Resistance Across Borders

After a hectic few days in the Schengen area, it’s clear that while the two clichés of life under globalized capital are still true, there’s something else happening too. The clichés are about the contrast between how easy it is for the beneficiaries of the financialized life to move around and how difficult it is for those from underdeveloped parts of the world who do much of the menial work that enables it. The new aspect is the growing worldwide resistance.

In Europe, it’s very much the case that for E.U. passport holders, borders are dissolving. Students at Strasbourg University in France can not only visit close-by universities in Switzerland and Germany, they can borrow books from their libraries and take them to what is technically a different country.

Less visible are those who keep the system functioning or have been excluded from it. I had excellent coffee this morning in a typically Parisian cafe run with exquisite politeness by a Vietnamese couple. On the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, once a by-word for working-class radicalism, there’s a Starbucks and the other signs of globalized homogeneity. In the Marais, still very much a queer/Jewish quartier when I was a student, it’s all upscale shopping and restaurants. Financialization has achieved what Baron Haussmann could not do in the nineteenth century and thoroughly exiled the dangerous and marginal classes from Paris. The average tourist might only catch a glimpse of the city’s diversity as they head for the Eurostar at Gare du Nord.

As part of that displacement, there are more barriers to the globalized knowledge system. Although tuition for a course at the Sorbonne is still only €250 ($320), the European university system is actively trying to become more hierarchical, exemplified by all the paywalls around journals and even newspapers. When you get into the National Library, it feels like getting into a fortress, after you press your passcard on multiple readers, go through many sets of double metal doors, through repeated turnstiles and down several escalators. OK, we get it.

So far, so familiar. What I did also see was the ways in which a resistance is forming that is aware of its differences and distinct histories but also has a good deal in common. I had a long discussion last night with activists in the Debt Group of Réel Démocratie Maintenant, formerly the Indignés. Although some French people had been saying the movement was over, the group showed me some dramatic video footage of movement people working with peasants and green activists to defend a rural occupation against some very violent police. I heard about actions to create a Cahiers de doléances, or Dossier of Grievances, and to establish an Estates-General. These are legacies from the revolution of 1789, reconfigured for the era of financialization. At the same time, they are planning a Europe-wide protest against police violence and its attempt to stifle opposition.

Because just like Spain, just like the UK and of course the US, debt is a driving issue in the French movement. They are more involved with institutional politics than we are and there was some hope caused by the election of Socialist majorities and a Socialist president. However, last week, the government made it clear that they were not going to nationalize the steel furnaces at Florange owned by ArcelorMittal that I’ve often discussed here, where there have been occupations and other militant actions. The company itself refused to bid for the European Ultra Low Carbon steel initiative, as if to say that there’s nothing they will do.

And that passivity by government and disdain by corporations is producing a backlash. The French media this morning were filled with disdain for the pathetic UN climate convention meeting in Doha, Qatar. To put the matter in perspective, the world’s at risk island and developing nations were asking the richer countries for an already-promised $60 billion of support for adaptation. This is equal to the amount President Obama has requested to clean up Hurricane Sandy. No worthwhile steps of any kind were taken to deal with climate change itself, with nations moving on to consider who pays for “loss and damage.” Contrary to some Anglophone media reports, I don’t consider this a win.

If there’s going to be change, it’s going to come from the movements forcing the issue, working together across borders and being aware of the need to prioritize the planetary aspects of the issue. It’s a tall order but I do see very concrete and material signs of that convergence emerging, as people come to realize that 2008 not only bankrupted the banks, it also derailed the Western representative system.

Riding the Rails

The Occupy 2012 Road Trip has come to France via high-speed rail. You can get from London to Paris in two and a half hours now. Well, you can get from Calais to Paris pretty fast, and the Brits don’t delay you that much. Why is this impossible in the US, I thought? Why did the Republicans manage to delete all the high-speed rail from the stimulus and why did the Democrats let them get away with it? The train was packed, as was the link to Strasbourg, also high speed, which gets you from Paris to 30 kilometres from the German border in two hours.

