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.

Iron Horse

The recently deployed portable steel barricades now used by police in London are called by their inventors the ‘Iron Horse‘. Nothing particularly surprising about that: the lexis of armament-builders is replete with cod-medievalism, presumably in the pursuit of some chivalric burnish for the grim and impersonal tasks of securitisation, sterilisation and repression. It gives one some pause to consider what squalid private fantasies about nobility in the service of the state sustain those behind the barriers. Unwittingly, though, it recalls a different ‘Iron Horse’, the name Allen Ginsberg gave to a soldier-packed train he boarded in 1966, and to the poem he wrote about it. Ginsberg doubtless chose the name – much like the makers of the portable barrier – because of the halo of associations that surround it: the knightly warhorse, the unyielding martial dignity of ‘iron’, the historic speed and mobility of horse-mounted combatants. (The designers of ‘security solutions’ being, I assume, the humourless sort, the bleakly amusing ironies of naming a wall designed to prohibit free movement after a horse must have failed to present themselves as serious flaws.)

Ginsberg’s poem is shot through with the voices of soldiers, and tense with fear. Part of that fear comes from Ginsberg’s precarious position – Jew, queer, anti-war agitator, communist, poet, Buddhist – in short, everything unamerican and subversive, and the sense that to speak the obvious truth in the fever of war is to risk one’s life:

A consensus around card table beer –
       "It's my country
          better fight 'em over there than here,"
      afraid to say "No it's crazy
                   everybody's insane –
                          This country's Wrong
                   the universe, Illusion."

Though, outside the sense of personal risk, some of Ginsberg’s anxiety dwells in the obscure sense that events are propelling themselves ineluctably towards disaster, as unstoppable as the train, that he can intervene only belatedly and in futility, carried along in the wash toward continual war:

Too late, too late
         the Iron Horse hurrying to war,
                   too late for laments
                                too late for warning –
   I'm a stranger alone in my country again.

The sensation that Ginsberg describes – ‘The whole populace fed by News / few dissenting on this train, I the lone beard who don’t like Vietnam War’ – is one familiar to anyone who thinks against the paranoid pabulum oozing from just about every medium of contemporary analysis, which can be heard more-or-less replicated as political certainty in daily conversation. To sustain such dissent can be difficult and tiring. Worse, it can collapse into a hard-nosed illuminism, convinced of one’s own special insight and contemptuous of the capacity of the ‘ordinary’, unthinking person. Ginsberg does not do this, though it may account for the fantasies of quiet withdrawal from the world, which nourish the later parts of the poem and remain sweetly and obviously unattainable. Instead, Ginsberg uses the wavering and uncertain convictions of the soldiers surrounding him to underscore the both the pervasiveness of war propaganda and, oddly, the not-quite-total conviction with which it is repeated:

  Soldiers gathered round
              saying – "my country
  and they say I gotta fight,
            I have no choice,
                we're in it too deep to pull out,
                                   if we lose,
  there's no stopping the Chinese communists,
    We're fighting the communists, aren't we?
        Isn't that what it's about?"

The power in Ginsberg’s poem here is simply to record the hesitancy and catch in the questions asked, refusing to entirely abstract the political question away from the individual speakers (‘the bright talkative orphan farm boy / whose auto parts father wanted ‘im to grow up military’), and thus to overtly simple answers, all the while aware of the Iron Horse as pursuing an immovable trajectory, ‘too late’.


This seems far away from the steel barricades of the Metropolitan police: no lightning attends them as they race southwards, and they seem as stolid and immovable as the officers behind them. But we have been on a war footing recently, with the government casting around for suitable enemies, both foreign and domestic. (One question that underlies so much of Ginsberg’s work, for which he never quite finds an adequate answer, is what purpose the transition to a state of permanent war serves for the United States.) So much of this is theatre, but it is a theatre of justification: one which nebulously invokes temporary crises of security and public order to justify a series of permanent repressive measures. Such a logic – attempts at permanent restructuring under the guise of temporary belt-tightening – is hardly unfamiliar to anyone following the desperate machinations of the UK government since 2008.

Yes, Total Policing has arrived in the metropolis, and with it the sense that sundering the link between political conviction and effective action is at the heart of the strategy. In a veritable triumph for democracy, it is now permissible to hold any stripe of opinion within the private walls of one’s skull, but to act on that conviction is to act under the threat of discovering precisely how thin those walls are. Much, too, might be written on the appearance of steel walls, containment, police violence and judicial victimisation under the rubric of the ‘state of exception’ – equally, one might argue that, as the state has always had the monopoly on the use of violence, such situations are not deviations from the norm, but simply moments in which the disjunction between the formal operation of the law and the actual practical, political uses of violence becomes explicit. The usefulness of the ‘state of exception’ is not to describe this disjunction (which is permanent), but to note those moments at which the formal operation of law becomes suspended. We should not be overhasty in its use: exception no longer takes the dark form looming on the horizons of Benjamin’s ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, but is now visible and now invisible, temporary, targeted, and above all, technological. I hope to return to this question of exception, law and technology in the coming weeks, because I am convinced that it is here, and in its latent question of personal agency that the most interesting diagnosis of our current situation lies:

There's nothing left for this country but death
               Their faces are so plain
               their thoughts so simple
                         their machinery so strong ––
               Their arms reach out 10,000 miles with lethal gas
                       Their metaphor so mixed with machinery
                           No one knows where flesh ends and
                                  the robot Polaris begins...

To my friends: on #OccupyLSX

To my friends:

I left the campsite of #OccupyLSX a few days ago to go to Barcelona. I’ve found myself spending much of the time I’ve been away wondering: where are you?

Let’s try a thought experiment: in the capital city of your country, a popular protest movement springs up with the explicit aim of confronting the financial system, occupies and maintains an occupation of a prominent public space, captures the media conversation and enjoys widespread popular support. The only possible response is to go down and engage with it.

Yet, of the many astonishing things about #OccupyLSX, perhaps the most astonishing is the paucity of faces I recognise there. This has two sides: the positive side is that the majority of people at the camp are actually newly politicised, and have been driven to take action building on the profound intuition that something is wrong. Here’s the crap side: people who have been involved in extraparliamentary politics for a long time are largely not there, preferring to sneer from the sidelines that the politics of the camp are not sufficient to the ends we would like to see, or that they’re not militant enough, or they’re simply getting things dangerously wrong.

The form of this thought is ludicrous: it proposes that political views are conceived prior to political action, and remain static and immobile throughout it. Actually, the politics of the camp, and the people in it, are in flux – and if you want people to have politics you judge as adequate, whining that they don’t have them from the comfort of the sidelines is useless.

We know about social movements. Above all, we know their failings. We know that social movements can diminish into activist ghettos. We know they get disconnected from the realities of everyday life. We know that they get bound down in internal divisions. We also know that social movements, when they appear, do not bear the form we were expecting, or perhaps even that we were desiring. This last is an important point: the real conditions from which social movements spring will always be partly obscured to us, their form is dictated by the conditions in which they arise, and partly determined by them. It is up to us to go to meet history when it is moving, rather than expecting it to come to us in a pleasing shape.

I am calling this a social movement because it is; I am saying that the protesters by St Paul’s are newly-politicised because they are. They are made up of people whom the ‘left’ in its traditional forms has failed, or never engaged: yes, including the unions, but including the activist left as well. Many of them – housewives or mothers, unemployed or underemployed, secretarial or temporary workers – are those bitten hardest by the changes in work in the past thirty years, without an easily comprehensible political language. If they do not talk about ‘class’ or ‘capitalism’, it is because those concepts vanished over the horizon of popular thought for the past thirty years, or because they came to mean static, historical ideas, perhaps relevant to the past, but no longer describing what we do today.

We are living in an extraordinarily hot political moment, in which people’s politics are changing rapidly – and in which systemic popular dissent is more visible than it has been for a long time. That it is systemic is most interesting: for all the reductive slogans about bankers and their bonuses, the political conversation that emerges in the camp is far more about systemic change than some peculiar bad bankers.

As I said, what brought people to the occupation was at base an intuition of something profoundly wrong. What develops out of that is still up for grabs, but it is clear that intuition is widely shared. Most conversations I’ve heard passing the camp have been broadly supportive, even when inflected with standard reservations about making a fuss and things being unable to change. But this negative mode of politics leaves a vacuum: intuition has to lead somewhere, and where it leads is yet to be determined. If we withdraw from the political conversation, then we end up conceding the conversation to a variety of right-wing dipshits, ‘libertarian’ capitalist, Zeitgeist conspiracy-theorists and those who think capitalism can be overcome by meditating and drinking your own urine.

