Saints and Sinners: #OccupyLSX

I’m currently preparing a piece for Sophie‘s Journal of Occupied Studies, focusing primarily on the flaws of the #Occupy movement in London, and especially considering the Bloomsbury Social Centre as a critical intervention in the kinds of discourse and tactics that have characterised OccupyLSX as it has progressed over the last three months. The below section, more-or-less excised in my redraft, and somewhat modified here, touches on the curious religious aspect to the occupation.

Camp Apocalypse and a Politics of Saints and Sinners

The differing political histories and cultures of the US and UK have meant a particular scission in the matter of religion: whereas religious affiliation and demonstration of piety plays a substantial role in US public life, Alistair Campbell’s rebuke to an American journalist during an interview with Tony Blair – ‘We don’t do God‘ – largely characterises the British political attitude to religion. Despite frequent attestations to the value of ‘faith groups’ in government policy, religion is largely something that happens away from government, and the language of the pulpit is far-removed from the anodyne technê preferred by the denizens of Westminster. The influence of communist and socialist movements in Europe in the twentieth century have made the mention of God doubly verboten in extraparliamentary politics on the Left, though the occasional Catholic Worker or Quaker will be found on demonstrations and direct action, especially in anti-war campaigns. The evacuation of formal religion from the political sphere, and especially the left, has left behind a number of problems in its wake, as well as its obvious benefits: the rise of a washy transcendental and ill-defined ‘spirituality’, a failure to understand (as Marx did) the consolatory historical function of religious thinking, as well as the re-emergence of a kind of religious thinking under another name in the guise of politics.

It makes it seems strange, then, that OccupyLSX should have so obvious a religious dimension: not only in its establishment of a faith working-group, but in the meditations that have sometimes preceded its general assemblies, its establishment of a meditation tent, its mooted ‘ring of prayer’ to resist a potential eviction, and its frequent banners and arguments about ‘what Jesus would do‘. Of course, some of this – perhaps even much of it – could be a strange osmosis from the Cathedral grounds in which the camp sits, the early media storm over its treatment of the occupiers, and the subsequent resignation of its Canon Chancellor Giles Fraser in objection. The sediment of reaction that gets stirred up when we shake the leavings of religion can also be seen in the ‘Root Out Usury’ banner that hung over the entrance to the camp for some time, a dim echo of the antisemitism so often a feature of the junction between Christianity and politics. But, more than the formal religious dimension, which is as often a kind of rank kitsch as it is a serious attempt at blending the political with the theological, I am interested in the currents of what one might deem religious thinking within #OccupyLSX. These might be broadly seen as three strains: a kind of messianism, an attempt to prefigure a new kind of community, and a martyrological political schema. These three are not discrete: each informs the other.

As mentioned above, the curiosity of the religious mode in contemporary politics in the UK cannot be overemphasised, and they fit far more closely in the US than here – the commingling of religious and political thought being one of the frequent markers of what Hofstadter called ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics‘, a style perhaps ever more evident in moments of crisis. Is there a ‘paranoid style’ in the Occupy Movement? The discourse of ‘the 99%’ broaches on the question of class, without ever articulating it as such, and points out profound inequality in the distribution of wealth without explicitly dealing with the causes of such distribution. With such a lacuna in economic explanation, a variety of causal chains jostle for attention, from the partly true (the close interrelation of the finance industry and the political class) to the outlandish and conspiratorial. What unites these explanations is their special focus on the agency of a few individuals. Hofstadter: ‘The paranoid’s interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will. Very often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press; he has unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind (brainwashing); he has a special technique for seduction (the Catholic confessional).’ In the discourse of the 99%, this agency also becomes a question of moral culpability, that bankers or politicians are perpetrating a moral outrage, and this statement becomes sufficient as an explanation – that there is something morally corrupt in the choices of politicians and bankers, a consequence of which is suffering, injustice and poverty. What is distinctive about this is that it refocuses the critique of the systemic to the individual agon of the soul – a fine subject for tragic drama, but not, perhaps, a comprehensive politics.

