from 20 nov 2005
blue vol IV, #28
Lancaster University Conference
by Tim Barton
(European Social Ecology Institute & BlueGreenEarth)
One of the most interesting developments described was the Grassroots Gathering, a band of united activists in Ireland, who are attempting to circumvent the tendency to continually re-invent the wheel by comparing notes and experiences, and indeed physically aiding each other in disparate campaigns. Despite a slightly a-historic view of anti-industrial-pollution attitudes in Cork, that appears to see the fight they have joined as somewhat newer than it is, the Irish activists present seem to have bought to their activities in Cork and, at the other end of the country, in Erris, an awareness that they will achieve little if they simply turn up and agitate. Instead, there has been much more emphasis on encouraging self-activating dissent from the local community itself. In Cork, where local groups have continually fought the same battles time and again, like Sisyphus rolling his stone, a combination of national information and support, as instanced in the Grassroots Gathering network, and local direct action, may yet break that cycle and leave behind a politicised community tooled up with appropriate conceptions and energies for the next round of IDA (Irish Development Agency) interference in the life of the harbour and environs. Such a result is by no means certain, but it seems a more fruitful approach than the usual continual re-invention of within-the-system opposition that all to often dogs the critical early days of new campaigns, which all too often see the scales fall long after the worst damage is done.
These actions are 'negative' / defensive in a sense. The movements in Argentina and India, however, were argued to have a positive aspect, in so far as it was suggested that they are, unlike the 'post-development' environments in the North, seeking to 'reinvent development' itself, but in a way that challenges the neoliberal agenda. These countries offer up a number of communities that are approaching globalisation from below, in genuine grassroots movements that are not reliant on student activists for validation. The speakers, Alf & Sara, on the projects in India and Argentina illustrated superbly, in her style, a way in which it is possible to utilise academic discourse and terminology (what is often disparagingly called 'jargon') in a way that genuinely throws light on a situation.
Laurence and Alf then presented on what it means to win, for the movement, and talked about the way that movement tactics seem fearful of success. Reading between the lines and reading their draft position paper on Winning on the wiki, especially with reference to the points on Leninism (the use of...), I take this to be a promotion of revolutionary ideas and methods, right down to parallel state and military structures. This was not overt, but certainly is the implication. I, for one, am not, unlike the Russians, ready to rehabilitate Feliks Dzerzhinsky or his heirs. If that is not what they meant, then they need to review their text a great deal, and if it is what they meant then they are bravely calling attention to the nudity of the emporer - a little study of history is all that is needed to make clear that there is a real "how to get there from here" problem with the softly-softly methods students and global activists seem to embrace, that is ahistorical at best. They mean well though, and it can't be claimed that "playing them at their own game" saves any lives, far from it, in fact.
One aspect of the discussion afterward that seemed important - and arose in other seminars over the weekend - focussed on the degree to which developing and marginalised countries may (or may not) have a healthier matrix of 'community' than the 'developed' countries. Several people seemed to see England, for example, as too deeply compromised for much that is truly positive and radical to develop. I tend to feel that there is some truth in this, but that it depends very much on which parts of the country you look at - for example, the concept of working class solidarity has been destroyed in many areas, and replaced by an "I'm alright, Jack" upwardly-mobile (in their own heads only) Lottery-ticket buying mass of individuals, merely sharing space: but in other areas this is not the case at all (at least, not wholly). Thus, my view of the potential for mobilisation of even a fraction of the population of Hastings in East Sussex is extremely negative, whilst my view of parts of Lancashire such as Bolton is very different indeed. I don't doubt that similar differences exist between communities in Ireland, India, and Argentina...
Commodification & Resistance in Theory & Practise (Sat 13.15-15.00)
This seminar featured two presentations, on "mythologised moments of potent affect" and on "resistance after hegemony". The former was a highly academicised presentation, looking at work by Debord, Deleuzes and Bataille, surrealism and situationism, and Durkheim. Gavin Grindon, the speaker, was bringing a highly sexualised sense of existential values into play as a motivator in activism, and suggested the "anarchist with a bomb" stereotype as an emblem of his conception of the subjective in militant and radical actions.
A number of people were clearly lost with some of the concepts introduced - however, there was some meat to be had here, especially in the discussions which moved quickly to looking at the concepts in the light of commodification and the fetishization of acquisition and entertainment (not quite the angle Gavin was bringing to the table). Gavin saw his, as I would style it, 'existential aesthetics' as standing against the "theoretical impossibility of living in the moment". He sought to give a romantic-lyrical account of activism and the new movements - rooted, on some levels, in Wagner and Nazism, Gavin sought to show how it could be reclaimed and applied to Left. He suggested terrorist acts might be seen as Da-Da-ist expression. This rather reminded me of the Italian so-called 'anarchist' Sylvestre Matuschka and his (in)famous masturbating over train wrecks he had just caused, and in my view that sums up the bankruptcy of the idea - I can certainly see how such an aesthetic might give some psychological inroads to understanding Auschwitz at any rate.