I get that it’s frustrating. The slow work of politics – having essentially the same conversation over and over a thousand times – is not fun. It’s not like breaking through a police line, or marching, or chasing shamefaced politicians around Westminster with an angry mob. It is, however, the most important work we can do. This is a proposal for a kind of interventionism, but not the kind that operates by arriving in a cadre, or seeking to pervert process: it’s one that works from the ground up, by locating a popular movement and engaging it (that is, with the people, all of them, who make it up) with the humility to recognise that it might teach you a few things about how you organise, and about what you think, too. It is called participation.

We all bemoan the walls of the activist ghetto: the same faces, talking the same self-satisfied shit, even enacting the same ritual anger at the isolation and failure of engagement of activist culture. But on the other hand, it’s strange to walk on to a site where you don’t recognise anyone, and where all your previous experience, friendships and networks aren’t there to make life easy. #OLSX is – surprisingly, even to me – very much not the usual crowd. To find the walls of the ghetto crumbling and discovering that, actually, your activist social capital means little unless it translates into doing something – yes, that’s got to be a chastening experience.

Then this is my point: you need to engage this movement, and it won’t be comfortable doing so. I was down there almost continually, and one thing that’s striking is that its representation online bears little resemblance to what’s actually happening in reality. What’s happening is happening there, not on the computer screen. Needling, trolling, or criticising online is all well and good – I certainly like it – but it doesn’t really translate into anything beyond some enjoyable sound and fury.

Lastly, I share many of your critiques, frustrations and fears about the camp: about its slipshod process, about its lack of safe space and treatment of women, people of colour and queers, about the naïveté of trying to build a new politics uninflected by what currently surrounds us, about its hesitancy to engage fully against capitalism, about its softness to the church, about how it connects to wider labour struggles, about the transiency and direction of the camp, about its instinctive acceptance of many activist credos, about its ability to be sustained – but it is a mistake to believe that those are unalterable problems, or ones that can be solved by carping from the sidelines. Engagement means engagement: it doesn’t mean drifting through the camp listlessly, but actually talking, engaging, getting actively involved, it doesn’t mean turning up with your friends to sneer briefly and then fail to speak up, or living in an isolating bubble which dismisses it all as a flash in the pan. It means participating, as an equal. Any movement is what you make of it – I won’t be ceding the ground to conspiracy theorists, or the liberal centrists, or the nationalists. There is a real chance here, and to pass it up without any engagement is jawdropping.

You weren’t born with great politics. You didn’t emerge from the womb brandishing three volumes of Capital with a burning firebrand in the other. You, and I, came to a coherent politics after a lot of work, after a lot of thinking, a lot of conversation, and probably a lot of charity on others’ parts. Have the awareness and the optimism that such a transition should bring you: other people’s politics grow and change too. But if you aren’t there, if you choose to write them off, if you choose to remain in the comfort of purity without getting your hands dirty – well, then you’re working the first part of a self-fulfilling prophecy, and what’s worse, you know it.

See you on site.


Three thoughts on #Occupy

At a time when a banner reading Katalipsi! (Occupied!) flies from the Greek Finance ministry, here are three thoughts on the proliferating calls to #Occupy!:

Wall Street

I’ve not been to Wall Street. I don’t have to. Though separated from New York by an ocean, half a planet and a different political culture (one in which it is significantly less scandalous to talk about the obvious and total failures of capitalism), I can browse through any number of digital echoes and recordings, each with varying degrees of fidelity and spin. What has been most striking about the media reports from Wall Street is that – if you stripped away the inconsequential affect and incidentals – they really could have been written by anyone with an internet connection.

This leads to the usual overhasty generalisations about the role of the internet and rapid distribution of callouts, data, plans, images, videos, plots, analysis, complaint, trolling and information that attends social movements. The obvious issue here is that these things don’t really transmit ideology, analysis or demand, they simply foreground the ease with which the method can be replicated. This method-as-meme is doubtless linked to the prominence of internet communication between activists and interested onlookers; its proliferation also speaks to a new interconnectedness felt by the disenfranchised, whether in New York, London, Barcelona or Athens. But as DSG point out in that link, the success or failure of a method is if it catches the zeitgeist, if it is passed between and above all replicated by a growing multiplicity of consumers.

Let’s lay this out clearly: the internet makes it possible for images, text and vehicles of ideas to be replicated instantaneously and without expending raw materials in the replication – i.e., if I were to give you a manifesto, a poster or a book, I do not need to give away my copy to do so. Any object is replicable without diminution of the original. Hence, I can propose #OccupyLondon, #OccupyLSX, #OccupyTheMoon, and those ideas might be taken up with greater or lesser intensity within the digital fluxus, depending on how quickly they strike the desires of others.

But what does it mean to propose #OccupyX? On some level, it’s clearly an incitement to organisation, i.e., to move from online assent to physical occupation. It also clearly draws a link between the Wall Street example and occupations elsewhere, the spirit of Tahrir being the most obvious example. But the difference between the digital callout and replication should be obvious: physical manifestation requires the use of finite physical resources, as well as numerous less quantifiable factors, such as the goodwill of the state, the tactics of the police, and the energy or organisation of activists. Those to one side, the #OccupyX! imperative demands a replication of particular features of its most prominent American example. These are the most identifiable:

  • A move in the target of occupation. Unlike in Tahrir or Barcelona, Wall Street has served to move the focus of occupation from nominally public spaces to targets intimately linked with international financial capitalism. While retaining the strategy of placing under contention the notion that streets and parks are public spaces – hence, let the public return to them, as they are all we have left – Wall Street adds the intuition that there are very obvious enemies.
  • A horizontal organising structure. The inheritance of the anarchist, anticapitalist and environmentalist movements, the horizontal organising structure is now taken as the de facto mode of organisation for popular social movements. The model of the daily general assembly as authorising body is also taken for granted.
  • A minimalist programme making no explicit political demands, preferring to lay emphasis on the function of the ‘new space’, the meetings and discussions that happen in it, and the physical fact of occupation as constituting a demand in itself.
  • A desire for popular generalisation of the occupation. This distinguishes it from encampments designed to bear witness or shame a space, such as the small line of tents in Parliament Square in London. Thus we see the increasing involvement of organised labour in the Wall Street demonstrations, and the gradual massing of people to the camp.

Minimalism & the 99%

There’s nothing perfect about these hallmarks. I’d obviously choose the side of the occupiers over any rightwing critique, or indeed the lunatic feathering of the chains displayed by the American left. That #OWS has captured the sympathies of many is no doubt due to the totally moribund state of the American left, and demonstrates just how tenuous and easily broken the trance of passivity and inaction is – at least, briefly. But it’s doubtless true that the lack of articulated political, anticapitalist critique or demand has served to build this into a movement where many feel welcome.

Why is this happening? What happens when the fact of economic disparity is so glaringly obvious that it impels action, and yet those impelled to act are emerging from a totalised system in which anticapitalist analysis is non-existent, in which alternative models are held to be either unreal or simply impossible to imagine? Either one’s reaction is to kiss and feather one’s chains, and laud them as the way things should be, or it is to ask the question who is responsible? The question can be answered in two ways, and it depends on whether you see the current situation as capitalism-gone-wrong or capitalism in its full and typical operation. If the former, you will seek for those who have perverted the otherwise perfectly equitable situation, if the latter you will usually answer along the lines that the action of the capitalist class is always to exploit the working class.

It is the former, perversely, I am interested in. These are the people who are responsible for the propagation of the ‘99%’ meme, who have picked it up and run with it. Claiming, in brief, that the super-wealthy 1% have accumulated a vastly disproportionate amount of wealth, and have done so by extorting, legally and less legally, the rest of society, it is a complaint that demands some kind of redress. It suggests personal culpability on the part of the 1%. That’s not something I’d seek to diminish – I don’t believe that the super-wealthy are any less conscious of the means by which they appropriate their wealth than the rest of us. But the lure of blaming inequalities on the agency of the 1% (i.e., proposing a critique centered purely around their moral culpability) leads to a convenient elision: that capitalism structures social relations. Capitalism does not have its headquarters on Wall Street. It is not an ogre that dwells behind the crenellations of the Bank of England. In other words, the question of work, of wage and the extraction of value from labour remains crucial.