When I mention a ‘messianism’ involved in #OccupyLSX, I do not mean that it has at its centre a cult of personality (or that, if it does, that personality is the empty frame of the ideal human being); instead that it possesses a certain orientation to the political event and community of the elect that might be called ‘messianic’. This is not to say that this is a potential Waco or Jonestown – it isn’t. But in the absence of any formal leader or charismatic icon, there exists a tendency to enshrine organisational process as the mode that distinguishes the Occupy encampment from the form of political organisation that constitutes the society around it: as David Graeber has pointed out, this kind of process has been deeply attractive for many who feel their voices are not listened to in conventional ‘democratic’ structures. It remains true, however, that this process has its roots in religious thinking, and, specifically, in the belief that the divine spirit (in Christianity, the Paraclete) will visit the process of assembly, often as a ‘still small voice’ in the hearts of its participants, to allow the consensual truth to emerge in its process. What happens when we remove this transcendental guarantor from the process? How does that process then come to terms with the discomfiting reality that there are, in all likelihood, conflicting and incommensurable political ideologies and desires private to each participant? How, even more so, when the population of the camp is frequently transitory, the people at the general assembly changing from day-to-day? The process itself is an object of faith.

It is important to note that what I am calling a kind of ‘messianism’ here – a zealous belief in the transformative nature of process, but also a form of political action characterised by a waiting for the arrival of the event – is distinct from the invocation of the theological figure of ‘The Messiah’ in Walter Benjamin’s Theologico-Political Fragment and its later development in the work of Agamben. It’s impossible to briefly summarise this figure without traducing it, but it may suffice to say that, for Agamben, the figure of the messianic is not a figure of distinction and election, but one in which the distinction of the sacred is inoperative; further that messianic time is not a time of waiting, and certainly not one into which a decisive, transformative event is projected into the historical future. (A further examination of this concept might explore Agamben’s assertion that the Messiah ‘is the figure in which religion confronts the problem of the law.’) This is precisely what the Occupy camp is not: it is a project of severance, waiting on the transformative intervention of a supreme political event, the character of which is indeterminate (for some, reform, for others, revolution, for others still a ‘general change… in how we humans treat each other.’). This waiting that characterises the camp at St Paul’s – the sense that one has stumbled on the camp at the end of the universe – brings to the fore the two other religious themes I want to touch on: prefiguration and martyrology.

The prefigurative aspect of #OccupyLSX is perhaps its most obvious attempt at transformation of its participants: drawing on the long tradition of prefigurative politics on the activist left, it attempts to reimagine and live a different kind of community. Like all prefigurative projects of this kind, it runs into obvious problems, for instance the hovering question of what it is trying to prefigure. It is an old objection, but nonetheless true, that there is no outside of capital to live in, that any such project is inevitably composed of human beings living in capitalist society, and that its prefiguration of other ways of being will inevitably run up against the difficulties of food, shelter and ways of relating to each other under capitalism. This is not per se an objection, but a recognition that there is no ‘elect’ who live outside of these norms. There is, of course, a long history of occupation and prefiguration in England – the Levellers being the most famous example – but it is salutary that the political and religious-millenarian aspects of these projects are frequently inseparable.

A sign currently hangs at St Paul’s informing its visitors that the camp is no longer occupying, but ‘guests’ of St Paul’s Cathedral. Earlier in this essay I discussed the transition between ‘Occupy’ as a verb, suggesting an action taken to contest the ownership of space, and ‘Occupy’ as a noun, as now bandied about by many who see themselves as part of this movement. This reification is not without significance here: in no longer seeking to contest the concept of ownership explicitly, and accepting the necessarily conflictual relationship this implies with civil power, ‘Occupy’ comes to stand for the individual relationship to, on the one hand, a series of mutable and shifting political beliefs, but (far more obviously and extensively) a marker of personal participation in one of the camps. This shifts the locus of meaning, again, to the question of the individual’s particular moral-political status, and, beyond that, locates the camp’s significance in its ability to bring about personal transformation rather than exert pressure for structural change. This is most obvious in the reframing of traditional discourses about revolution around personal behaviour, the preponderance of ‘reLOVEution’ and ‘revolution through evolution’ signs being the most crass and obvious of these. The parallels with the question of grace in Christian theology can be glimpsed at various points here.