Gavin is less apocalyptic in intent, seeking to reinterpret revolution as festival. However, the phrase 'politically ambiguous', which was used by Gavin himself, seems to me severe understatement. Hence the discussion turning to commodification and the fetishization of acquisition and entertainment, which I, and a few others present, saw to possibly be the result of the search for that orgasmic moment over and over, and which defuses radicalism by making most workers object to revolt as it might take their toys away.
Tadzio Mueller made a presentation on "how to fight the everyday hegemony of capital". Resistance, in this model, is to be found on the margins of society only. Tadzio does not think that these 'margins' are necessarily physical, and thinks that the marginal therefore can be right here among us. He sees the development of Summit protests as important in showing the developing world that there are some in the North who are with them.
He contends that 9/11 and the Iraq war have shown a chink in the armour of the neo-liberal hegemony, and asks what we can do with this new space that has opened up? In seeing little advantage taken, he is driven to ask why there still is no alternative to our everyday life that is deemed viable? And asks "are we all just selfish individuals?". Tadzio sees things along the lines sketched above regarding commodification and thus regards the flow of commodity as the stitching that holds the hegemony's straitjacket tight upon us, encouraging, as it does, our equating commodity satisfaction with desire. This normalizes market transaction and obscures alternatives. The reduction of our consciousness to soundbites and magazine columns shrinks our horizon, such that this state of affairs is mistakenly felt to have been eternal and unchangeable, rather than merely the product of the last century or less.
Thus, the selfish individual is a socially created norm in capitalist market society. This gives the answer to his question, "are we all just selfish individuals?" - No, we are not just selfish individuals, though we are that, but are capable of being otherwise. Nurture that leads elsewhere can be encouraged in the marginal spaces in the hegemony. Tadzio relates here his experiences in Stockholm, where some projects have occured that break the dominant forms. "Free-riding", for example, is a politicised type of fare dodging (see: planka.nu), that aids redistribution of wealth. The groups that encourage and promote such populist ideas also promote mutual aid and solidarity in other forums. Co-ops; collectives; worker-occupied factories etc, all expand these spaces, giving hope from down within the machine.
On the human nature question, I met a surprising number of people who seemed incapable of accepting cultural over-determination as the crux of the matter in divining what may or may not be "in our nature". Somehow, I had expected more of the type who would come to such a conference. I suspect a hard or old Left element lurking around, or the descendants of such - one must say to those who aren't setting themselves up as the voice of the proletariat, without false consciousness, "mind your backs".
Social Organisation and The Movement of Movements (Sat 15.15-17.15)
This was the last seminar on the Saturday, and included the BlueGreenEarth / European Social Ecology Institute presentation. I was the first to go - the facilitator had discussed the order of business with us in advance, and we decided to go from the abstract to the practical. I had expected this to mean our philosophically inclined talk first, working through to Nina Marolt's work on 'horizonalisation' via Thibault Le Texier's piece on global governance. As it turned out, I think all of us were equally theoretical. When the seminar commenced it was announced that the talks would be given with all questions at the end. Apparently this was as agreed, though I have no recollection of discussing that - announcing it in the group made me feel railroaded into accepting it, which was unfortunate, as I really didn't get much feedback on my ideas, especially not the latter points, as I probably would have, had questions followed each presentation. This means that I can't really give an objective view of how my material went down and what thoughts people may have had - hopefully someone there will email us their views. All I have is a suspicion that, what with having a limited time to speak (we all were in the same boat on that count), I may have rushed it a little and lost people on the latter philosophical points (which were core to my point). Follow the link above to read our material.
After our presentation, Thibault gave his, on citizens' movements, global governance and the creation of alternatives. He noted that there had been sucessive waves of globalisation, and opposition to it, such as colonialism and anti-colonialism; pollution/environmental damage and ecological awareness; free trade mechanisms and the 'anti-globalisation' movement, for example.
"As the governance model suggests, so-called 'civil society' must play a specific role on the global stage, debating with the corporate and public worlds to bring about a consensus. Thus is the Faustian dilemma that faces the global justice movement: to be a part of the system in order to have the possibility to reform it, or to stay outside and push for change?"