But these are well-trod criticisms. What interests me is that the minimal programme of 99%ism – that it is so attractive and so immediate a rallying cry. No doubt some of this is to do with the liberating sensation that one doesn’t need a fully fledged theory of political economy to take part in action. It’s diffuse groups with similarly minimal programmes that have been peculiarly successful here, too – especially UKUncut. Like many, I share a disquiet that hesitancy to voice radical critiques of wage labour and capitalist culture (because we’re scared of spooking the horses) means that these minimal programmes will find themselves as acting, essentially, as parliamentary pressure groups, articulating basically cosmetic and reformist demands. The worst outcome of 99%ism could well be a response to one of its structuring logics – that there are some bad people in the 1%, that they have behaved badly, and that once they’re suitably chastised, we can all go home and return to normal.

That’s certainly a threat. There are other ways to branch out from 99%ism, to extend its logic more rigorously, to use it as a basis to insert other conversations – just as here, too, we might suggest that the actions of UKUncut don’t so much demand a return to the status quo ante but demonstrate that even that is no longer recoverable. From there, we might talk about the brief interlude of a postwar social democratic settlement, the incoming realities of resource scarcity, the way that demands from and action by workers won what little we have – and how, in a period of increased precarity and diminished militancy, it’s all vanishing from under our feet.

The unthought & the margins

Finally, briefly, a touch on two things. One is what you might call the ‘unthought’ of the Occupy! movement – that accretion of dogmas, reflexes and given truths that it inherited from the various activist movements that preceded it. Some of these are good things, doubtless (trying not to make meetings full of over-talkative windbags, trying to avoid co-option or recuperation of the movement, trying to ensure people are not stressed to their wits’ ends) others either lacking or simply quixotic consequences of subcultural creeds (prioritising meditation spaces over, say, a crèche) – but they emerge, to a greater or lesser extent, without much articulation of why they’re necessary, as reflexes. An example might be the general assembly, which pops up as the base unit for organisation – but something which can hinder smaller, autonomous action, can lead to a tyranny less of structurelessness than blandness, and a paralysis in which a move to the centre, to the less militant option, is always given priority. These are precisely the problems of the unthought – without clarity about what a general assembly is supposed to decide, supposed to be for, what remains within its purview – it becomes a repository for all of the contentious and irresolvable conflicts of opinion between those who would like a movement to speak with a single voice. No movement does that, of course.

The second thing: margins. The Occupy! movement is in many senses marginal: its recovery of public space as occupied rather than transitory, its critique from the margins of the city and economy, its insistence that it is the return of the marginalised, and the marginal status (student, unemployed, precarious worker) of many of its key actors. One of the key autocritiques that any political movement should generate is about marginality – about the way in which activists, especially, will lock themselves into an ultramarginalised and ultimately ignored subculture. But it is also true that margins replicate widely. We already see cracks and fractions emerging in the discourse of the movement – the tension between, say, anticapitalists and liberals, between advocates of direct action, or confrontation, and ultrapacifists, between communists and hippies. To paper them over is a recipe for disaster. But marginality also configures the protest’s role to the state – and I think here particularly of Wall Street, and of an essay by Félix Guattari, of which I am very fond, called ‘The Proliferation of Margins’ [.pdf], in which he writes:

Integrated world capitalism does not aim at a systematic and generalized repression of the workers, women, youth, minorities… The means of production on which it rests will indeed call for a flexibility in relationships of production and in social relations, and a minimal capacity to adapt to the new forms of sensibility and to the new types of human relationships which are “mutating” here and there (i.e. exploitation by advertising of the “discoveries” of the marginals, relative tolerance with regard to the zones of laissez-faire…) Under these conditions, a semi-tolerated, semi-encouraged, and co-opted protest could well be an intrinsic part of the system.

It is that last sentence which I think should be understood by those occupying, though it is not simply about physical space, but mental and intellectual orientation as well. Any space in which the state tolerates your presence inevitably doesn’t hurt it that much: we saw what happened when the occupation really did try to take on Wall Street proper. Indeed, you may become a token brandished by liberal democracy to prove its plural tolerance of all kinds of dissent – which ‘you wouldn’t get in Iran’ etc. In these moments, margins are essential. What are the margins you can push at that make the situation less simple to predict, that render it more complex? How do you make the conversations had in Zuccotti park transmit from the outskirts to elsewhere, to those people you work with or study with who wouldn’t have dreamed of coming down to the occupation? How do you avoid recuperation? How do you open up margins everywhere? I don’t pretend to have the answers to these questions, but I certainly have some ideas. I think we live in times in which more things are suddenly looking rickety and contingent than solid, and I think that’s exciting. I’d like to have that conversation, and I look forward to acting on it. I hope some of you will join me.


This post started as a lengthy email to a friend who is currently on an expedition to the Arctic Circle, and asked for some notes on utopia. We have certain political differences, perhaps; more, though, I think the nature of the expedition itself is worth reflecting on, and gave me an opportunity to write out some of the thoughts about utopia that are currently preoccupying me, and which form the basis of a much larger, much longer project. It remains substantially as I sent it, with a few minor alterations.

You asked me to write to you about utopia, and this is the third time I’ve drafted this email, having twice ended up with something very bloated and useless. As you know, I wrote a long thesis on some of this, much of it dense to the point of impenetrability and quite often wrong. Nonetheless, an academic thesis is rather like an embarrassingly elaborate but useless toy: you get it out on social occasions to manically reaffirm its worth. Of course, utopia is an obsession for me as well, which makes it doubly hard to write about: it’s hard not to scope into wide digression, or even to know what’s really useful or telling. It’s also hard to worm one’s way out of the conventional narrative about utopias, the great cliché being that the twentieth century is in some sense the history of the failure of utopian schemas for society. That’s as true as it is untrue, but, most of all, a reductive and boring way to think about things; more interesting might be to ask what political imagination does, and is for, and why its narrowing is seen as an inevitability.

Anyway, this email is in three parts, the first about the historical phase of utopian writing in the west, the second about theorising utopia (not that the two are ever really distinct), the third about some specific political questions about this expedition you’re engaged in, about which I have some serious reservations. Though I don’t want to carry out some kind of intellectual apologia, parts of this might be rigorously theoretical or abstract, but my conviction is that utopia sets out many important questions and thinking through it with some discipline is necessary. I’ve tried to evacuate it of as much density as possible.


Firstly, it’s important that we look at the history of written utopias, because they implicitly set the tone for much modern thinking about possible or ideal states. It’s notoriously hard to define historical boundaries for utopian writing, because the boundaries become either too restrictive or so general as to include any kind of thinking about how to organise a state. For me, there’s particular phase of English utopianism that flourishes from More’s Utopia through Bacon to Margaret Cavendish’s Blazing World. Certainly there’s a perceptible change after that, but the 18th to 20th centuries also include any number of politically and literarily significant utopias, just as the period before More certainly includes utopianism avant la lettre.

But early modern utopianism is certainly significant. More’s Utopia (1516) and Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627) are the two most prominent (& to me most interesting) texts of the period, and I’ll go into a little about why, though by no means really doing more than scratching the surface. There is little in between them that merits much attention in England, save the wide and influential circulation and misreading of More’s book; after Bacon there’s much more.

Here’s Burton, in the satirical preface to Anatomy of Melancholy, talking about some 17th century utopians, and setting the tone for the ‘rational’ dismissal of utopia that follows for the next three hundred years:

“Utopian parity is a kind of government, to be wished for, rather than effected, Respub. Christianopolitana, Campanella’s city of the Sun, and that new Atlantis, witty fictions, but mere chimeras; and Plato’s community in many things is impious, absurd and ridiculous, it takes away all splendour and magnificence.”

Burton has been cursed with the crassest and most indelicate of readers, but there’s much in this tight quotation that repays thinking: it echoes the end of More’s book (wished for vs. effected) which in turn echoes Cicero, and brings to the fore questions about imagination, fiction, hope etc., which are at the heart of all airy controversies about politics, fiction and writing; it pauses on ‘wit’, which in tension with (or as sign of) reason is worth thinking about; it invokes the ‘chimera’, which is a lumpen agglomeration of disparate and ill-fitting parts, much like utopian writing, and is also *monstrous*; the charges laid at Plato’s feet tend also to recur in conservative analyses down the years. (Also, remember, it is a *satirical* preface.)