I discussed above the question of sovereignty, and the model of the general assembly as a potential state-form, casting its participants in the form of citizenry; equally the emergent and inherited structure of ‘working groups’ as replicating a relationship to labour less distinct from post-Fordist work than might be initially apparent. It is obvious, also, that a commitment to full participation in the camp requires a severing from the norms of social and productive life under capital: in other words, a withdrawal from work and even perhaps choosing to live in the camp full-time. This is manifestly not an option for all who might sympathise with the movement, but nor do I want to argue that this in itself (i.e., the choice or necessity of a marginal life) is politically doomed. Instead, I want to suggest that this choice tends towards a model of the occupier as citizen-martyr, both in the obvious sense of an embrace of suffering, but also in the sense of rendering its participants as exemplars of a new life. The former can be dealt with pretty rapidly: many of the speeches given by participants and supporters of the movement have focused on the suffering of its participants as testifying to the fervour with which they seek political change – ‘…These people, suffering in the cold for us’. This, mixed with the rhetoric of nonviolence, is not an uncommon feature of protest movements, its most obvious referent being satyagraha; its practical conclusion can be found in the protestation ‘if we sit down and meditate in front of them when the police come, then we win, even if they beat us.’ The logic of this is that it transforms the violated protester, mediated through the lenses of photojournalists, into an exemplar of moral triumph over the forces of oppression, thus inspiring further resistance.

Martyrology – from μάρτυς, meaning ‘witness’ – has always meant to transform individual lives into paragons of inspiration, both in the libidinal investment in lurid torture, and the strength of testimony surpassing any concern for personal safety. This making of martyrs is at the centre of the zealous adherence that has characterised many of the longer-term occupiers, in some cases even leaving behind their jobs and relationships to ‘work’ full-time at the camp. The history of martyrology presumes the perfectibility of the human being, the community of the sainted elect acting as witness in unredeemed time to the possibility of a redeemed future – a politics of the New Jerusalem. One may justly pause to wonder what kind of trauma this expectation of perfection and suffering leaves on the psychic lives of occupiers, or inject a note of realism in saying that the obvious failings of the Occupy camps, from sexual violence, to the excrudescence of reactionary politics, to the high proportion of conspiracy theorists cannot be brushed under the carpet. The natural consequence of seeing the physical existence of the camp and its participants as a testimony to the moral force of its argument is the habit of dissociating it from anything troubling rather than attempting to deal with it – or to deal with it by attempting to refine the rules whereby it runs. Equally, in viewing the camp and its participants as attesting to its truth, much political energy is expended in the simple task of its reproduction – i.e., in keeping it running, for its value as a testament.

This mode of politics naturally sets itself no time limits: it is a politics of waiting for victory. It is, perhaps perversely, the religious spirit rather than formal theological doctrine that is at question here – having receded from the scene, even the question of, say, salvation through works is not in argument here. Instead, a political messianism without religious content, but with religious tenor, holds sway. It is not that there are not figures in history who have drawn on religion to make a political point (Froissart quoting the Priest John Ball in the English Peasants’ Revolt: ‘Good people, things in England cannot work, nor will they until wealth is shared equally; until there are neither peasants nor noblemen and we are all united. Why are these men, whom we call lords, masters over us? What have they done to deserve this? Why do they keep us in servitude?’) But that the religious mode within politics, and especially its attendant discourse of moral victory and passivity are trends that do not deserve to go unexamined.

On Total Policing

Last night I attended a lecture given by Bernard Hogan-Howe, current commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, on ‘Total Policing’, the new and rather sinister term for the philosophy of policing guiding his leadership of the Met. I’ve touched on some of its implications for protest and political action before; this is a series of brief thoughts on what Hogan-Howe laid out last night. It’s important to note that under the rubric of ‘communication’, the commissioner is doing a lot of similar talks in various parts of London – as Zoe Stavri points out here, these are largely exercises in Met corporate PR, with little in the way of substantive engagement. At the LSE last night, despite the audience of jobbing police consultants, timid de-clawed academics and monosyllabic coppers on CPD, he did encounter a little more in the way of dissent. So, some thoughts:

‘Total Policing’

The phrase is empty. Hogan-Howe was quick to stress that his ambition for the Metropolitan Police was ‘to be the best’ – that he didn’t know how to be ’23rd of 44′ forces. Ignoring the gruesome Apprentice-style tone of the platitude, one has to ask: best at what? Throughout the lecture this central question occasionally emerged from the the managerial fog, only to sink again without trace. Some of the shapes we saw loom through the consultancy-speak:

  • ‘Total Policing’ is a calque of Dutch ‘Total Football’, more or less suggesting that fixed roles of particular officers will be subordinated to a professional flexibility: i.e., officers can move fluidly between functions. Above and beyond this, the ‘Total’ concept suggests a dissolution of departmental boundaries, promoting the flow of information, quick reactivity, and, especially, ‘communication’ (Hogan-Howe’s favourite word) between different departments of the police. In this focus on flows of information, the commissioner is on-trend with the latest in barren management consultancy-speak, but we can also detect the traces of a police response to the currently celebrated ‘network’ model of organisation.
  • Total Policing is about tactics that ‘work’. ‘Work’ in achieving what? Hogan-Howe cites the doubling of the prison population since the 1990s as evidence of success. These tactics constitute a ‘total war on criminals’, though what this means, in effect, is a total war on anyone the police want, expect or need to be a criminal. The commissioner talks about no longer spending a long time gathering evidence, but ‘persuading’ a magistrate to allow them to ‘put a door through’ and have a look. The magistracy is paraded as a ‘check’ on police powers; anyone who’s met a magistrate may feel rather less confident. Some egg on the face for the commissioner: having gathered ranks of photographers and the execrable Mayor of London for just such a raid, the cops failed to find anything, but had a thoroughly good time smashing down a door and invading people’s homes.
  • Total Policing is composed of several points: ‘total war on criminals’ as above, also ‘total care for victims’, a ‘totally professional’ force and an increasingly total use of technology. The commissioner was a little short on what ‘total care’ might mean, other than feeling that they ought to ‘do something’ for them; presumably the rise of ‘total professionalism’ is crucial PR in the wake of phone-hacking, police bribery and the daily grind of police racism. The use of technology, however, is the most interesting. Hogan-Howe cites technology as being able to do things that human beings can’t do, i.e. retain lists of data and quickly match these up. His citation was automated numberplate recognition, which will apparently reduce burglary by flagging up burglars’ cars and reducing their mobility. However, it will also crack down on uninsured vehicles, leading to their confiscation; the network of permissions, proper papers and routine identification grows a little tighter. This automated surveillance and criminalisation is a significant part of Total Policing, only likely to increase in periods of reduced police spending.


The commissioner is fluent in the patter of management consultancy. Thus we were treated to a disquisition on the benefits of the team, and an examination of ‘performance culture’. Managerial technique is everything: the kind of programme one might expect from a man with both an MA in Criminology and an MBA. But what’s the purpose of this? The language of consultancy serves to mask reality: it’s as much what it allows one to avoid naming as it is a model to describe organisational structure. Hence not once did the word ‘racism’ pass the commissioner’s lips, instead presenting us with a mild confusion about why ‘more black and minority ethnic’ people are stopped and searched by police. Hogan-Howe professed to be unable to account for why this was the case, in an incredible act of gymnastics managing to even nod to the elephant of police racism lumbering quite obviously through the room. Similarly, any question of police violence fell muted behind an impervious wall of information flows and communication through mass media. The political uses of this kind of language may seem obvious to many of us, but it’s worth stating its purpose: firstly we have the impervious ontological categories of ‘criminal’ and ‘victim’ (the former at this point being anyone the police suspect, the latter rather hesitantly and ambiguously defined), secondly, any issue on which the police might be held to account is not a problem of agency (i.e., the police bear no culpability for racism or political violence) but simply an incorrect flow of information, communication or community engagement. It is a rhetoric of evasion.

Stop & Search / s.60

It is worth restating that the commissioner essentially sees the purpose of the police service as putting people in jail. It is worth restating, also, that under Hogan-Howe’s first experiment in Total Policing in Liverpool, Stop and Search figures rose from 1,389 in 2004 to 23,138 in 2009. With the Stephen Lawrence case recently in the news, and the August riots fresh in our memories, stop-search powers are once again under a critical public eye. With the wave of a hand, the commissioner dismisses the palpable feeling from the LSE/Guardian report that the police routinely harass black and minority ethnic men, and that, for all the talk of gangs, the police are by far the biggest gang in London. As a counter to this, he tells us that the police are soon to announce a new strategy on gangs, and soon to issue their own report on the August riots. Doubtless it will make thrilling and incisive reading: rather weakly, the only comment Hogan-Howe had to make on the riots was that nobody could fully understand them. Perhaps true, but one might think to mention that the police shot someone, lied about him through their press bureau, and shrugged this off as de rigueur.