Like most people I know, I really like trains. I was sitting there looking out of the window, ready to give Europe a boost, when I saw something that I don’t think I’ve seen in Western Europe before: a full-blown shanty-town. If you live in, or have traveled to, a developing country you’ll know what I mean. Informal housing, not officially connected to services, constructed out of sheets of corrugated aluminum (aluminium UK readers). The settlement was on the steep slope of a railway siding, so most of the structures must get soaked whenever it rains or snows by the runoff. And it was snowing. After London, it didn’t feel that cold out, but not so that you would want to sleep in one of those places.

As I was taking this in, I looked down at the journal I was reading, a very interesting collection of essays on race, colonialism and debt in the current American Quarterly (mostly paywalled but with a useful online resources section here) {PS American Quarterly, check out Strike Debt!!} Many of the essays show how the foreclosure disaster was particularly visited on African-American and Latina/o households, who were targeted for sub-prime high interest rate mortgages.

From there I went to thinking about China Miéville’s recent wonderful oddity Railsea [spoiler alert!!] The novel at first seems to be a reworking of Moby-Dick set on an alternative Earth where humans ride everywhere on railways–the rails, as they call them–and Captains of special trains pursue particular monstrous animals, known as their Philosophy. But we hit an alternative loop and go in search of the end of the Railsea. Without giving away too much, it turns out that the whole reason this railway world exists, with all its poisonous soil, abandoned materials from another world, mutant creatures and other foibles, was to pay off debt.

When I got off the rails, I was at once impressed by the apparent comfort and prosperity of Strasbourg, home to the European parliament, a body that is routinely steam-rollered by the Troika but apparently makes a nice living at it. I mentioned this to my anarcho-communist hosts. Oh no, they said. The city just puts all the “dangerous people” (their ironic quotes, meaning migrants, the dispossessed and so on) outside the centre of the city.

Mining The Future

One way of thinking about debt is spending the future: a debt incurred today must be repaid with future earnings. In planetary terms, mining places us all in biosphere debt. To open a mine is to guarantee further primary extraction, incurring high energy use, new carbon emissions, destruction of the local environment, atmospheric and water pollution. It further sets in motion the commodity production process because new minerals will become new cars or girders or an iPhone. In short, any chance at moving away from neo-liberalism would have to begin with a slowdown or even cessation of mining. At present mining companies are all trying to expand, while also reducing still further their labor costs. It will take a co-ordinated global movement to push back.

Last week the transnational steel giant ArcelorMittal finally closed its Florange steel furnaces in France, having waited out the French elections and the Olympics (where ArcelorMittal was a major sponsor). 700 jobs were lost with the usual knock-on effects that such retrenchment entails. As in 1981, the Socialist administration is discovering that its room for maneuver is far more limited than they expected.

In South Africa yesterday, the Anglo-American Platinum corporation resolved a three-week strike by firing 12,000 workers. The standard pattern sees the company then hire back a fraction of its former staff and reduce output. At present, world platinum prices have recovered from their low-point of August, to 2011 trading highs of about $1700 an ounce, still far below 2008 levels of $2200. More than enough to pay the salary being demanded by the miners which, at 15,000 Rand is ironically about $1700, the price of a single ounce of platinum. Too much for Anglo-American. In a country where people are desperate for work, firing workers that have become militant and replacing them with a totally different workforce is an acceptable option.

Xstrata mining in Australia

Xstrata, the world’s largest extractor of thermal coal, is still trying to merge with a financial company called Glencore in a $32 billion deal. The Glencore-Xstrata merger is unusual in that it brings together financial capital with primary extraction in the same company:

Xstrata is very good at operating mines efficiently and at low cost, without upsetting local communities. Glencore is not.

But it does boast a global network of commodities traders who possess unrivalled intelligence on global demand trends that theoretically allows them to make money at any stage of the commodity cycle.

This will create what corporate-speak calls a “vertically-integrated” company. In fact, it will amount to a dramatic change in philosophy. Xstrata is a greedy, play-it-safe company that works cosy, inside deals in countries that are considered “safe,” meaning pliant to neo-liberal market world views. Glencore, according to business journalist Nils Prately, are altogether more aggressive:

The Glencore thesis is that the best returns come from extending so-called brownfield sites and that the political risk that goes with investing in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo is tolerable.

Translated into English, this means that expansion in under-regulated, low-wage regions is considered worth the risk of political upheaval. This is not to say that Xstrata are not in favor of biosphere devastation.