The chimerical quality of utopian writing is a bit of an intractable problem for anyone who wants to write about utopias: they cross genres, while also being in some sense a genre themselves; you can certainly see in them strains of travel writing, didactic moral writing, satire, manifestos, learned humanist games etc. Perhaps there are better ways at discerning linking features between utopias: one might be the irony of presentation, or the sprung tension between political suggestion and fictional experiment, or indeed the trope of the fantastic voyage and (usually) idiot traveller on strange shores. That latter matters: this writing flourishes right after the discovery of the New World, and in a period of rapidly changing scientific and philosophical orthodoxy, as well as new forms of economy (More and Bacon both being different examples of the new civility), political unrest and protracted war.

(I don’t want to meander too much, but two things: travel writing, especially Hakluyt’s Divers Voyages, is flourishing in this era; Ramusio also binds Diodorus Siculus’ proto-utopian writing alongside the voyages of Amerigo Vespucci in Navigationi et Viaggi; Holstun notes (in Rational Millennium) that expeditions either seeking More’s utopia as a real place or planning a colony along its lines, as if it were description or manifesto, were surprisingly common; by the time we reach Bacon, both the East india Company and Virginia Company are in operation, and thus we have the discourse of colonisation and Empire to contend with to a far greater extent in these later works.)

More’s Utopia tends to be discussed largely in terms of whether or not he *meant* it, and what that would mean: i.e., whether it’s a learned and ironised sigh about the impossibility of a better or perfectly ordered society, whether its careful ironies are a politically astute gambit to smuggle in outrageous ideas, or whether they’re profound misgivings about its practical possibility. The editors of the Cambridge text call it (and I’m inclined to agree) ‘in fact a rather melancholy book’, and an overly optimistic or naive reading of it misses that important factor. I don’t want to address the book’s extensive engagement with humanist virtues, or its positioning within a network of European humanist thought, or its publication afterlife and circulation, though these things are important; perhaps more important for us is that the book as it comes to us is divided in two parts. The second part is Hythlodaeus’ (a name that means ‘nonsense peddler’) account of his time in utopia, but the lengthy first part is a debate over whether it’s worth entering into politics and the contemporary political problem of theft. These do not seem, initially, particularly useful or apposite conversations to have one’s characters engage in before relating the story of utopia; they’re deadly serious but also by turns dull, prosaic, cynical and unsinspiring. However, the first part was written some time after the utopian narration in the second, after More’s return to England in October 1515. This is not to suggest that the experience of returning to England caused More to realise the impossibility of the utopian project, thus compelling him to readdress and highlight its ironies and incompatibilities with the world as it actually exists, as those practical truths would not have been lost on him at any time – but perhaps that the book is itself caught between political imagination and a sense of the world as somewhat bleak and even in decline.

It has been the habit of many to read in More’s (and to a certain extent Bacon’s) text either a nascent communism or the first leaden, nightmare steps of the bureaucratic state. There are historical reasons for this: More and Bacon both witnessing great shifts in economy and property with particular intimacy. What’s not clear with More is the extent to which they’re offered as solutions or predictions; what I think we *can* justly say, thinking about the tensions between the first and second sections of the book is that More’s utopia is offered as a contemporary intervention, indeed as a *reproof* to the clear political problems of his period via systematic imagination. Such may seem obvious, but what I think is particularly interesting about More’s utopia is that it seeks partly to redress issues of imbalance not by focusing on the moral standing of the individual but by thinking systematically about things that seem to be already-established givens within his own political culture. This will become important later.

On to Bacon’s New Atlantis, and note the span of a century or so between those two works. It is really Bacon who revives the utopia from More’s skeletal clutch, and rather repurposes it, jettisoning much of its humanist apparatus; it is also intimately connected with the programmes for scientific, philosophical and social reform that Bacon lays out in Instauratio Magna, Advancement of Learning etc. It reads more conventionally like a story to us, with what will become the familiar tropes of utopian adventure: foreign journey, distant shores, buffoonish traveller, perplexing customs, marvellously superior and harmonious society. Rawley, the text’s first editor, makes it plain he sees it as a fable advocating reform of society to establish a similar college of science and learning as the House of Salomana in the text, and it certainly seems obvious that at least some of its political intent is much more immediate than More’s. But that’s by no means a whole account of the story.

To me what’s most interesting about pairing these two texts what Bacon’s utopia actually says about More’s. To put it in Marxist terms, Bacon’s Bensalem is a utopia of the *forces of production*, which reveals More’s as being a utopia of the *relations of productions*. Book II of Utopia opens  with concentration on the complete reorganisation of the labour force, eliminating ‘vain and superfluous trades’, the consequence of which is to find that what we *need* for human existence is produced by far fewer hands than one supposes. Morean utopia is thus a utopia of *full employment*, and reflects a belief that goes as far back as Plato that if everyone is employed in useful, productive labour, we see an increase in free time and greatly reduced labour as a consequence of the social aggregate. Of course, in More this change is simply asserted rather than actually represented, but Hythlodaeus is at pains to assert that this is merely a consequence of everybody working rather than in new techniques of work. (In my favourite footnote, the Cambridge editors concede that More solves numerous problems ‘by the simple expedient of not mentioning them.’)

Bacon’s text, by contrast, reveals More’s as turning on an anthropological rather than technological axis, and seeks to turn the question of utopia away from the nature of the subject’s relationship to general economy and instead toward institutional organisation, scientific power and the relationship between knowledge and the state. Any serious study of Bacon’s text concludes that the real engine of Bacon’s perfect society is not the political structure, which for the most part reduplicates in perfectly virtuous form the political structure of contemporary monarchies, but the ‘House of Salomana’, the great scientific institution, which through ingenious application of science develops technology that allows the Bensalemites to perfectly exploit the immense natural resources of the earth; this is true to the point that economic exchange by money is no longer present in Baconian society.

I’d like to go on about the telling economic moments in each text, but don’t really have the space – there’s a particularly fascinating moment in New Atlantis where the newly arrived sailors are simply amazed that no one gets bribed, and try to pay their way into the new society; this is a moment of special poignancy for a Baconian utopia, given the bribery scandal that engulfed him in public office, and the open system of lack and indebtedness that constituted the state economy at the time. The perfect exploitation of natural resources, the unseen monarch existing for the ‘propagation of his subjects’, the perfect munificence transcending imperfect barter and acquisition – all these allow the Bensalemites to trade not in gold, but for ‘light’, that is, knowledge. There’s a lot here that I’m not going to explore fully, about the ways in which this presages the growing importance of instrumentalising scientific discovery for state purposes, or reducing labour, or indeed about the way in which the House of Salomana supplants the formal government of the state as its real animating force, but to my mind this relationship is the crux of Bacon’s utopia, and its most startling political intervention. I’d also point out that this is as much a melancholy text as More’s, coming as it does at a point where the scientific desiderata of Bacon’s reforming programme look unrealisable, at least in part because of the imperfect economic and political system in England at the time. Among the questions posed by the fictional premises of Bacon’s text are, among a number of ‘what ifs’ (e.g., what if lack weren’t the constitutive factor of our economics?), also the question of what and whom the state is for, what it is designed to achieve, and what it *could* look like. It is also (as Ernst Bloch argues is the chief function of utopia) a compensatory, consolatory work, though that doesn’t necessitate the conclusion that the intervention of hope is a form of intellectual defeat.

I think that’s all I need to say on historical English utopias, but I’m acutely aware there’s lots I haven’t mentioned. The development of utopianism over the course of the following century is interesting, especially in the context of religious/political reform and civil war: the most explicitly politically-realised utopian writer would probably be James Harrington (Oceana), but the proposals that came from the Hartlib circle (Plattes, Macaria) and the proliferation of full-employment or theo-political utopias are hugely important – in a sense closer to the development of utopianism on the continent by Campanella or Andreae. There’s a huge concentration in the latter two in the occult symbolism of the city reflecting the heavens, or emblematic dissemination of knowledge, reflecting a preoccupation about the ways in which the ordering of a city can order and perfect its inhabitants. I think that latter brings out something that allows us to distinguish another generic trait of utopia specifically, as opposed to its sometime literary analogues, such as Eden, or the Land of Cockaygne, or Arcadia, all of which propose a similar irenic, perfected space: crucially, all the others are either prelapsarian or simply magical and otherworldly – that is, their plenitude arrives by virtue that they operate according to other logics than the normal human world. Utopias, by contrast, are not lands where roasted partridges magically fly into one’s mouth, but in which the perfectible element of humanity has been perfected by the use of political and social means already at human disposal. Reordering, revolutionising or scientifically enhancing human culture may be at the furthest limits of human social imagination, but it does not require a total break with the possible, as those others do. That, in a nutshell, is the political-imaginative potential of utopian literature.