The opposition is grass-roots, bottom-up, as the high ground is conquered by the elites. Also, the opposition's "intention is not to take the power but to act as a counterpower". The latest wave has been the development of the WTO; GATT; NAFTA etc, and the counter-vailing NGO summits culminating thus far in the WSF (World Social Forum) and PGA (Peoples' Global Action networks). The phrase for this that he quotes is "Against the neoliberal globalization: the globalization of resistances". Thibault's contention is that, whilst these movements grew straightforwardly out of opposition, they are now developing along positive lines, seeking to construct another world.
He sees the new counter movements as qualitatively different from past forms such as Leninism, as evidenced by their heterogeneous charatcer. They are supranational, and rooted in ethical bases that are focussed on "those without". However, there is a danger that counter-summits may merely parallel the neoliberal agenda rather than putting new ideas on the table. Due to this, Thibault suggests a radical hijacking of the corporate and public worlds, for example, democratising the UN and dissolving the Security Council; resisiting consensus from above; presenting eclectic opposition in contrast to the tendency to single-issue specialisation that hampers joined-up thinking.
This is an area where my presentation conflicts with Thibault's, as I itemise exactly the mechanisms by which change based on use of the current forms and tools is doomed. He is overly optimistic, in my view, in denying that what he suggests is more than merely change from within, which most acknowledge cannot work. No doubt I am, in his view, overly pessimistic.
The last presentation in this seminar was Nina's. In the PDF that is featured on the knowledgelab wiki, Nina says, "various examples of organizational models such as spokescouncils, affinity group/cluster/barrio organization and different ways of online communication used within [the] Global Justice Movement could be explored since they theoretically allow a transparent, participative and primarily horizontal idea but in practice do not necessarily fulfil all the predispositions. Moreover, the concept of horizontalization seems to be gaining in its importance in the activist circles and serves as some sort of a legitimizing mechanism, while it can actually only reflect Northern organizational trends."
As you can surmise, Nina has a properly ambivalent view of horizonalization, seeing it as a tool that can only work if the actors ustilising the method keep their eye on the ball, and ensure that vertical hierarchy is kept from emerging. She also would contend that this is not an appropriate method for reaching adequate consensus if some of the actors are disabled from equality by virtue of speaking a different language; not having the same access to technologies such as the internet; simply not being invited; or, if invited, not having sufficient representation due to the cost of bringing people over from the developing world to first world conferences or to conferences on the other side of the developing world - the Lancaster conference itself evidenced this: there were far more academics from Lancaster and nearby cities than from elsewhere, and fewer 'activists' than 'academics' (in so far as the line between activist and academic is clear, which, of course, it isn't).
Unfortunately, Nina's material was straight from her dissertation - that is to say, she was too close to her academic material, and failed to clearly communicate at the slightly lower level of the average person in the seminar (who hadn't just studied it in depth) and so was misunderstood on several points. Apart from having to labour over defining 'horizontalization' itself, a simple enough concept but new to many there in such jargonised form, a couple of people took issue with her over what they perceived as her lionisation of the concept - as the quote above shows, she clearly is critical of some aspects of it, so this was starnge, I thought. Ultimately, though, I had little patience with fetishising one tool for ensuring equality in meetings across borders, and avoiding hierarchy, as it is just that - one tool, amongst others, to be used as and when appropriate, not just rolled out like a magic wand.
Global Civil Society: Concepts and Issues (Sun 10.00-11.30)
Only two presentations were made in this seminar, as one speaker was unable to make it. I came away with the distinct impression that two was optimal. After each event others suggested as much, and, since the conference, discussion on the wiki has backed up the idea that a number of us would see two presentations in the time used for three or four as the way to go in the future. Thus, issues can be discussed to the degree they deserve. I get the impression that the format of these seminars, and the conference as a whole, encourages participants and organisers to actually takes others views into account and thus allow evolution of the form. Needless to say, this is a novelty, and should be encouraged.
The first presentation in this seminar was titled " 'Up the Mode' in the Era of Post-Neoliberalism: Political Economy in the Recent Late Stages of Capitalism", and was presented by Thomas Weaver. Thomas is a professor at the University of Arizona, and has been working, for example, with indigenous peoples' in New Mexico. He is concerned to map ways in which the disenfranchised and marginalised can get involved in activities that mirror capitalist modes of social relations for their own ends.