On stop and search powers in particular, Hogan-Howe couldn’t account for the vast disproportion in ethnicity searched, but intimated (particularly odiously) that this might be something to do with the makeup of the ‘street population’ – whereas someone like him, of course, and by extension his audience at LSE, would be at home of an evening with his feet up. The questions that followed about stop / search allowed him to talk extensively about his passion for ‘lateral entry’ – i.e., the entrance of black graduates to higher levels of the police force without having to work their way up to the ranks. The logic here is that greater representation will reduce police racism. One might quibble with the logic of representation, certainly, and further suggest that perhaps recruiting from the graduate class doesn’t tackle issues of class and poverty, which are also significant here. Beyond this, however, the commissioner let slip in the response to questions on race that the record of disproportion was far greater in s.60 searches than in s.1. The difference here is that s.60 is a blanket search power, in which no suspicion is required to conduct a search, whereas under s.1, reasonable suspicion is required. So, ‘reasonable suspicion’ acts here as a brake on police racism, as when it isn’t required, racial prejudice is in full flow. In an era where s.60 powers are being more widely granted and for longer duration, one might think this is cause for concern. The commissioner evidently doesn’t.

Total Policing and Public Order

The impact of Total Policing on public order situations – the rubric under which all political demonstrations now fall – is where its ‘total’ nature is most visible. It’s therefore not surprising that the following question, or something much like it, was asked of Hogan-Howe:

Commissioner, you mentioned that during a period of recession, people are more likely to protest, and that you see the role of the police as being balanced between the rights to democratic expression and the right of people to go about their business unimpeded. We probably saw the first manifestation of public order policing in this vein in the student demonstrations on November 9th, with protesters hemmed in by portable police barricades, stopped every ten minutes, random searching, many plainclothes officers, and funneled down backstreets where no-one could see the demonstration. On November 30th we saw the erection of steel walls across Trafalgar Square and the confiscation of placards in inappropriate zones. Is this what the right to protest and express dissent looks like under Total Policing?

The answer was, in essence, yes. The justification for this was that no ‘violence’ occurred on those demonstrations, and that, well, we wouldn’t like it if protesters came an invaded our homes, would we? (The mention of Millbank was greeted with a raucous cheer from the gallery.) The assertion ran something like this: there were people intent on violence on that demonstration, no violence happened, therefore the policing was justified and a success. This is curious: it’s good to know that the commissioner’s surveillance now extends as far as people’s private intentions, but the evasive sidestepping is instructive. Despite having talked about a ‘balance of rights’ in his lecture, when the difficult questions emerged about the effective suppression of one of those rights, the commissioner slides into talking about (potential, hypothetical) violence and its failure to manifest as a success of and justification for the policing operation.

Public order in 2012 is the focus for the commissioner’s conversation about ‘challenges’ facing the police force. He mentions that he views the role of the police in the Olympic and Royal Jubilee period as being that of a referee in sport – that is, acting largely invisibly but controlling the order of the game. The unprecedented police powers and securitisation of London during this period should give an idea of what this invisibility will look like: invisibility through ubiquity. The extension of the public order logic and spectre of terrorism allowed him the following formulation: though we have no intelligence of terrorist threats to London during the Olympics, we wouldn’t want to look back in retrospect and say we could have done more to prevent an (entirely hypothetical) incident. Thus, Total Policing.


Many people emerged from the lecture wondering about whether Total Policing was just entirely vacuous managerialism, whether Hogan-Howe, for all his slipperiness, was much like any other police manager. I don’t think this. It’s certainly true that ‘Total Policing’ is a pliant phrase, that it can come to mean whatever one wants it to mean. But for Hogan-Howe’s operation it clearly means the following: it is ‘total’ insofar as there is no ‘outside’ of policing, that policing should extend thoroughly to all domains of life. It is ‘total’ insofar as it uses surveillance, data-gathering and information culture to effectively criminalise a substantial proportion of society. It is ‘total’ insofar as it even extends to the imagination: the inculcation of imaginary or threatened irruptive violence legitimates all kinds of pre-emptive securitisation and police powers. Behind the jargon and sheen of management consultancy lies a very simple desire to extend the power of the police to regulate and order all forms of public life. Total Policing is arriving sleekly and quietly; it seems we should be making some noise about it.