Before moving on from this overlengthy historical note, there are two final things to address: one is the afterlife of utopianism outside the historical period I specified; the second is the extent to which utopian writing has, or can, influence ‘actual politics’ and whether it was ever intended to. On the latter: I’ll take this up a little more in the next section, but I think this question is partly about what the ‘work of hope’ is, and towards what, exactly, our politics are oriented. As I noted, the lacerating ironies with which the better utopias have been quite consciously laced by their authors make it quite hard to determine their ‘serious’ political intent; they are also works of consolation after political failure, or the closing of the horizons of possibility. Nonetheless, they were also taken up as manifestos, or held to be descriptions of real places; Harrington’s Commonwealth of Oceana was very much a (surprisingly influential) systemic political intervention in Cromwell’s England, very thinly disguised as a fictional utopian adventure, and as a predictive analysis of some of the problems of states after revolutions, eerily prescient. Oceana presents the great literary danger of fully politically-oriented utopias, that they break down into merely paratactical descriptions of modes of social organisation, eliding the literary (hence sympathetic) value of the narrative which works to draw its reader into the act of political imagination; it also raises the questions of *when* we delimit the boundaries for utopian effectiveness. The afterlives of utopias are often more widely influential than their initial reception.

On that, there is also the question of what happens to utopianism in the Enlightenment, after what I’ve been exploring as its golden age: eventually, of course, one of its filiations is science fiction or fantasy, though I am dubious of any straight genealogy there, but in general the intellectual reception of utopia in the 18th century accords with Hume, Rousseau or Diderot, that ‘so perfect a government is not suited to men.’ There certainly were utopians writing and publishing (Island of Content, Burgh’s Account of the Cessares, Northmore’s Memoirs of Planetes, Sarah Scott’s Millenium Hall etc) but the relatively free press in Britain meant that the ideas within them would be seen as best left to the domain of fiction, or the impossible. The case in France is a little different: Robert Darnton’s study of the forbidden literature in pre-revolutionary France shows that, rather than Rousseau’s Social Contract, which was long expected to have headed the samizdat list, the regime was most concerned about the wild spread of Mercier’s fantasy L’An 2440, a fantasy of a future Paris. In the politically repressive atmosphere of France, this form of utopian fantasy shifted from simply a melancholic sigh of wistful impossibility to become a roadmap and inspiration for revolution. (It’s notable that much of the utopian writing in England in this period was oddly conservative, essentially reaffiriming the stability of the post-Restoration settlement; only after the French revolution does utopian writing in England once again become politically daring.)



I’ve laid out what I see as some of the tensions that have characterised utopian writing in its early modern period, but it’s quite hard to look back at historical utopia after the 20th century and not also see some terrifying tendencies in embryo. There’s also a suspicion that dawns after reading a number of utopias that the people in them are really very thin, indistinguishable, unindividuated, possessing little in the way of passion or exception. (And you pause to think: not for nothing did Plato exclude poets from his ideal Republic.) To a certain extent it’s possible to answer this by saying that strains of utopianism allow the question of distinction between individual political subjects to fade out in favour of asking questions about the *city* as a political entity. Campanella, one of the most prominent continental utopians, asserted that ‘the world is a great animal, and we live within it as worms live within us’ – under that rubric, many utopians are asking questions about the animal rather than the worms.

But it’s insufficient as an answer, not least because we are rightly hesitant when notions of the individual fade entirely from view. Still, this is one of the reasons I think that an engagement with utopia – and the way utopia has been theorised in the 20th century, especially – is so crucial, because to cede the notion that collectivity or commonality will always be a byword for totalitarianism is to fall into the territory of the ‘individualist’ Ayn Rand-reading right. It is worth meeting these ideas head on: John Carey states the case implicitly in his selection of utopias edited for Faber, which includes many of those later pieces that display a fascination with public hygiene of eugenics as tools for building an ideal society, such as B.F. Skinner’s dilation on behavioural conditioning in Walden Two or Corbett’s New Amazonia, which excludes any who have the ‘slightest trace of disease’. This is not simply a contingent fact of utopianism within a particular period: Plato also denies medical treatment to the sickly or dissolute, and More’s book contains an extensive fantasy about genocide against the ‘filthy’ and belligerent ‘Venalians’, who are thin ciphers for the Swiss. Carey rarely edits a book without polemical intent, and he includes a section from Mein Kampf as the ‘culmination of the utopian tradition that starts with Plato.’ (The Republic being the most widely-read work of political theory in the Third Reich.)

One may certainly quibble with the heuristic by which Carey judges for inclusion within his selection, which is so broad as to be almost meaningless, but it’s certainly the case that fantasies of an ideal society have often sat side-by-side with sickly notions of racial, moral, or social purity; as Carey puts it, they share the desire ‘to a greater or lesser extent, to eliminate real people’. I think this is a substantial problem; it’s also the case that the flourishing of classical utopianism is coeval with the first blossomings of the bureaucratic state, that in many utopias perfectibility is achieved by the full and total functioning of an inhuman bureaucratic system that would give even Foucault nightmares. Carey’s argument, in essence, runs something like this: the utopian propensity necessarily erases the distinction between individuals as human subjects and constrains the freedom to act (especially, to act erroneously), subjugating populations to the control of a centrally planning intellect in service of a particular idea about how humans should live together and flourish. In service of that ideal (which may be as much theological, or racial, or about virtuous production, or efficiency) the state apparatus serves to exclude harmful or threatening elements; the violence with which it does this is visible to a greater or lesser extent, but the establishing force of the state is always violent, and that violence is always held in reserve for deployment at any point in which the order of the state is threatened. What is particularly pernicious about this is that violence against a particular category of people is seen as simply a necessity in establishing and maintaining the virtue and stability of utopian society. Utopia, hence concentration camps. Utopia, hence gulags.

As it stands, I can’t find anything much wrong with Carey’s critique, save that it attributes to a particular strand in western political imagination faults that I’d suggest lie far more deeply at the root of political thinking about the state and what it does, or what it’s for: after all, to construct his very broad history of utopia he has broadened the category as to be almost meaningless, and to include pretty much any imaginative exploration of what politics might look like. In fact, most anarchists (or most left-wing critics of the state) would recognise the implicit criticism of structural violence, either more or less submerged, as necessary in the sustenance of the imagined state. What emerges from Carey is an impetus to think about the relationship between violence and sovereignty, the monopoly on ‘just’ violence (a preoccupation of More’s time and ours being the notion of a ‘just’ war), and in what body, precisely, the power of violence is legitimately invested, and how it is extended or distributed among the body of the state. If there is a wider question here, it is to do with what we might call the post-Hobbesian consensus, the degree to which political theory after Hobbes has operated and positioned itself within his social anthropology – but that’s a question that I’ll suspend, because it needs greater, lengthier examination in a far longer project.

So what does this leave us to theorise utopia with? I don’t think we can take Carey seriously and claim to surgically remove particular strands within utopianism in order that it accords with the kind of place we’d most like to live, or how we suspect human beings should flourish if they were free of trauma, lack or violent interference. Partly, of course, because there are very few utopias lacking some kind of horrific brutalism (Fourier’s, for instance, sets the Jews to work on the farms), but partly because the critique is that the totalising act of political imagination tends towards totalitarianism, that the transition to and maintenance of utopia requires systemic violence, and that this is inescapable. So we have to ask some very serious questions about the political imagination, and the structures and structuring forces of social desire – one of the things helpful here is a kind of exegesis of the dominating concerns of utopian writers over time, and the way their preoccupation reflects their interaction with state power at the time, the nature of proposed social reform (i.e., against whom or what is violence directed?), and how it plays with the realm of the previously unthinkable. (Claeys contrasts the incendiary nature of utopia in France with their role in Britain as expanding the limits of the politically thinkable, concluding in a rather tendentious assertion that they paved the way for a welfare-oriented form of liberal democracy – a conclusion I disagree with, but the logic of which is worth exploring.)

To my mind, the central issue here is that the imaginative exercise of utopian writing has found itself grasping at the formal limits of its generic category: that is, it proposes and seeks to describe an ideal political entity recognisable to contemporaries, but removing the social ills apparent at its time of writing. Given that the fundamental unit of political thinking has been the sovereign state, our historical utopians have founding themselves thinking with, and through, that category; however, it is also increasingly apparent that the history of the twentieth century highlights the indissoluble problems of state centralisation and violence. Is there a mode of utopia outside of the propositional? Would a solution to centralised power be ‘utopia from below’?