He presented a brief run-through of the current state of neoliberalism in the USA, showing how Reaganomics (supply side economics) had been destructive of working communities in America - for example, leading to the de-industrialisation of the north-east, the traditional centre of industry in the USA, as capital relocated to the south, where there was cheaper labour to be had. He noted how this had been exacerbated by the regressive "right to work" laws in the south, whereby those who didn't want to be in a union could take jobs traditionally for those in the union: on the surface this could be mistaken as a good thing, as the union membership requirement could (and sometimes did) create a closed shop, however, the other side of the coin is that a large number of non-unionised staff means wages can remain low, and jobs can have benefits denied, such as sick pay; holiday pay; health insurance... This was followed by the coup de gras as industrial production was outsourced to Mexico and Asia where the goods produced were cheaper again.
Post-neo-liberal opposition has been issue-based, around campaigns such as anti-NAFTA, or pro-rights amongst indigenous peoples. The Zapatista were media-savvy, using the internet, for example, to raise a global awareness of their position. World attention, in theory at least, leads to less opportunity for heavy-handed state oppression, as evidenced, perhaps, by the fact that Sub-Commandante Marcos is still alive. This is the model currently being used by Bolivia, too. Thomas highlighted the "weapons of the weak" - minor transgressions and passive resistance (such as taking land and squatting it, with the media called in immediately in the hope that their presence will avert violent ousting). The word 'passive' in such a circumstance may be ambiguous, as Thomas noted.
When moving 'up the mode' actions become more overt - direct action (barricades, etc...), sure, but also lobbying and NGO-type administrative structures: ie, the adoption of capitalist mechanism for grass-roots gobalisation from below. Thomas sees the role of concerned academics and middle class students (the privileged) as being to theorise the movement for the poor, while the poor are the true actors. Material aid can come from the privileged in the from of, for example, small low interest loans for women, as in the Grameen Bank.
On the native American, Thomas pointed to the positive role taken by the recent casino culture, wherein tribes, who are often on marginal land, bequeathed to them grudgingly by the colonial powers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, use capitalist techniques to improve their situation. In the case of the casinoes they have been able to use a loophole in the law, so that they can run casinoes that are perhaps not legal in other parts of the State, or that can take advantage of the 'tax break' that is conferred on businesses on Indian land (they need not pay into the wider State tax system). The positive aspect of this sanctioned gambling is that the proceeds are shared with the tribe through share projects, bursaries, and 'taxes' on profit that take the form of, for example, requiring a proportion of profit to be spent within the community on charitable bases or through public works / agencies.
Thomas is patently of the 'change from within' camp on these issues, and has seen the relative success of such methods. My view is that these examples still represent a small sticking plaster on a gaping wound, and are not radical enough by half. I suspect, from his Marxist language, that he would accept this, in the long run, but sees any humanitarian alleviation of extreme poverty as acceptable even if by it's nature limited. If it gives toilets and clean drinking water to a community that would otherwise not have them, who can really argue with that?
The second presentation in this seminar was on "Global civil society in the water sector – exploring the 'blue' diversity", and was presented by Lena Partzsch. Essentially, though water issues made up the examples under discussion, this was really about analysing the structure of an economy. Lena used a method that recognises three key players in society - the traditional State apparatus; the business community; and civil society. Lena sought to differentiate between the different elements of the third player, civil society, and to look at it's role in relationships between the developed and developing worlds.
She sees global civil society as breaking into 2 large groups, "activists" as members of social movements, and "NGO's" as formalised organisations. The latter she breaks into sub-groups - Critical NGO's (such as FOE, who stand against privatisation and avoid partnership with state and state-like organisations); Constructive NGO's (such as Wateraid, who are supported by and work with the private sector, and support privatisation as a method of resolving problems if necessary); and QUANGOs, short for Quasi-non-Governmental Organisations (such as the World Water Council, who are firmly embedded in state and corporate structures, and are actively pro-privatisation). The latter group appear to me to have been used in the UK, at least, as another way of removing (yet more) power from the people by stealth, especially under Thatcher.
Much of the global development programme for developing countries is driven from Europe by 'multi-stakeholder partnerships', which are pretty much made up of 'Constructive' NGOs and QUANGOs, to the exclusion of 'Critical' NGOs, activists and, let's not forget, the people themselves. These exclusive 'partnerships' take the form of non-negotiated voluntary inter-governmental and community commitments, and the private sector takes a large role in the infrastructures (and profit by it).
To break this 'consensus' a counter space must be created. Local groups might try to protect and reclaim public services, for example. As the water sector offers little profit, and opposition costs the private sector money and creates negative PR for them, transnationals are withdrawing to some extent. Global counter-summits, such as the World Social Forum, offer the opportunity to exchange case-studies across borders and share knowledge; to consolidate networks; to evolve strategies to enhance participation and funding; to allow a global advocacy for the locally disenfranchised. The results of these relatively informal groupings has been a rise in the degree to which policy actors allow and acknowledge participation of local people.