McArthur River zine mine, Australia

This August they won approval from the Australian government to convert an underground zinc mine into a massive open-cut operation in Northern Territory (above). It’s just that they like governments who can be relied on to jump to the precise height required with no foreseeable risk of change.

Ironically, it’s being held up not by concerns about the disastrous biosphere impact but about the egregious payday (even by Wall Street standards) that Xstrata management lined up for themselves. Merger and retention bonuses (cash for showing up on Monday to do the job you had on Friday) would amount to a whopping $233 million. Shareholders are now getting to vote on the compensation deal but the big investors like Qatar’s sovereign fund are now behind it.

So we can see that neither shareholder activism, as in the Glencore-Xstrata merger, or strikes by workers as in France and South Africa, have been able to restrain multi-national mining.

In Texas beginning on September 24, a group of activists have taken to the trees to prevent the Keystone XL pipeline from being completed. This pipeline is being built to bring the “carbon-bomb” of Alberta’s tarsands oil to the Gulf coast. If you look at the clear-cutting and construction going on, it’s hard to imagine that a “decision” seriously remains to be made after this kind of expenditure. After November, whoever wins the elections, this pipeline will be authorized. The Texas activists, like their predecessors in the logging struggles in Washington State, have taken to the trees.

So confident of their future are Big Oil, energy and mining that they’re not even giving that much money to Mitt Romney (relatively speaking). They rank only number nine, way behind the Wall Street firms and banks who have decided that the current docile administration is still far too hostile to them.
Nonetheless, there’s a palpable chance they have overplayed their hand. All the minerals were being mined for China, whose economy appears to be slowing down drastically. There are ongoing strikes in the diamond, iron, chrome, platinum and gold sectors of South Africa’s mining industry. They can’t replace all these people.. By placing their bodies in the way of the neo-liberal machine,  the tree-sitters have made the issues visible. If we want things to change, we have to make a similar effort.

The Global Debt Resistance


Another day, another enormous resistance to the neo-liberal austerity regime. Today it was Greece, yesterday Spain. before that Portugal. Now a media and governmental meme is emerging in which it is said that “only” the periphery of Europe are in trouble and that the “strong” countries are doing well. It is hinted that Greece can and should leave the Euro. This is all bravado.

In “strong” France, it was announced today that unemployment has passed the three million mark. Despite the socialist victory in the Presidential elections, French activists see a continuity of austerity. I’m translating below a call to action on October 13 issued by the Paris Assembly of Démocratie réelle maintenant, the French equivalent to Spain’s Democracia Real Ya! Anti-debt groups across Europe and in the Americas are now working to co-ordinate a call for O13. Can what we used to call the left finally get its global act together?

Here’s the French call, translated rather literally, to be true to the original, which centers on the “casseroles” used in Montréal, the banging of pots and pans (all emphasis original):

Citizens! Into the Streets and To the Casseroles to Cancel Illegitimate Debt!

Debt is a racket!

Closure of schools and hospitals, reduction or suppression in social services, increased sales tax, absence of affordable housing…Such politics of austerity, applied for years in Latin America and Africa, are now current in the European Union. No population has been or will be spared, with the most precarious being the first affected. The situation is serious: let’s wake up!

Austerity claims to be legitimate because it results from excessive expenditures on benefits…In reality, sovereign debt comes from both the savagery of private banks since the 2008 crisis and the numerous fiscal gifts to the richest and to corporations for decades.

The debt also results from the excessive interest rates that we pay to private banks from whom the State borrows to finance itself, since it can no longer borrow from the Central Bank. The total debt results from compound interest built up over the past forty years!

The public debt is odious when we are told to reimburse the same people who are responsible for the crisis and who have not ceased to enrich themselves since.

The public debt is not legitimate when it impoverishes us, the 99%, in order to sustain private and unwarranted lenders.

To pay the public debt is just to produce… private debt: that of students, those in precarious housing, the sick, workers, the unemployed, farmers, undocumented immigrants, as well as all those who have to pay the individual price of the dismanteling of public services and benefits.

To continue with growth at all costs imposed by the blackmail of debt is also to increase our ecological debt, which, far more than the public debt, is what’s really at stake in the 21st century.

Where is democracy if we cannot say NO to that which is in the interest only of the privileged and when collusion reigns between them and those who govern us? Where is democracy when all future debate and politics is barred by European treaties, the latest of which, known as the Budget Treaty, is even now in the course of ratification by our so-called “representatives”?