Certainly the terrain of utopia has been a fertile one for Marxist thinking over the course of the twentieth century, despite Marx’s nominal opposition to what he called ‘utopian socialism’ (which has less to do with the kind of utopianism we’re discussing here, but may enter on my thinking in the next section.) The standard touchstone for Marxist utopianism is, of course, Ernst Bloch, who is sometimes a tremendously difficult thinker to understand – though I’d argue that this is because Bloch’s attempts to think utopia are attempts to grapple with these very issues, and to rethink it in light of contemporary history as well as a complex of ideas to do with belatedness, hope and redemption. But there are numerous other engagements with the topic, some less obvious than others. The two that I find most important are Adorno and Jameson, and it is no coincidence that they are both critics who are meticulously conscious of the political dimensions of literature or art without making them merely manifestos or diagnoses of a historical condition. Before turning explicitly to those thinkers, it’s also worth looking at Marcuse’s 1967 lecture ‘The End of Utopia’.

Marcuse’s lecture is, like many documents from that time, a bit depressing to look back on. It reflects the optimism and fervour of its period in arguing that instead of consigning ‘utopia’ as a sneering word for the impossible, we can talk of an ‘end’ to utopia because we have to hand, finally, both the technical and intellectual resources necessary for its realisation – and all that stands in the way of realisation is the current organisation of the forces of production. If the optimism of that prognosis seems extravagant, it is worth thinking about the utopian *criterion of negation* running through the lecture. Marcuse concludes:

“Marxism must risk defining freedom in such a way that people become conscious of and recognize it as something that is nowhere already in existence. And precisely because the so-called utopian possibilities are not at all utopian but rather the determinate socio-historical negation of what exists, a very real and very pragmatic opposition is required of us if we are to make ourselves and others conscious of these possibilities and the forces that hinder and deny them.”

If we are less likely now to think that we can talk of an end to utopia (by its realisation) as being within our sights, then we might also start to think about what the ‘ends’ (that is, the aims and effects) of utopia might be in our present time. (Marcuse: ‘an opposition is required that is free of all illusion but also of all defeatism…’) This negating mode is the form of utopia important to Jameson and Adorno, and is to my mind the necessary first step in dealing with the problems of the propositional model.

I should point out that negative utopia isn’t dystopianism (about which I have said little here, but is interesting in its own right, and for different reasons) nor is it strictly about conceiving a propositional model that escapes the conditions in which it is written, or that collapses under its own totalising force. It’s risky to summarise thinkers like Adorno or Jameson, but an almost adequate one might read: for Adorno, art is negative utopia in its ability to expose the suffering of the present and (importantly) not to offer it a *false* optimism in the possibility of patching up the already-broken present; for Jameson (whose concentration, in Archeologies of the Future, is often on science fiction) the political dimension of utopianism lies in the attempt to break with present conditions, a break which is both bound to fail but also to draw our attention to the limitations of the present, in our inability to imagine a future.

Klee, Angelus Novus

This may seem far from Marxism or communism, but to my mind the way in which these ideas preoccupy Marxist thinkers for much of the twentieth century is because communism is posed as a negating movement in relation to all existing institutions, but also one that refuses the propositional mode of the future state – not least because the question of ‘the state’ and its future existence is never clearly settled for Marx. For him, the formal category of historical continuity is not the state, or the nation, but the proletariat itself, hence the famous statement in The German Ideology that:

“Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.”

That final sentence is crucial to understanding the meaning here, and it also allows us to ask wider questions raised by utopia, the political imagination and the question of the future. It is necessary for us to read Benjamin’s famous image of the angel of history in light of that sentence, I believe – indeed, all of the Theses on the Philosophy of History – but perhaps one of the more telling, on the matter of utopia, is the realisation emerging in the twelfth thesis, that ‘…not man or men but the struggling, oppressed class itself is the depository of historical knowledge.’ The short paragraph is a critique of the pacifying role of social democracy in Germany, asserting that the greatest strength of the working class, and what moves it to revolutionary fervour, is ‘the image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren.’ You may or may not believe that assertion, but its point is that the meliorist projection of a slightly improved future operating in the conditions and structures of the present is sold to the working class to preserve those very structures – and maintained by the precarious sense that, if it were to vanish, things could only get worse for your children.

The argument for negative utopia is that the totality of its disjuncture from the present refocuses the contingent, limited and unjust nature of existing institutions, without projecting a sticky-sweet sense that everything will be OK; indeed it should place greater pressure on the present. Now, though this is by no means a complete theorising of utopia, I want to move on, but will note a brief desideratum for a theoretical engagement with negative utopia. Obviously, the most prominent question is whether the propositional mode is entirely lost to us, or what might emerge from a serious engagement with negative utopia. For me, there is an obvious question about the relationships between utopia, history and time which underpins a great deal of Marxist and contemporary critical thought: its germ is in Adorno’s famous passage about the contemplation of all things from the perspective of redemption at the end of Minima Moralia, also Benjamin’s Theses, and found in the various thinkers indebted to them, especially Agamben and, perhaps surprisingly, in Foucault. Some of it might be touched upon in Bloch’s invocation on Brecht to explain utopia: ‘Something is Missing.’ I hate to seem deliberately tantalising, but the ramifications of that passage will have to be left to another, longer piece of writing.


The reason I’ve written to you at length is not because I think your current expedition is terribly important, but because the question of the political imagination is at the centre of practical political questions about organising. In its crassest form the dilemma of political imagination is this: ‘oh well, it’s not like you have any solid ideas about anything better!’ or, if one presents any concrete idea, then accusations of hidebound dogmatising and ignorance of changing historical conditions proliferate. Justly so. It’s difficult to escape rattling forth between those two exchanges; we might plot one way of doing so partly by rereading Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire (‘…here the content goes beyond the phrase’ etc.) but obviously that’s not going to be enough. One of the less historically hardy of Marxist dogmas has been that the immanence of the communist future in the present proletariat will work as the guarantor of the post-revolutionary communist transition. Whether or not one believes in the inevitability of communism, what we can be sure of is that the options of Leninism or Stalinism, in short the establishment of a kind of communism allied to the bureaucratic state, leads to a world of nightmares. (In view of the contingent and rickety nature of human economic and political history, however, it should be clear that the real starry-eyed dreamers are those who believe present conditions will continue forever, and that change is impossible.) The reason I am spending time on this is that it is my suspicion that the orientation of negative utopianism offers some potential for engaging with this impasse; that the very negativity of ou-topos, i.e., not existing, not even possibly existing, forces a re-engagement with the political structures of the present.

But it strikes me this expedition is, in fact, not very utopian in its conception, or that if it is so, it is so only in the weakly propositional sense that reflects any number of dogmas about what a political structure or a state is, or could be. It is perhaps typical of a world in which our political horizons have narrowed so precipitously that the central question that animates so many of the respondents on the website of the project are about ‘starting over again’ and indeed that so many of the initial ‘citizens’ are tourism managers, CEOs, or celebrities. But the political question of creation of a state *ex nihilo* is a naive one, since we know the state as a historical political phenomenon did not come to exist this way, and the question for us is surely more about what the forces and institutions are that prevent *change* to the state as it exists, what interests they seek to entrench and priorities. I am, of course, notoriously grouchy about these projects, but does this not reflect the worst instincts of political philosophers, which is to privilege the notion of political structures as ideal experiments bearing little or no relation to their material reality? Less obscurely, my point is partly that there are obvious political considerations to this project (the ‘cultural olympiad’ as funding source, its brand-conscious presentation, the demography of the team) that are hopefully pressing on your mind – but perhaps more forcefully, the very conditioning of the discussion both by those forces and the propositional model I described above suggests you’re likely to run into some problems. Anyway, I hope these things are on your mind.

Rather than fulminate at the project, though, I thought it might be more useful to reflect on the contemporary anarchist response to the Marxian impasse I set out above. This is, I think, important. Briefly, it would be possible to respond to your expedition simply by saying that the apparatus already set up around it serves to condition its reception, especially the ‘become a citizen’ stuff online. A truly radical rethinking of sovereignty, power, people must, to my mind, jettison all beliefs about the necessity of particular trappings of political systems and seek instead their *function*: i.e., where they came from, what they’re used for. But this is as true for thinking about the doctrines of Lenin or failures of Marx to engage the question of the future and what he calls ‘prehistory.’ Brecht/Bloch again: ‘Something is Missing.’ In part, I suspect this is a question about the extension in time of political activity and antagonistic relationships between the working class and power, in whatever form; as has been the case throughout this piece, the question of *time* jangles about us continually. But I do not believe it is possible to answer that question while believing oneself to be thinking in an unconditioned space – this is why the number of questions on the Nowhereisland website about ‘starting over’ or ‘beginning again’ seem to me so dangerous, precisely because it is not possible to think political culture ex nihilo.

