ – beyond postering late at night
    • We lack the coherence and capability to do this.
    • Actually going to ‘communities’ is seen as being ‘too hard’.
  • Social strike
    • Tactically sounds really good but posing it on this level is too narrow
    • Impasse of the Left – since anticapitalist summits have been struck
    • It seems strategy rather than tactics
      • What is our strategy what can we do in a long term way?
    • The way we communicate is important.
      • Intellectuals who are patronising
      • People don’t identify as working class but identify with their work
      • People have class consciousness but without that language.
    • Unemployment is a big thing now.
      • Dole action group
    • Social strike – the stop the forced closures demo
    • The heterogeneous nature of work.
      • Place, location, credit.
    • Critiques of unions and union activity.
    • Strategy
      • Plan C and AWW both are departing from an interesting class composition – they are interested in how antagonism means that capital has to respond – the technical and political implications
      • Plan C – we need a revolutionary organisations
      • AWW – we will go an work in specific area that fits with global supply chains.
        • They ask all organisations to think of pratice
        • Is a communist strategy all us working in specific niche industry?
        • Should we quit our jobs and all go work in specific industry?
      • Is that activism – that sounds like activism
        • Sitting down with a strategic analysis is the core flaw, the conceit of the Left.
      • The Left is desperately clawing for how the antagonisms around race will fit within older class based model.
      • Right now race is the antagonism that divides Australia.
      • The Left has no strategic analysis
        • With sober senses seems the only blog that is asking questions
        • Otherwise we just repeat what is going in history.
      • Need to ask questions – they have a risk of navel gazing/anthropology
      • Don’t have a clue anymore – and when I did I don’t think it was very useful.
      • Class composition is about asking strategic questions
      • Suspect the heterogeneous nature of class is true – but we need to start asking question
      • How is violence is organised and globalised
        • US – from Indonesia to S. America to the Middle East
        • The rise of china and how violence is organised
        • Violence is often the first point
        • Social strike – arises from S. & Latin American experiences.
        • Australia’s involvement in organising violence.
      • Does class composition relate to the question of political organisation?
      • Can the structures of capitalism tell us about the mode of class organisation.
      • The end of the mining boom – what will that mean?
      • Reclaim Australia is speaking to an emotional psychological need that has been the basis of White Australia over the last 200 years.
      • Has the last 20 years been a period of social peace – indigenous occupation, border violence, gendered violence?
      • Social strike Australia – 220 years of racialised violence. The shift from industrial to service industry. Centrelink crucial to the operation of the intervention. Dole quarantining.
      • Social strike – how does it relate to service provision?
      • Does social strike = deinvestment?
      • Deinvestment doesn’t generalise struggle – more like consumer boycotts
      • HESTA etc.
      • Transitional Strike – meeting in Berlin
      • Weird to talk about the social strike in Australia except for the Melbourne struggles against force closure
        • Don’t think there is conflict between long term composition and reacting but need to be realistic about what it means to develop power
        • Here Social S means shit.
      • One binary that needs collapsing is the one between organising and lifestyle
      • People are full of fear – because they think the only way needs can be met is by submitting to the system
      • Processing of commoning
      • We cannot discuss class composition in colonial societies without race.
      • Zapatismo – class composition is not based on Marxist ideas, but rather ‘people at the bottom’. This can’t be created with thinking about race. To talk about class composition is to talk about race – not the workplace but the city.
      • Brazil: the factory is not the place to organise but the city. The city is the place to organise.
      • Class composition – where are we inserted?
      • More on the commons
      • Dole Action Group
        • Work for the dole.
        • Has a lot to say about work and how we think about work.
        • UK experience.
        • Pretty horrendous stories. – working with asbestos , construction work, working when pregnant.
        • Deep level of psychological investment.
        • Adelaide Anti-Poverty Network is doing really amazing work.
        • AUU – really running the line on 457 visas and unemployment.
        • Hippy NGOs have signed up with Work-for-the-dole CERES Lentil As Anything etc.
      • CNT – ran schools, mutual aid etc.
      • About identifying needs and acting on them.
      • Social democracy about trying to overcome what radicals have done in the past.
      • Needs that need to met and provide them – end up doing free community and social work is problematic. How do non-capitalist projects become anti-capitalist.
        • Example of struggle over women’s refuges
      • Practical outcomes
        • Base Union for Healthcare.
          • Have to talk about the border/use of visas etc.
        • How do we start:
          • Not what should ‘the left’ do but rather what are our needs.
          • Being part of a specific community: example of anarchists in Nepal
          • BDS, Serco etc ( Wilson Security)
          • Anti-deport actions.

Lazzarato, Maurizio. 2015. Govering by Debt. Translated by Joshua David Jordan. South Pasadena, CA: semiotext(e).

Negri, Antonio. 2014. Factory of Strategy: 33 Lessons on Lenin. Translated by Arianna Bove. New York: Columbia University Press.

Pynchon, Thomas. 2009. Inherent Vice. London: Jonathan Cape.

SupGaleano. 2015. The Storm, the Sentinel, and Night Watch Syndrome. Enlace Zapatista [cited 8th August 2015]. Available from http://enlacezapatista.ezln.org.mx/2015/04/04/the-storm-the-sentinel-and-night-watch-syndrome/.

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One thought on “‘And a bad time was had by all’ Melbourne – a terrible but fairly illuminating meeting.

  1. “We didn’t get to this point in the meeting but I think it leads to two different understandings: either Australian society is a capitalist one built on colonialism and racism and emancipation is communism, or that it is a settler-colonial and white supremacist society which happens to be capitalist and emancipation is decolonization.”

    I feel like I can only respond to this in the form of a disagreement, even though I don’t think you will really disagree with any (or at least, much) of what I have to say – and this seems ironic, given you discuss this exact dynamic above. Really, as I am sure will be obvious, I am jumping off from your words to try to develop some ideas I have been struggling to think through, so I hope this comes across in the comradely spirit in which it’s intended.

    That said… I am not inclined to accept the binary you’re setting out here. Australian society is capitalist, colonial, and white supremacist – and patriarchal and heteronormative, etc. These anatagonisms all structure society and set practical limits on the prospect of liberation (limits which would have to be overcome in struggle). I don’t think it is useful to hierarchise them or try to decide which is more fundamental. It seems obvious that there could not be a communism worth the name that was not anticolonial, or a serious project of decolonisation that was not anticapitalist. This reminds me of the discussion from the introduction to The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community on the division between feminists for whom gender is fundamental and economics secondary and feminists for whom class is fundamental and gender secondary – James praises Dalla Costa for “rejecting on the one hand class subordinated to feminism and on the other feminism subordinated to class”.

    I am attached to the language of class and think it is useful and productive, but I acknowledge that antiracists have strong historical reasons to distrust people who insist class is the fundamental antagonism. There are still plenty of people on the left who, while opposing racism, believe that all we really need is a worker’s revolution – and then racism will simply fall away. I think this conception is manifestly inadequate. I assume that when we talk about class composition it includes the ways racial divisions are both imposed upon but also subjectively taken up by different sections of the class, but I wonder is strong enough.

    I am gonna leave it there because I am getting too drunk, if I’m not already, to keep developing this coherently.

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