The abolition of illegitimate debt must also be extended to other countries: we demand that the French state cease to shake down other nations in the name of odious debt, which they have already largely repaid, while we continue to pillage their wealth. We won’t pay illegitimate debt, not here or elsewhere! The only legitimate debt that we have is to respond to the call of the African [President] Thomas Sankara to create a global front against debt.

October 13 is a global day of action! Paris, rise up, everyone in the streets with your casseroles for a great unity march from Goldman Sachs to the Assemblée Nationale [Parliament/Congress]: stop the European budget treaty, cancel illegitimate debt here and elsewhere.

After the march, we will meet in an assembly to discuss alternative futures and to build common outcomes from the mobilization.

So there are a couple of points to note here. Obviously this is a more substantive and less media-oriented press release than is now common in the Anglophone world. And the focus is at first more on sovereign (or public) debt. The analysis moves into full agreement with global debt campaigns as it highlights how public debt produces private debt at the expense of developing nations and the biosphere. What might just be happening here is the formation of global anti-capitalist movement with a common theme. I find that idea more than a little intriguing.


Change has a name: anti-austerity

The next time someone asks you the “what has Occupy done?” question, you can answer: changed the global political agenda to anti-austerity. A wave of elections across Europe this week has marked a pronounced shift. While elites continue to assert that there is no alternative to continued clampdown, voters have endorsed a new mood of anti-austerity. The content of such a politics is vague and no-one should expect dramatic transformations without continued pressure from social movements. The anniversary of Spain’s May 15 movement will now be the time to claim that such activist pressure has shifted the discourse and to move ahead to its implementation.

French socialists have that Occupy feeling

What is striking is that voters in the European elite nations France and Germany were as notably for change as in the marginalized Greek periphery. Equally, given the continued power of the bond and currency markets, that change is going to be hard to achieve. The euro has already lost 0.5% value by midnight European time, down to $1.30. Expect a major decline tomorrow morning.

It was in Greece that the strongest anti-austerity statement was made. Those parties that signed the “memorandum,” the agreement to the Troika-dictated bailout, are now in the minority. Syriza, the Coalition of the Radical Left, is at the time of writing close to securing second place overall on 16% with 42% counted, up from only 4.6% of the vote in the last election.

The Athens News website translated the post-election speech of party leader Alexis Tsipras as follows:

He said that Europe’s leadership, especially that of Germany, had to understand that the result was a crushing defeat for austerity policies. He also stressed that voters proved through the ballot box that the path out of the crisis did not pass through bailouts and austerity. He said that Syriza understood that its meteoric rise in this election did not reward a party or particular person but a proposal for a leftist government that would arrest the course of austerity policies and bailouts and promised that Syriza would do everything in its power to bring about a government that would terminate the Memorandum and loan agreements.

He hopes to form a left coalition, despite the pre-election declaration by the Communists that they would not participate. His call has been for a New Deal for Europe, which would totally transform the European Union. Consequently, the parties for the memorandum will do all they can to form a government with US and German help.

Whether that can be achieved will depend greatly on the new President of France, François Hollande. He certainly struck the right note tonight, declaring:

austerity is no longer inevitable.

Nonetheless, Hollande is every inch a member of the traditional French ruling meritocracy, having attended all the required grand écoles and served dutifully in the Socialist Party ranks. While this election of a Socialist is only the second in the Fifth Republic, it does not guarantee that anti-austerity can be delivered. Hollande has promised higher corporate taxes, higher income tax on those making one million euros or more ($1.4 million), and a variety of improved social benefits. Whether these can be achieved will depend greatly on the léglislatives, the parliamentary elections coming up.

In more good news, Hollande’s relatively narrow 4% margin of victory and the 80% turn-out suggests that the National Front strategy of calling for a boycott failed. Marine Le Pen looks like a protest vote candidate once more, rather than a serious alternative.

In Greece, however, abstention was massive, nearly 40% of the turnout. The repellent neo-Nazi Golden Dawn benefited from this to claim its first parliamentary seats, with their leader declaring:

I dedicate this victory to the brave guys with the black shirts.

Unfortunately, in a proportional representation system, abstention can let in the thugs–but if this is the best they can do in such a catastrophic moment, they are still a fringe phenomenon.