To my mind, the question of utopia (especially in its guise as negative utopia) weighs very heavily on the political decision-making of the far left, and especially the solution of ‘prefigurative politics’, that model of political practice that influences much of the anarchist and autonomist current in the present day. Graeber taxonomises anarchism as an ‘ethics of revolutionary practice’, and while I like this definition, I do think it has some limitations and problems – above all because holding it up as a solution to the impasse allows us to elide some important political questions, indeed allows many self-styled ‘radicals’ to fall back on solutions that are mere stopgaps or simply intensified forms of the logic of liberalism or reformism. The real question is ‘what does a prefigurative politics prefigure?’ and its appendant issues – I just wanted to pose that question here, especially as it is one I will be writing some explorations of in the next few weeks. Still, it seems to me that prefiguration (even with all its attendant difficulties in execution and, especially, imperfections) is the consequent *next step* from the impulse of negative utopia, and possibly the only one that doesn’t fall into the various traps I’ve outlined here. Is this a return to an idea of ‘utopia from below’? Maybe. I still think it’s too pat, too easy a phrase; tends too much to the model of retreat from confrontation with capital, the desire to organise only in its margins, to live off its cracks and in its lacunae. But what I hope this lengthy note has helped lay out is that the question of utopia is not confined to ‘artists’, nor is it simply a note of consolatory hope, idle and useless in its way, but is for us now at the centre of questions about how we organise, and what we organise for.

Aftermath: The New Normal

We are in the phase of the new normal. Scarcely a week after widespread rioting, it’s easy to become overfed on opinion or anecdote, on the careful attempts to position the riots as the consequence of this-or-that policy, or social ill, or as ways – perhaps the only way left – of lodging grievance. Above all, however, the news-cycles veer back towards their standard groove, having wobbled inadequately in attempting to comprehend an event unmediated by press releases and PR statements, substituting for any understanding of those on the streets a vaguely ludicrous selection of ‘community leaders’, MPs and concerned white people. (The pressure of the 24 hour news cycle being what it is, unfortunate ruptures do occur, never to be replayed.)

While you ask yourself if you’ve ever met a ‘community leader’, and precisely how one attains so vaunted a position, our cameras refocus on the overstuffed prime minister rehearsing the public order playbook with all the moral conviction of a moldering fish; her majesty’s loyal opposition, in the meantime, twitches its adenoidal clichés, offering almost indistinguishable frowns and grimaces, softened only by the light drag of an election-conscious social concern. Second time as farce, perhaps, were it not for the sobering reality that a caffeine-crazed judiciary, gavel-bashing through the small hours, is belching out sentences so bleak and repressive as to make Draco of Athens unquiet in his grave. Swear at a police officer? TEN WEEKS! Take some bottled water? SIX MONTHS! Post on Facebook? FOUR YEARS!

The less gutsy of dystopian novelists might pause at this point, wondering if so precipitous a descent might stretch even the preternaturally elastic credulity of devotees of their genre; might pause, too, to wonder, was this really imaginable two weeks ago? A month? This is the paradox-ridden condition of the new normal: a widespread form of reality management continually suggesting that things remain exactly as they were a month ago, while also presenting a new state of alarm, of emergency or of diffuse anxiety which remains alongside and persists with the ‘normal’, thus apparently justifying the slowly-choking grip of the judiciary or the revanchist moralism of the government.

Imaginable? Maybe. The people currently being conveyor-belted into the cells are being convicted by virtue not of their actions, but because of the geographical context of those actions, making them effectively responsible for everything happening around them by a twist of legal logic so arcane as to be faintly ridiculous. But predictable: an extension of the legal manoeuvres that saw students sent to jail for throwing a couple of sticks in the presence of other people. Partly predictable, perhaps, but reaching increasingly deranged, grotesque proportions. Less predictable, perhaps, was the zombie revenant of Enoch Powell, marching again across the TV screen; the legion of half-closeted half-fascists taking the opportunity to wring their hands about Starkey’s confrontational approach and then ooze that, well, some of the issues he raises…

The new normal: wherein you can have the glass and dazzle of the Olympics, but be wary that their tin smiles and hollow luxury are now so precarious that their only guarantor is an ever more frenzied and powerful state; wherein the condition of even a tense and sickly order is a collective amnesia about police murder; wherein temporary events like riots are used to underwrite ever more permanent powers, like curfew, or arbitrary detention, or the broadening of stop-and-search. Here, in the phase of its anxious establishment as the new normal its authoritarian contours are obvious, terrifying to us, each day pummeling us with new messages about natural criminality, about dangerous forms of collectivity, with police bristling out of every corner, and unconcealed, gloating revenge plastered on the front pages of every newspaper: what happens when we stop noticing?


Looked at one way, cities are huge systems of redundancies, vastly parallel systems which route around any minor annoyance or trivial blockage; this is especially true in London, where there is always an elsewhere. This is visible most obviously in moments of popular unrest, where three streets away from lines of armoured police batoning dissenters, chain stores go about their business undisturbed; it accounts for the momentary nausea of stepping from a brutal situation into a street in which commerce continues mostly unabated and undisturbed; likewise, it is the reason for the broad, straight avenues and boulevards which allow for the easy roll-out of force around political centres. It accounts, too, for the immediate responses of MPs and local officials, which is to suggest that the very worst of the trouble in an area is usually the responsibility of organised or criminal elements from elsewhere, and certainly not those without a voice or any other recourse within their own area. One thing the widespread, city-wide rioting last Monday did was to torpedo that excuse: there wasn’t really any elsewhere left for them to come from.

But there are other maps of cities, too. There is the inconvenient map that plots deprivation indices over the rioting flashpoints, for instance. That alone doesn’t account for the unrest. One might also wonder how the collective memory of police murder and unaccountability maps over the unrest, what plotting instances of deaths in police custody might look like, for instance. But that too is not quite an explanation. Owen Hatherley has pointed out very clearly that there is an urban geography at work in London that, looked at with clear eyes, is an untethered, insane way to organise a city. Such geographies don’t exist simply on the page, but structure the way that people live in cities, the areas that they don’t look at, or avoid, or which simply unhappen for them. Nowhere was this more obvious than on Sky News on the evening of rioting in Clapham, where a prosperous, middle-class white man, baffled, simply mouthed at the camera that it was a nice area to live in, unaware of where deprivation or poverty could be found locally, presumably blind to the estates and high-rises at the end of his road.

Clapham is a case in point: an area much-gentrified, and indeed now quite swish, without having wiped away the less prosperous families who once lived there; the same process of gentrification is in place, though variously less advanced, in many of the areas that erupted in the secondary waves of riots. From Clapham, too, the morning after, came the endless photos of the smug, homogeneous army of well-meaning morons with brooms, providing endless fodder for a panoply of reactionary articles about the stiff upper lip, mucking-in, and, worst of all, the ‘Blitz spirit’. (Presumably a tacit admission that this is a war situation; a war in which, if you find yourself suddenly with Boris, Dave and their host of ex-Bullingdon mates, you might wonder if you’re on the right side.) The other side to this is not to argue that burnt-out buildings and broken shop-fronts are a pleasant sight, but instead to ask questions about what compelled people to travel to Clapham, in particular? What is it about an almost-exclusively white class of conscientious liberal activists that impels them to de dismayed by the sight of broken and looted businesses, and act on that above all else; what is it about the way their urban life is structured that they may live briefly and transiently in one-or-another area of a city for perhaps a year or two at a time, thus having to construct a deliberate, symbolic cleanup operation online?

That aside, there are other flows at work in a city, some more telling here. As some of us pointed out on a radio show shortly after the riots, much of the looting took place in retail parks, some of the most unpleasant extrusions on inner-city environments, because they are very rarely intended for anyone who lives there. They are large sheds containing luxury goods (often unaffordable to many in the local area), laid out around a vast car park: that is, they are destinations to which people drive, rather than walk, they are conduits of capital that simply escapes from the area in which it is exchanged. Sometimes they may provide a few jobs to people in the area, but even then, there’s little guarantee of local employment, and people often travel to them to work. Money flows through, but does not stay in, the area it’s expended.