It seems ungenerous to point out that any success around water issues may well be because of the relatively low profit the industry offers in developing countries, indeed high costs, as climate change bites. Also, the model that triangulates three major actors gives a psychological impetus to equal weighting, when it is obvious that the largest sector (civil society) is, at the same time, due greater weight than the other two, and is the most disempowered of the three elements. It is also the case that dividing the civil society players into the subgroups she does, whilst leaving the 'activists' undifferentiated, and, even worse, leaving the non-activist individual out entirely, cannot help resolve the balance. The people on the ground, not rooted in a transglobal culture but in a local and blinkered community, have a differentiated society themselves. How representative of communities are the local actors with whom 'activists' and NGOs work? This, too, offers a huge area in need of excavating. In my home town, local community politics is the preserve of the 'caring' middle-classes who wouldn't know democracy or consensus if it bit them on the arse, but speak for us, apparently, anyway. Other cultures will have their own disjuncture between advocates and ordinary folk, and these cannot be ignored. I would note that Lena is undoubtedly aware if this to some extent, but did, after all, have to de-mark things in some fashion in order to present a cohesive seminar.
This was a highly entertaining and worthwhile event, and was well organised. Despite the shortness of time for discussion, things were learnt by most of those attending, I am sure. The facilitiation process that was used was, overall, a positive way of dealing with time and disagreement, despite a few quibbles. Personally, I had to quite literally bite my tongue on numerous occasions, to stop having more than my say, and failed on a fair few occasions too. It takes getting used to, but is patently fair. The aspect that is frustrating is that a discussion cannot materialise easily, as responses to arguments are often deferred to the point where they feel irrelevent. Also, unless a facilitator is strong and careful, some can feel excluded by the 'consensus' in a room. An example would be, one workshop had a few people who expressed discomfort with speaking in a large group and requested that we break into two or three smaller groups for discussion. The majority didn't want to, and given the ethos of the facilitation process as suggested by Seeds For Change (the process adopted by the organisers), the majority should have been over-ridden (preferably by argument), as failing to create an environment that allowed the shyer members their say firmly excluded them - three walked out. A firmer facilitator may have averted this.
A note-taker is also prescribed. In every session I was in getting a note-taker to volunteer was a problem. If you do get someone to do so, but grudgingly, things can go pear-shaped, as I found on the Social Organisation & The Movement of Movements session. The note-taker decided that only notes of the discussions after each presentation would be made, the presentations already having an electronic presence on the wiki. As our session had all discussion at the end after three speakers, few elements of my presentation were fresh in anyones mind. Thus, no notes relating to my presentation. Between each seminar were Feedback sessions. At these sessions the note-takers read off the major pioints of each seminar. Most covered the presentations as well as comments and discussion after each, but of course the way ours worked, my presentation got no airing at all in the larger group. Also, the feedback sessions were, of course, time-limited, so no further debate or cross-fertilising was really possible (at least not in the feedback sessions I attended, as I unfortunately missed at least one). This is a shame.
The conference had evening entertainment and meals, as well as a communal sleeping arrangement in the Friends' Meeting House in town. Thus, a good deal of networking and discussion could take place outside the university itself. I was staying with Steve in Galgate, so missed this aspect. This was a real loss (though spending time talking with Steve was great). For future reference, get in there and stay the whole length of things, and afterwards, for as long as you can.
The conference was intended to be about globalisation from below. Several people noted that, as the remit had been to have academia and activists there, they were disappointed by the small number of non-academics there. Some, or perhaps most, of these 'academics' were either tenured; studying at graduate or post-graduate level; or ex-students - so, to varying degrees, the 'academics' themselves were also 'activists', the two not being entirely exclusive. However, I saw their point - there was no-one I met from the developing world and not a student; there were few people who were activists in local communities rather than counter-summit activists, and few who were not degree-level educated. Only a couple of people had 'walked in off the street' (not in the vaguely interested, just curious, sense) - Steve from Green Anarchist and another man from Lancaster who was apparently ex-SWP (ie, still a Marxist with Leninist overtones, but also now a decent bloke). Few were from outside academia by more than a few years (for example, I graduated from Bolton Institute in 1986, and I don't think anyone else I met there had such a distance between themselves and academia, excepting those very few who had no higher education at all). On the one hand, this may be a comment on the degree to which 'ordinary' people in the UK are rendered apolitical by the system, but, on the other, I think there is a real need to open these things out more radically.
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