A cool winter morning in south London sees a young man muttering to himself at a bus stop. It’s some kind of rap-rant: snatches of social observation, jibes at the physical defects of passers-by, warnings to unknown rivals. It’s posturing and it’s pretty irritating, but increasingly common, a kind of birdcall asserting territory and status in an intimidating environment. His words loop in together rhythmically, often repeating key phrases as in a mantra.
Using language in a fairly vacuous way to posture isn’t just exclusive to young men at south London bus stops. Take a moment to click a few times on the latest radical critical theory text generator, The Automatic Insurrection, an excellent spoof of how young Marx-quoting revolutionary theory can quickly stray into nonsense and egotistical masturbation. A basic computer programme generates this text:
“We must shatter all mobilization—absolutely. It is necessary to commence in secret; not to dream of new ways to be productive, but to make manifest the subterranean communes in the heart of each barricaded hallway”.
Were I to refresh the page, words would be arranged differently. It would be rude to name names but you know.… It’s both alarming and hilarious in equal measure, and it comes from a more simplistic version of the Postmodernism text generator, itself weaving together Sontag, Baudrillard, Debord, Oliver Stone or a load of unbelievably pretentious non-theory to generate in-a-click essays that could convincingly originate from the average visual arts theorist.
Both demonstrate how faddish and fashionable theory can read, and some of the excesses of casual theory imposed without a clear description of terms or ideas. Meaning has become redundant to the expression of language. The random text asserts not ideas, but the obscure pomp and posture of a rarefied style of writing about ideas and cultural events: spitting lyrics away at a bus-stop does occasionally assert curious social observations, but operates primarily to assert status and ego. The meaning of language falls apart whenever one no longer has anything important to say, but feels important enough to say something all the same.
There is a discernible melancholia of language visible in wider cases too. The sad demise of the Deterritorial Support Group is a significant case in point. The public announcement on the 21st December 2011 that this small group of radical thinkers and media saboteurs were parting company has come at a crossroads for left-wing organisations in the UK. Whilst DSG have publicly split and Nina Power’s Infinite Thought blog has also officially retired, other voices like Mark Fisher’s K-punk blog or the University for Strategic Optimism have markedly been absent. UK Uncut are still active, but their efficacy and novelty of their actions has plateaued. What’s happening?
In their recent public statement, DSG announced:
“We are tired of such institutions and of the ideology spread by them, intrinsic to this publishing form: that the working class are hardworking victims of capital, exploited by virtue of their own stupidity, desperate to give an honest days work and just wanting an honest days pay… No, the proletarian is a master of struggle; she is aspirational, she wants to evade wage-labour and regain the flesh of life. It is our class who produce and create and drive social change; it is our struggles that capital reacts to, it is our struggle that shapes society.”
DSG explicitly reject blogging, a reactive format that, for them, fails to truly disrupt neoliberalism. This notice comes ten days after Nina Power ‘retired’ her long-standing Infinite Thought blog with a similar disavowal:
“I’m feeling less and less interested in alienated, isolated forms of critique or anger or what have you, and more and more practically interested in the kinds of collective work I only really theorised about before.”
This rejection of blogging is a little exciting and bears traces of a rejection of merely intellectual activity, discernible throughout certain fertile periods of the Left. The danger of this kind of ‘Maoist’ move however is total inertia: intellectuals in professional positions or from middle-class backgrounds might identify with the ‘proletariat’ under a global ‘we’ heading, a term itself unrecognised by most angry workers and hence a little beside the point, but can workers identify with a theory that has no clear strategy? The key thing is that this is the beginning of something new, and out of the new encounters of disaffected radicals and young workers will stem new arrangements and ideas of 2012. It’ll be exciting to see if and how these develop. It is however warily reminiscent of the farewells and missionary movements of new left radicals from the late 1960s/early 1970s, who disappeared into ‘authentic’ social change as the left stagnated. Faced with powerful opposition and an unclear sense of an alternative, the resistance to neoliberal capitalism becomes melancholic.
To avoid the looping mistakes of previous configurations of the Left, strategy focused on spectacular, media-grabbing events – alongside democratic, accessible and quick arguments – could feed the spreading of dissent as the harsh cold of the next few dark indebted years kicks in, described by Federico Campagna in more rarefied terms as the ‘Winter War’. His words are beguiling, dreamy and original, but as with DSG and Infinite Thought, the sense of anger or surety as to why each of us are here in the first place, and what each of us can do next, is missing. Bad things afoot, so what?
In times of pessimism, one forgets what made an idea or cause compelling to us in the first places. Books and ideas were rubber rings in times of confusion and crisis. It might seem solipsistic to celebrate critique, but its power is explaining social and economic relations as they are, and identifying how circumstances might be changed. Is critique at fault if this isn’t heeded, or if it ignores the brutal course of human history as it has actually developed? These concerns haunt the imagination of anybody committed to social transformation in a practical or idealistic capacity. The beginning of the new is marked by the passing of the old: new constellations and organisations of radicals may be forming; if so, strategies should be picked up and lessons learned from the decline of the old groupings in time for 2012.
Questions like: is peaceful Marxist activism the most effective way of organising political and social transformation? What would be the effects of the revolution activists desire, and are there other ways of agitating for these kinds of changes? What counts as ‘winning’? Can winning even be counted? How can my political ideas benefit or be desirable to communities around me? Has law and legality focused or limited the efficacy of Left-wing struggles to date, compared to the spectacular disruption and passion of the riots, or of the best of the student protests? Is the task of socialism more profound if British voters can’t even be persuaded to opt for a slightly fairer voting system? Should I go home instead and eat ice cream and watch TV? Which time-consuming strategies don’t really work towards my ends, and which ‘might do’? More online articles? Bulking up marches? Commiserating with bad Guinness in overpriced pubs with the ‘comrades’? Cheeky, headline-grabbing stunts? What social and economic arrangements can work beyond or after neoliberal capitalism?
I seek answers that aren’t just theoretical gymnastics, to spur a discussion about strategy. Radicals already agree that neoliberal capitalism is dangerous and destructive, that some sort of socialism would be far more beneficial to the mass of humanity. Strategies are needed to undermine these forces that would truly render reactionary blogging obsolete. 2012 can confirm their efficacy. Primo Levi, reflecting on the history of rebellions in human history, best articulates the task of the strategic, open-minded and adventurous troublemaker:
“The image so often repeated in monuments of the slave who breaks his heavy chain is rhetorical; his chains are broken by comrades whose shackles are lighter and looser. … All revolutions, those which have changed the direction of world history and those minuscule ones which we are dealing with here, were led by persons who knew oppression well, but not on their own skin”. [Drowned and Saved, 1988, 130-131]
It’s not a complacent argument, and within the loops of the prisoner’s broken shackles are suggestions for further thought. The collapse of the public sector and frozen wages will accelerate the decline in living standards for the middle-classes too, whose revolt J.G. Ballard and Peter Wilby have forecast already. Violent enforcement of the law and the defence of austerity cuts will become even more ‘real’, that’s if unemployment, debt, rapid imprisonment, the prospect of rubber bullets and work anxiety didn’t feel quite real enough already. States will often up the stakes of contestation whenever they feel threatened: another lesson from previous struggles. Groupings fragment and form new constellations, leaving each of us confronting a void that meaningful language can quickly and easily fill, provided the safe retreats and communities of academic theory and posturing can be left behind. The time for compelling and focused political strategy is apparent, so who wants it?
J.D. Taylor is a writer from south London, whose forthcoming ‘Negative Capitalism: Cynicism in the Neoliberal Era’ will be published by Zero Books in mid-2012.