Survival: on Nanni Balestrini

On a wall in a city in Italy is scrawled a graffito: ‘Leggete Nanni Balestrini’ – ‘Read Nanni Balestrini’. It brings you up short: an imprecation to read an avant-garde novelist is not something you often see written in spray-paint. Graffiti is all about staking an urgent claim to something unacknowledged, most often and most simply that you were there. Here, it is Read Nanni Balestrini. Why? Balestrini’s recently republished novel of Autonomia, The Unseen, gives some idea.

The Unseen is a novel determined by history. It was written and published ten years after the Years of Lead; as such it cannot end other than it does, in the brutalities of state repression and imprisonment. But it recovers, too, the exhilaration of the early years of Autonomia, and rejects sententious or easy moralising about the struggle. Such refusal of the simple position of literary pentito caused Balestrini no end of problems: many publishers rejected the novel for its violence, and its eventual publication by Bompiani occasioned a generalised wringing-of-hands across the Italian literary press over the novel’s failure to accord with the new consensus on Autonomia – that it was critically and ideologically impoverished, that it was the ineluctable progenitor of terrorism, that it was (above all else) out of harmony with the appropriate way of conducting politics.

Literary reactionaries abound, of course, especially among the ‘avant garde’, and though it’s easy to get the impression that the Autonomist period was freighted with dozens of intellectuals and writers involved with militant action, in fact there were always many more either explicitly opposed or serenely passive in the face of state brutality. But what is astonishing about the reception of Balestrini’s novel is the extent to which it was judged primarily on its non-literary dimension – i.e., in its positioning over the movement and move into armed struggle which constitute its raw materials. Its status as a literary object recedes in the face of its possible use as propaganda for either side; perversely, it is as literature rather than as document of the struggle that the novel is most important. For all that it may or may not serve as justification or provocation, The Unseen’s central questions are really those of survival and time: how human beings and human relationships survive or splinter in political struggle, how the puzzle of political history and individual human time fits together.

Balestrini’s background is in the literary avant-garde, which is to say that his writing is always conscious of the form in which it is cast. The Unseen is written in unpunctuated paragraphs interspersed with different voices, differing levels of narrative intervention, reading at times as a stream-of-consciousness recollection, stitched together across jumps in time. This is not literary pretension, but technique serving its object: in other words, it is the literary form taken to best embody the narrative – sensitive to the individual’s relation to history and politics, rendering its questions always in terms of individual suffering, immediate relationships rather than political abstractions. Its technique is then in service of the ethical-political axis that drives its story, in the achievements and suffering of its nameless narrator; this shift of the ethical axis away from the ragged contemporary consensus on the ‘responsibility’ of Autonomia for the repression undertaken by the Italian state and instead toward the individual political subject (replete with intense political bonds of friendship, love and solidarity) is perhaps what most outraged its early critics.

The story is a simple one: the unnamed narrator’s trajectory from working-class high-school rebellions, through squatted social centres, autonomist organising, the rancorous emergence of political violence and the experience of state repression and imprisonment. It bears the dedication ‘for Sergio’, the working-class Milanese autonomist whose conversations with Balestrini formed the prima materia for the novel. This fact, combined with the immediate style of the novel, makes it hard not to read it as a testimony. That is intentional, much of the novel’s power lies in it, but it remains a novel, not a transcript, and the question of its fidelity to specific historical events is less important than the story it draws out for the sympathetic reader. The narrative cuts between the history of the small affinity group (‘…that’s what we called it affinity group precisely because we were all in affinity about our way of living…’, p.104) and the narrator’s experience as a political prisoner, in prison revolts and their bloody suppression.

