It took me a while to get around to it, but I finally got around to doing that more analytical piece I’d been meaning to write.
In the week following the Millbank occupation, one theme that has been repeated in the media again and again is the idea that the disturbances were planned or co-ordinated beforehand by a small group of activists. While, as I’ve discussed before, the media’s promotion of this idea can have some positive effects, in terms of providing massive publicity for the groups that are scapegoated, it is still ultimately one we need to be arguing against. This myth ultimately serves to hide the most genuinely subversive features of last week’s riot. To explain why, it’s necessary to look at two fundamental features of class society: separation and representation. (This bit may be very boring for anyone with a basic familiarity with Marxist or anarchist theory, but I think that it’s better to bore people who already know what you mean than to confuse people who don’t.)
Ultimately, as cliched as it may sound, virtually everything in society is produced by work. However, as the continued existence of capitalism throughout the world shows, the idea of workers collectively taking control of everything they produce is not as simple as it sounds. While “the workers” may, in the abstract, be all-powerful, in practice our experience of day-to-day life is not one of power but of almost total powerlessness. We are separated from each other, but also, just as importantly, separated from the things that we produce.
But this is still only half the subject. Once the product of our work has been separated from us, it still needs to be represented back to us. This happens in the economy, but it also happens just as importantly in politics. When we think of Sky, we think of Rupert Murdoch, and we might think of a few actors, directors and even scriptwriters; we don’t think of the vast armies of people making the tea, cleaning up afterwards, assembling televisions and satellite dishes, or working in callcentres to sell subscriptions. When we think of the government, we think of Cameron, Clegg and Cable, but we don’t think of the millions who turned out to vote for them, or every single person employed by the public sector, or even all the people who aren’t employed directly by the state but still follow its instructions when they come into contact with it, provide it with accurate information and pay their taxes, even though all these things are necessary for the state to be able to function. (Although it was sadly called off, this is what made the threat by BBC workers to strike and black out coverage of the Tory party conference so great, as it would’ve exposed dramatically how powerless the great and good really are when workers refuse to obey them.)
Wherever we turn, we find this same combination: an assumption that us and the people around us are basically powerless, while the power that we create is projected onto an outside figure who can then claim to represent us. If you don’t like what the government’s doing, you can vote for a nicer politician who promises to represent you better. If you’ve got a problem at work, you can turn to your trade union representative and ask them to sort it out for you. And if you find that that’s still not enough, and you want to shake up the world as a whole, you can turn to your friendly local socialist party, where the full-time organisers will be happy to tell you what to do. Following these different leaders can lead to vastly different effects – the cynicism of a Clegg is as nothing compared to the millions of workers and peasants killed by the “workers and peasants states” in Russia and China – but none of them can abolish themselves, or create a genuinely free and equal society. Any movement aiming at true liberation needs to go beyond just reproducing the structures that characterise existing society.
What made Millbank so exciting was the violent break with all that. For once, we got to see a crowd of people spontaneously making their own decisions. The power of that crowd came from the people in that crowd and their energy on the day, not from some cunning strategy worked out by sinister Marxist or anarchist groups meeting in back rooms beforehand. And that’s what the Daily Mail worldview, where no-one can get angry unless “[m]ilitants from far-Left groups whip [them] into a frenzy” or “a small minority… had arranged it beforehand” or a “bearded man in his 30s” uses “a loud hailer to incite the crowd”, just cannot deal with. If it was true that it was all worked out beforehand by a small group cunningly manipulating everyone around them, then there’d be nothing really that new or radical about the trashing of Tory HQ, it’d just be another costume disguising the same old hierarchical power. The myth of the “anarchist hardcore” turns scenes like riots into another display of rulers and ruled. Rather than rejecting all bosses, we’re expected to turn to the militant boss in the black mask to tell us how to riot properly. The ruling class need this myth to try and obscure the real lesson of riots and similar outbreaks of defiance. If people can work out what they want and how best to get it on their own, without being led by sinister troublemaking militants (or, for that matter, obscure anarcho bloggers trying to write wittily), then there’s no need for a ruling class, or for society to be run the way that it is today.
(Endnote: As usual, a lot of the ideas in this post are stolen off the Situationists. But a lot of situ and situ-influenced writing tends to use lots of jargon and be quite difficult to read, whereas I’ve tried as much as possible to avoid jargon and make this easy to read. It’s possible I’ve just completely bastardised their ideas and that you can’t really talk about complex ideas without using really complex language, but I’ve tried my best.)