In the U.K. only 32% of voters participated in this week’s local elections. In German regional elections, none of the established pro-austerity parties improved their votes, with the Green Party and the new Pirate Party improving their positions quite notably in a country allergic to sharp political change for self-evident historical reasons.

The mood in the over-developed world has shifted to anti-austerity. No one party or political formation seems set to benefit from this, although the center-right that implemented austerity is perhaps the clearest loser. Days of action like May 12 in the U.K. and May 15 globally are vital to reassert the anti-austerity theme.

In the U. S., the implications are interesting. Should Obama continue to use empty slogans like “Forward” without specifying an anti-austerity agenda that has bite beyond his bits and pieces ideas currently on offer, he may well be defeated by the “if nothing else, vote the bums out” rule of thumb.

Movements like Occupy, the Indignados and the social movements in Greece are not electoral formations or political parties. We’ve suggested that another world is possible. It seems that even in the mainstream people are listening, or at least willing to listen.


Rancière’s Lesson

So what happened? While we were expecting a strong showing from the radical left in France, we got an unexpected surge by the racist National Front, and a less-than-predicted turnout for the Left (I exclude the “Socialists”). It seems that some of those who claimed they would vote left actually voted for the Front, because they know that such positions are disgraceful, but they hold to them nonetheless. Somehow, and this is the fallacy, it seems more disappointing from France because of their revolutionary heritage: let’s consider some of that legacy.

So because we don’t have good information on what has happened yet, today seemed like a good day to look at Rancière’s lessons from the contradictory aftermath of 1968, following from the discussion of his interview yesterday. I spent much of the day traveling (I’m on Central time for a few days) and read through several chapters of the recently published translation of his 1974 book Althusser’s Lesson. Rancière’s example shows how the force of a political rupture can change long-held positions: and the risks of such a change.

This book is part Oedipal separation from the bad father, part political testament and (unwittingly) part evidence of how not to deal with a crisis of political belief. Rancière was one of those who worked with Althusser on Reading Capital, published in France in 1966. When the events of 1968 unfolded, Althusser took a now notoriously qualified position, in keeping with that of the French Communist Party (PCF). In 1973, he published a long essay called Reply to John Lewis, a pseudonym used by a writer for the Communist Party of Great Britain in a set of attacks on Althusser published in the Party’s theoretical journal Marxism Today. Althusser’s response reasserted the theoretical position that seemed to have been undermined by 1968 and provoked Rancière to break with his mentor.

As he puts it in the Foreward to the English Edition,

I wrote the book as the efforts to give long-term life to the rupture of 1968 were succumbing to exhaustion and as the resulting disenchantment was taking the form of a radical critique of militantism.

Such critiques were double-edged: there were resistances to “its male and patriarchal forms of power” that most of us would agree with, while others denounced the entire revolutionary tradition in the name of the Stalinist Gulag. The key question for Rancière was not how to revive Marxism but an analysis of

the much broader logic by which subversive thoughts are recuperated for the service of order.

In the original text, he notes that Althusser’s return to orthodoxy came at a moment when post-68 radicals were defending the occupation of the Lip watch factory in Besançon and a union-based assembly against a military base in Larzac.

In the new Foreward, he puts the stakes thus posed unusually bluntly, stating his opposition to the idea that

the dominated are dominated because they are ignorant of the laws of domination….assign[ing] to those who adopt it the exalted task of bringing their science to the blind masses. Eventually, though, this exalted task dissolves into a pure thought of resentment which declares the inability of the ignorant to be cured of their illusions.

Rancière took the opposite approach, which based itself on the

inverse presupposition, that of the capacity of the dominated. It did so at the price of identifying this capacity with the slogans of China’s Cultural Revolution.

So while I can agree with the supposition, it’s sobering to realize that it was done in the name of such Maoism. It’s easy to see why he is now cautious about identifying his work with actually existing radical politics, having made a category error of such disastrous proportions. The important thing is not to throw his work out with the Maoist bathwater but to accept the Benjaminian lesson he draws:

there is no theory of subversion that cannot also serve the cause of oppression.

