What is movement: suffocation and contradiction within the Leeds occupation

20 Dec

Originally posted in a discussion about the political organisation of the Leeds occupation, this contribution was authored by Bertie Russell.

The ‘occupied Leeds’ facebook page has now had debates going on for a number of days, loosely exploring the conflicts/differences between ‘SWP’ and ‘autonomous’ approaches. It’s worth saying, from the outset, that neither ‘SWP’ or ‘autonomous’ are accurate nouns here – much of what is being critiqued is not SWP specific, and the diversity of those being termed ‘autonomous’ renders it largely meaningless.

Anyway, below is a contribution that I made to the discussion. I’d assume that it won’t be read by many of the people I would hope to read it – so I’ve reposted it, in case it may spark some good willed discussion. Pseudonyms have been used so as to offer some anonymity.

Oh – and I need to pay some recognition to the 2002 Free Association article, ‘What is the movement?’, which I think I may have directly plagiarized at points! Cheers! (http://freelyassociating.org/what-is-the-movement/)

—–

“I think a recurring problem underlying this rather messy discussion is the way people are conceptualising ‘movement’ – a term which I think may is being used in different ways and towards different ends, an investigation of which may reveal the underlying problem.

Bryony suggested earlier that ‘the movement [can] make a decision’, that people may act ‘in the name of that movement’, and that people are capable of leaving a movement. What is occurring here is an attempt to name the movement – the placing of edges, constraints and definitions on who, what, and when is ‘inside’ this movement. In other words, ‘the movement’ is being conceived of as a thing, an entity [noun] which can be defined.

The problems with this are immediate; I referred to them in an earlier post, but I shall expand upon them. However open and progressive your attempt, ‘noun-ification’ necessarily leads to a definition of who belongs to ‘the’ movement, and who doesn’t – so you have the carving up of people, either based on their ideologies or based upon their actions (or by skin colour, sex etc.). This is, as I suggested elsewhere, an exclusionary approach by definition.

Secondly, you have the carving up of time – you now have that part of your life which is ‘political’, and that part of your life which is ‘something else’. This serves to depoliticise large parts of life, inferring political privilege upon those people who are more able to devote ‘political’ time as opposed to ‘other’ time – looking after children, cooking, working to pay your rent, making love etc. Nothing is inherently political – a political act can occur anywhere or nowhere – but this carving up of time relegates large parts of life to the ‘everyday’, simultaneously relegating the everyday to the non-political.

This is fundamentally connected to the third division, which is the division of space. It becomes necessary to define what are the physical parameters of ‘the’ movement, and what is mundane space. This literally leads us to ‘give up’ space as not being the terrain of the political; the inverse of this is that we explicitly define certain space as the space of ‘the’ movement. This has happened with social centres, protest camps etc; however in this case, it was the Rupert Beckett lecture theatre that became that exclusionary space. The marches etc. into town act as an ephemeral moment of territorial conquest. However, this was not a process of liberation, but a the process of submitting those spaces to the sovereignty of the ‘political’ entity so defined – in this case, the submitting of the streets to the rule of the lecture theatre.

Contra to this ‘noun-ification’ where ‘the’ movement is claimed as an entity, we ought to understand movement as the movement [verb] of social relations. Understood in this way, there is no privileged territory – whether this territory be cast as a revolutionary subject, space, or time. Rather, what becomes strategically important is seeing a multiplicity of events that cause a shifting in social relations. We affirm and critique these events, but crucially we keep strategising, realising that the political of yesterday often becomes the conservative forces of today.

Now, the point that I am making is that when we try and frame ‘the’ movement, we are inherently putting down barriers to movement. Calls to ‘expand the movement’ in fact lead to the complete opposite, as people become estranged from their own potential, distanced by the fact they must in some way ‘submit’ to the knowledge/process/praxis/teleology of ‘the’ movement.

Significantly, I’m suggesting that very idea of a ‘united, mass movement’ may be a contradiction. Unification and massification are part of the same process – the submission of the many to the one. Contrary to the concept of ‘movement’ – which suggests change, becoming, and uncertainty – unification and massification is in fact an inherently conservative force concerned with submitting the desire of the many to the sovereign. It is the replication of the state form, understood not as territorial lines, but as the way of organizing our thought and action.

So – the exclusion of music and dance, the critique of the Ziff and Santander actions, the repeated attempts of stewards to control and direct marches, the enforcement of the meeting as the sovereign body, the threats of violence – none of these are isolated occurrences. They are symptoms of a meta-ideological approach to organising human relations. They are premised on an ingrained fear of movement, and the desire to submit everything to the knowable and the controllable.

We must always be aware that any of us can fall into this ‘micro-fascist’ form of knowledge-practice. The sadness is that some have precisely taken this negative and suffocating form and placed it at the heart of their engagements.”

2 Responses to “What is movement: suffocation and contradiction within the Leeds occupation”

  1. Patrick December 23, 2010 at 5:56 pm #

    I want to pick up on a gap in your argument – a gap which might turn out to be the cause of the mutual misunderstanding between the ‘SWP’ (trotskyist?) and ‘autonomist’ points of view.

    ‘Significantly, I’m suggesting that very idea of a ‘united, mass movement’ may be a contradiction. Unification and massification are part of the same process – the submission of the many to the one. Contrary to the concept of ‘movement’ – which suggests change, becoming, and uncertainty – unification and massification is in fact an inherently conservative force concerned with submitting the desire of the many to the sovereign. It is the replication of the state form, understood not as territorial lines, but as the way of organizing our thought and action.’

    A “replication of the state form” – many, in fact, most people involved in the actions (marches, occupations etc) in Leeds probably have no criticism of the concept of the state. Many in the ‘trotskyist’ side of the argument will say:

    ‘I’m in favour of a state, albeit a slightly different kind of state, but your argument assumes the ‘state form’ is bad, therefore, you must be on the other side of an un-bridgeable political divide, so I must act in opposition to you.’

    So this opposition to a ‘replication of the state form’ must be explained. I suggest maybe, not the phrase ‘state form’ but merely the phrase ‘a form that doesn’t work’ – it doesn’t work for us in social movements, it doesn’t work for us in economic life, education, or any form of social regulation you choose to name.

    This form, in attempting to impose order and unity upon a necessarily diverse and continually changing set of social relations, destroys that newly forming, moving set of social relations that we call a ‘movement’.

    To foster a change in social relations, experiments must occur, new actions must be tried, ideas must be debated with total freedom and openness, vast numbers of people must feel capable of acting as agents, not just as objects of another power – THIS is why centralised institutions and authoritarian (no matter how democratic) formations are incapable of producing or maintaining a change in social relations. It is not necessarily because they mirror the state.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. To control a movement is to kill it: More reflections on the student movement in Leeds | The Great Unrest - December 24, 2010

    […] examine it. A self-proclaimed ‘autonomist’ Marxist criticises this argument, and explains the counter-position: ‘I think a recurring problem underlying this rather messy discussion is the way people are […]

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