There are moments where any reader involved in extraparliamentary politics today will recognise eerie similarities with contemporary struggles, both in the attitude to police, and the ways in which differing political persuasions reassert themselves during struggle. For instance, during an occupation, members of a new Leninist political party arrive to bestow their sage advice:

they turned up with their party newspaper sticking out the pockets of their grey lodens they came up to Cotogno and me their leader got straight to the point what you need to do right away is call a mass meeting to discuss what’s to be done this spontaneous movement has to have political leadership first of all we’ll have a closed meeting between us and the occupation leaders to decide on the programme we’ll get the mass meeting to approve and so on finally they left none too happy but their leader threatened us all mass struggles are doomed if there’s no one to lead them you’ve got no political line and you’re dragging the masses to defeat and blablabla and blablabla

The settling of scores with caricature Leninists aside, Balestrini’s novel reserves considerable ire for those on the hard left who collaborated with the Italian state, especially the communist parties and those party to the ‘historic compromise’, especially those who become gleeful persecutors of autonomists through roles in the courts. The anger at the PCI is palpable. But there is a more interesting point raised by this quotation, which is that it is one of the few moments in the novel where ‘politics’ as a recognisable field of discourse and activity – with ideologies, with parties, with bureaucrats – obtrude into the novel. This is not to cede that the novel is uninterested in politics – the entire novel is about one relationship to the political, which is everything existing – but that it breathes a total dissatisfaction with formal politics, viewing it as structurally corrupt and corrupting.

But this negating relationship to extant political institutions is not a total explanation for the submersion of political discourse in the novel. Early in the narrative, the protagonist reflects on a police raid on his family home resulting in the confiscation of his collection of literature and ephemera from the movement: for him this is not an indissoluble loss, because his political involvement has been located in the rage at his family’s grinding work life, the narrowness of subjugation it produces, in short the root of his involvement is not discursive. Balestrini’s choice of a largely uneducated working-class narrator is salutary: even other prisoners are surprised that he can’t read languages other than Italian, because they expect political prisoners to be teachers or professors. It is a reminder that the autonomist movement wasn’t a mass movement of Toni Negris or even Nanni Balestrinis, and arose in direct contest with material conditions. In other words, the political theory of autonomist writers is at best half the story – the struggle itself was instantiated in the attempt to live otherwise, in the practice of political struggle itself, and it is here that Balestrini’s eye is focused.

Reading this novel, it’s sometimes easy to forget that all of this is well within living memory. Any informed reader knows how the novel must turn out: the Italian state propounds a causal link between Autonomia and the armed struggle, interns, tortures and violently represses its activists. The novel must end in prison. As Balestrini knows this, he ejects the trappings of suspense, and instead intercuts the struggle within the prison, and its eventual defeat, with the prior struggle prior to imprisonment. Yet this is not a concession to the logic of the state: that the movement necessarily gives rise to clandestine armed insurgency, that it then necessitates imprisonment, instead we have the angel of history surveying the wreckage behind him, able to discern only in retrospect the bad decisions, the flaws, the mis-steps that spin wildly out of control. Solidarity is the ethical criterion of The Unseen, again and again it is counterposed to the bafflement of the police and judiciary, and it is the choice to keep silence in solidarity (and thus refuse to incriminate others by confirming the report of a pentito, and exculpate himself) that lands our narrator in prison. It is also the slow unravelling of solidarity by the grinding harshness of the prison regime that leads to the novel’s bleak conclusion.

The unravelling of solidarity and the grim destinies of the various members of the affinity group after solidarity evaporates constitute, to my mind, the novel’s substantive political intervention. Here, again, is why it outraged its critics: it leapfrogged the pointless afflatus of Italian parliamentary politics and the critics’ circle to deliver a message about survival to its readers. Survival, or the failure to survive, becomes the key question: how to survive in a way worth surviving? There are three key episodes here: one is the set-piece confrontation between the women and the men in the social centre, which leads to the women withdrawing from the project, the second is the argument that arises over the choice of some few members to enter the clandestine armed struggle, the third the emergence of heroin within the culture. All three are salient, and uncomfortably easily recognised as problems we still encounter. It would be too complex to explore each one in turn, but it’s worth quoting one of the women’s interventions in a meeting called to address problems in the occupied centre:

Valeriana starts speaking (…) we’ve had separate meetings we women on our own have talked about things among ourselves that’s how it started without being planned then it became something more serious it became a need to bring out everything we had inside us how we’ve lived in our relationships with you here in the collective and to make comparisons with the relationships we’ve had before well we’ve discovered that there’s no difference being comrades should mean being different from normality being better more advanced culturally and most of all in terms of human relationships but you’re not a single millimetre more advanced than other men in the relationships you have with women

This is not a complaint that should be news to much of the left, but all too often it is: that in the struggle we reproduce precisely those dynamics of power we seek to oppose. Balestrini’s narrator, despite doing the standard bristling that accompanies such complaints, realises in retrospect that ‘it was about a much bigger affair as we understood it later it was about a trauma a big trauma a big rupture maybe bigger than all the other things we were doing and that changed us all later’ – this is daring. Instead of locating simply in state repression the seeds of the movement’s collapse, the protagonist points to the flaws in the movement that burst open under the force of that repression.