What does this history imply? It means that it is possible for a group of French voters to agree with a left critique of neo-liberalism: and then respond to the fascist solution. It does not mean they are stupid or puppets, but that we have not yet understood the way they visualize their situation to themselves. It suggests that there are not going to be what Rancière calls “‘heroes’ of theory,” who will solve such issues for us. If, as Rancière reads Marx, it is still possible

to invent a new world through their [the workers] barely perceptible gestures

then our interest is in how such gestures can be felt, seen and understood. And we would say yes to his 1974 claim to

contest the authority of knowledge on a local scale

while wanting to refuse

Cultural Revolution on a global scale.

I’m all for a revolution in culture that results from local contestations of authority. I don’t think we yet know what that means on a global scale, or even what the global scale would be. For Occupy, then, having again managed to reopen the question of authorizing authority, the time of defining a response has not come. Indeed, the longer it is postponed, or even permanently displaced the better, I suspect. It took five years for the 68 movement to become exhausted. Even if we assume that time passes more quickly these days, we’re not done yet.




Occupy (and) 1968

As the presidential elections get into gear in France and the United States, observers on both sides of the Atlantic are thinking about how Occupy and the Indignés might play a part in those elections. Two very contrasting pieces from veterans of 1968 indicate the pressures that autonomous politics are going to be placed under in the forthcoming months.

If the possibilities from France seem exciting from this side of the Atlantic, a new interview with Jacques Rancière reminds us of the sober realities. For Rancière, Western “democracy” is a compromise between the actual power of the oligarchy (what we might call the one percent) and the potential power of all (the 99%). Further, he insists that representation is itself

an oligarchical principle: those who are thus associated with power represent not a population but the statute or the competence which founds their authority over that population: birth, wealth, knowledge (savoir) or others.

Rancière has insisted that the properly democratic system is not voting but a random allocation of office by lot, on the model of Athenian democracy. In such a system, competency is assumed to be a common characteristic–or more exactly, there is a commons in which all are assumed to be competent to participate. The point of such a system would be to

deny the seizing of power by those who desire it.

Here we can see why Rancière now calls himself an anarchist in the strict sense (rather than being associated with one of the nineteenth century strands of anarchism like that of Kropotkin or Bakunin): like David Graeber, he understands the an-arche of democracy to be a system that impedes the monopolization of power.

The French presidency is, of course, precisely the opposite of such a system. Devised first to end the revolution of 1848 and revived by de Gaulle to circumscribe any possibility of a revolution in 1945, the French president amasses remarkable power that is therefore denied to the people. The use of presidential elections to curb the revolt in 1968 is only the most recent example of this concentration.

In Rancière’s view, the Left Movement candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon is “inside and outside” this system at once. In this view,

a true left-wing candidacy would be a denunciation of the presidential system itself. And a radical left would suppose the creation of an autonomous space, with institutions and forms of discussion and action not dependent on official agendas.

He recognizes Occupy as the closest form existing to such a space because it is open to all, regardless of identity. Nonetheless, like so many others, he wonders whether it has the capacity to last, while recognizing how long the creation of a truly autonomous space would need to be.

In the U. S. this understanding of qualification for representative power can help us see why Mitt Romney’s wealth is all that is required to legitimate his claim to the presidency: as one of that class, he will rule in their interests and it is a matter of indifference to them if he throws the right a few anti-women or anti-LGBTQ bones to do so. At the same time, Rancière’s analysis of racism as a top-down government inspired strategy has a certain force in France, where Sarkozy and Le Pen have tried to stir up agitation about halal meat where none existed before. It’s clearly different in the settler colony.

A more familiar view is expressed by Tom Hayden in a long Nation essay about the Port Huron Statement, which, like myself, is 50 years old. Here Hayden wants to claim that Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was the avatar for Occupy, while disavowing its radicality. The Port Huron Statement itself was

cleansed of ideological infection, with an emphasis on trying to say what people were already thinking but hadn’t put into words.

So, in fact “people” weren’t “thinking” these things but feeling them inarticulately, waiting for the SDS to make words for them. This is precisely the representative function that Rancière warns against.

Hayden is nonetheless pleased to claim the “participatory democracy” of OWS as being the same as that of 1962, while also wanting to emphasize the need, as he sees it, for “radical reform.” He doesn’t take a clear position on Occupy preferring to “wait and see”–presumably to wait and see whether the movement gets involved with electoral or other representative politics. All anarchist–not to mention Marxist because he doesn’t–influence should be set aside in favor of a “progressive majority.” How come the Port Huron group failed to accomplish this 50 years ago? The answer is apparently the assassination of JFK. Oh, and the war in Vietnam. And all the other political killings. And the fact that SDS became quickly more radical than the Port Huron Statement. And so on, this story has been rehearsed many times.

SDS was not really a precursor to Occupy unless you are willing to identify Occupy with Hayden’s concept of participatory democracy. Rancière has a clearer understanding of autonomy and democracy to offer but in typically French fashion, it’s at a level of abstraction. It’s time to try and see if we can get a little further down the road than 68 managed. No disrespect.


Vive la Rêve générale

In 2006 I was stuck. Could you really in that oh-so-sophisticated era of globalization or late capital write about the general strike? That Spring, students and other young people across France went on strike against the “precariousness” of modern life. Anglophone commentators ridiculed the term as showing the absurdity of the French. Somewhere online I saw this photograph:

Rêve générale: general dream

It was a student march in (I think) Marseilles. The banner at the front reads: (on the left): “Avenir: je t’aimais bien“–“Future: I really love you”. And on the right a pun: “gRêve Général(e). You can’t translate this exactly: it means general strike/dream–add or subtract the G and the E at the end to make “strike” or “dream.”

Out of nowhere, as it seemed, the general strike had returned and reimagined itself at once: a general strike, a general dream. It was a challenge to the idea of the future as permanent austerity. It represented the general strike not as a quantitative measure of how many people out of the working population were willing to strike but a qualitative re-imagining of the future.

The idea went viral in French politics and could be seen all over the 2009 demonstrations in the wake of the financial crisis.

General Dream

It was part of a broad-based anti-capitalist imaginary, derived in part from the Situationists and the revolution of 1968.

2009 Paris demo. Credit: HdeC

In this poster, carried by someone who looks so French it’s almost parodic, the call is “Down with the Consumer Society of the Spectacle.”

What does a “general dream” mean? One way to understand it might be to put together Walter Benjamin’s concepts of the general strike and the dream image. Benjamin saw the general strike differing from the standard political strike in that it began

in the determination to resume only a wholly transformed work, no longer enforced by the state, an upheaval that the strike not so much causes as consummates.

These strikes were “general” not because everyone took part but because their aim was a general transformation and renunciation of domination. Benjamin saw this vision of revolt as not being violent but rather as “deep, moral, and genuinely revolutionary.” The right to look. The invention of the other.

That is to say, the general strike dreams the future that is to come (avenir), in what was to become Benjamin’s theory of the dream image. Dream images arise collectively when, says Benjamin,

the new is permeated by the old. These images are wish images; …what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation.

Just as the general strike creates “a general image” of social conditions that otherwise struggle to be known and understood, so does the dream image try to

overcome …the inadequacies in the social organization of production.

The general strike is the limit of the dream image, its enactment as social life. Benjamin thought of the “constellation” which these images form as something he called “collective consciousness.” This idea can be thought of as what Virno, appropriating Marx, has called the “general intellect,” a stage of social life “at which mental abstractions are immediately, in themselves, real abstractions.”

The “general dream” is, then, just such a real abstraction in which the activity of the mind has the value of material fact. A general dream/ strike is the materialization of the potential that is inherent in the (image) of social action not as violence but as means.

The general dream founds the possibility of a new politics. And here we are three years later and a new formation has appeared in French politics. The Front de Gauche, the Left Front, headed by Jean-Luc Mélenchon has a program that includes:

a 100% tax on earnings over $475,000; full pensions for all from the age of 60; reduction of work hours; a 20% increase in the minimum wage; and the European Central Bank should lend to European governments at 1%, as it does for the banks.

Now that’s not a dream, but it’s a long way from what you could propose in the Anglophone world. Mélenchon stands at 17% in the last opinion polls before the first round of the Presidential elections this Sunday. He has promised that the Left Front will not enter into coalition with the likely winner, the “Socialist” François Hollande. Hollande has made his intentions clear by saying that his first act if he wins will be to visit Berlin, the capital of Euro-austerity.

From ridicule and street demonstrations in 2006 to being a significant factor in national politics in 2012 by means of the general strike and its dream. It’s something to keep in mind over the next few weeks, as the negative reactions to May Day pour in from all sides.