How to survive in a way that’s worth surviving? The novel refuses to greet the assertion that the only possible conclusion of Autonomia was the armed struggle: in prison, the narrator finds himself not quite able to understand the younger prisoners, interned after the collapse of the movement into violent clandestine insurrection. This split is dramatised in a meeting where arguments go back and forth over the clandestine struggle, its abandonment of mass consciousness, wherein Scilla, always inclined to violence, points a revolver at the head of one of his comrades in disagreement. Something breaks. The emergence of political violence as vanguardism, as an attempt to direct mass consciousness through a series of bloody signposts, the ‘leap into clandestinity … to abandon a movement of thousands of people in struggle for a war waged by twenty or thirty’ causes the affinity group to split. Those remaining attempt to set up a pirate radio station, but find something has gone, that they are working more and more furiously to cover over a gaping wound.

Escape is the dream of many in the prison.Towards the end of the novel we hear of the eventual fates of many in the group. One ravaged by heroin addiction and in debt, one dealing it, one dead at the hands of carabinieri, one driven mad by prison and eventually a suicide. China, the narrators lover, vanishes. The last time she visits him in prison, the intercom is broken, and the two cannot hear each other. He notices her dress, she is, for the first time, wearing neat earrings and a wristwatch, who never before wore a wristwatch. How to survive? In this case by subsuming oneself again into capitalist society, extinguishing all dissent, bound again to the regulatory time of the working day. She is never heard from again. The conclusion of the novel is seemingly bleak: a burning brand held out of the bars of a prison, but censured by its isolation in the countryside, no one to witness the silent protest, all the bonds of solidarity unravelled and gone. It is a bleak conclusion, with a plane passing overhead, unable to see – or if it can see, unable to interpret – the last, feeble protest going on inside the prison below.

But it is not all. We have the novel. In his diaries from his time in prison, published at the same time as The Unseen, Antonio Negri cites Kundera’s fear that ‘our prison records will be the only things left of us.’ They are not. What is hopeful is not the conclusion of Balestrini’s novel, but the existence of the novel itself. Its protagonists have not been reduced simply to their records, but come to us in a living and pungent voice. It is unstintingly real, and poses devastating questions, questions which are ever more important to answer today: how to survive in a way that’s worth surviving? It is worth reading Negri’s Diary of an Escape in counterpoint with Balestrini’s novel. Negri’s picture is more hopeful – perhaps, indeed, because Negri effected an escape, and had numerous advantages that Balestrini’s narrator did not – and worth thinking on:

I am a Marxist. And I remain a Marxist. I ask myself, recalling prison, what it was, if not my trust in revolution, that gave me the strength to carry on working. A re-reading of that strong theoretical hope, of the optimism of the intellect which is Marx. Marx beyond Marx. Spinoza and the logical certitude of possible revolution. And the calm passion of this vision, which went right through the experience of prison. Lessen the anger against injustice by means of the analysis of its structural causes, and through this build a higher level of hate against exploitation and domination. Many people tell me that, like Marx, I too am a corpse – but I don’t see humour in their eyes, only fear. The advantage of my hatred is that it is articulated on, and mediated by, hope. … Marxism: it is the only practice that turns theory into a weapon.
— Antonio Negri, Diary of an Escape (London: Polity Press, 2010), Fol. 79, pp.148-9

So this is Balestrini’s question, that he throws out to us, the ethics of survival, or, another question, how to live and continue living without extinguishing ourselves? Negri again: ‘There is a revolutionary society that lives within this shit of developed capitalism.’ How to sustain it? So, yes, we need to ask these hard questions, we need to start to figure out how to answer them – read Nanni Balestrini.