One of the most telling ways to map a city, then, is in terms of capital flow. The great pioneer of radical cartographic analyses like this was Bill Bunge, whose maps of Detroit demonstrate how clearly maps are not simply neutral descriptors, but, depending on what they map, and how they chart, can become clear exposés and indictments of the secret and hidden movements of a city:

What might mapping London like this reveal? In a sense, it’s salutary that Bunge’s great cartographic project was Detroit: a city collapsing in on itself after the decline of its great industrial heritage. London is not Detroit: its historical and economic conditions are different. But it is a city whose urban geography is rapidly changing, having been loosed from the physical and geographical prerequisites of its past: the decline of the docks, and the vanishing of light industry, mean that the Rotherhithe where my grandfather found his first job looks very different today compared with the 1930s, overlaid with regeneration and new conversions, but without wiping away the different social and economic strata that preceded it. It is often the proud delusion of writers who live in London that it will decay from the top down, that it will burn in some kind of conflagration, but more unsettling, perhaps unnoticed, it might just be that we are drowning.


This may seem far from the riots we saw erupting in London, but the truth is that to speak about ‘causes’ of riots is only ever to speak about proximate causes. The shooting of Mark Duggan was a cause, but a proximate one: hundreds of the young people on those streets have dozens of stories each about police intimidation, power-tripping and injustice; unemployment, the cuts, the ever more abundant hypocrisy from the wealthy and privileged, causes, yes, but proximate ones. There were thousands of different, small causes, many from the same sources, but many from others. It is facile and crass in the extreme to draw comparisons between the ‘real’ looters, who get away with a slap on the wrist, even if it is true – because it is at best a slow-moving mimic of an explanation. Throwing a banker into jail alleviates no problem at all.

There is a deep conflict that has been visible in the riots over who the city belongs to, what people are entitled to do with it. It’s hard for me not to be reminded, by the raft of powers, harsh sentences and lust for punishment, of the punitive legislation of the 18th century. Many commentators have dilated upon the 1714 Riot Act and its establishment of offences against the King’s Peace, passed a few years after the religiously-motivated Sacehverell riots. Perhaps more interesting in these times is the ‘Black Act’ that followed it in 1723 (9 George I c.22), which created fifty new capital offences – becoming two hundred, when stretched. The law imposed a sentence of death for innumerable ‘offences’, such as poaching deer and fish, cutting down young trees, appearing hooded or with face blackened in any forest or chase, especially the king’s forests and many more. It was named after the Waltham Blacks, poachers with blackened and covered face. Central to the conflict was, in large part, an attempt by the Whiggish ascendancy to take more money out of the forests, and a conflict between the habitual users of the common, or wild spaces of the forest, and those who sought to render, by force of law, wild animals private game. The capital powers afforded by the Black Act were, through expansive legal interpretation, equally aggressively used to repress dissenting opinion, or exact retribution for damage to private property. Are we in an analogous situation today? After all, there’s very little in the way of ‘the common’ left in spatial, economic or geographical terms, but we are certainly seeing the eruptions of a conflict over who has the right to be in and use the city, and the political disjunctions that arise from that question, the legal crackdowns that follow such ‘emergencies’, suggest looking sharply at the brutality of the past to see where we’re heading now.

E.P. Thompson’s study of the Black Act (Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act, New York, Pantheon Books, 1975) demonstrates how rapidly the law’s emergency provisions generalised out of a set of specific conditions to become a wide penal armament, used to generate new capital offences, executing turnpike rioters because they had disguised their faces. Such disguises were often deliberate, but so broad was the repressive power of the law that even having a dirty face, or, ludicrously, wearing your hair close-cropped, unpowdered and without a wig were held to be acts of disguise. It should also be telling that in prosecution, cases were moved from local Assizes to the King’s Bench, where the wavering sympathies of local juries could easily be disposed with. Most telling of all, however, is how the usefulness of the law transcended the ‘emergency’ conditions under which it was passed; how very rapidly its temporary powers became permanent tools, restructuring the very notions of crime and property that had existed beforehand (pp.207-12)

With the murmuring of curfew powers, water-cannon and baton rounds, the shedding of tears over ‘sheer criminality’, the imputation of moral injury to iPods and flatscreen televisions, the conjuring of hooded monsters, feral and subhuman, are we heading for a similar legal juncture? Maybe. The parallels are certainly disturbing, even as far as the insistence that the contestation over property, possession and public space is not a ‘political’ question, because the arguments don’t come with static crowds chanting slogans, or the voices and values aren’t immediately recognisable to us. Such powers are never temporary. We would do well to listen more clearly to those voices, hear the roots of those conflicts, resist the urge to trudge along, unresisting and docile under the grim, unblinking eye of the ‘new normal’.

Changed, changed utterly

Dan Hancox: Kettled Youth

The very best kinds of journalism, which are rare and difficult to accomplish, are not those which seek to present a spurious, pseudo-objective ‘balance’, but which dwell in the heart of their subject matter, overturn orthodoxies, present an event from its inside. By that definition, Dan Hancox’s new pamphlet, Kettled Youth, is very good journalism indeed. In the pursuit of such ends it can be easy to traduce or simplify one’s subjects, or cede to the tabloid instinct for pruriency, or search the ‘telling’ detail confirming a reader’s prejudices; that Hancox avoids doing so on a subject so extensively written-about as the largely youth-centred uprisings and ‘student movement’ of the end of last year is laudable, that he chooses to pursue instead an understanding of a difficult, politically complex and defining moment in the beginning of the anti-austerity struggle makes the piece crucial reading.

It is sometimes a little difficult to remember how different the political landscape looked in Britain before the occupation of Millbank in November of last year. Certainly, student politics – a subject ripe for satire at the best of times – seemed largely to consist of drab bureaucrats-in-training seeking to undercut each other on who could deliver the most alcohol, or the closest links to banks or consultancies, or the most watery absence of political principle imaginable. Where there were centres of vitality and energy, they seemed to lie primarily with identity campaigns: LGBT, women or black students being most inclined to dissent from the prevailing complacency surrounding them, given they were more likely to see the sharp end of it. It might well, indeed, be true that those struggles provide a convenient and obvious locus from which to broaden into a wider social understanding of what structures misogyny, homophobia or racism; that, certainly, has always been one of my explicit aims in involvement in LGBT identity politics. However, even those campaigns were – and always have been – subject to an insidious form of recuperation, reaching half-accommodations and compromises with power, or being bought off by the promise of lucrative rewards for complicity (women in the boardroom and gays in banking becoming a warped synonym for ‘success’), not to mention the political recuperation of such struggles as training grounds for future MPs, civil servants or thinktank grandees, where they can blow off their radical steam for a few years without changing very much.

It has become standard to say that Millbank changed that. It did and it didn’t: the sclerotic grip of mediocrity remains around the throat of most electoral student politics, and, having chosen to amble in irrelevance alongside unprecedented levels of student self-organisation, the youth wings of political parties remain more or less the same. But in the buildup to Millbank and afterwards, the most remarkable feature of the movement was that it interested and spoke to students and young people who were not within the normal constituency of youth politics. The truism is to argue that this is a rejoinder to critics who declare the young apathetic or without politics; certainly, anyone who speaks or works with the young in even the most ancillary of ways will recognise that they regularly express political views, though often with so rigorously realistic an understanding of Westminster that they may sound uncomfortable to those within the mainstream political machine. What was, in fact, remarkable was not that people possessed these views, but that they put them into so forceful and inspiring an action.

To act on political views both requires and creates certain conditions: anger is one of the prerequisites, but so is an awareness of the instability and artificiality of the political situation; the very best of such actions also inaugurate a new condition, impel further resistance, lend inspiration to others. Very briefly, it might be worth thinking about that first part: what was it that tipped agreement about the government’s hypocrisy and rampant fetish for the market over into action? What made people come on to the street, possess the courage to push through police lines, break glass, enter the building? You might point to several things. Most defences of such actions argue that they are born of an awareness that the act of demonstration is easily ignored by those in power, that the defining political memory for many marching that day is of the Labour government ignoring the million people marching in opposition to the Iraq war. Yet it strikes me that other conditions were crucial in transforming belief into action: the banking crisis of 2008 and the subsequent servile kow-towing to bankers’ demands, the glut of obscene bonuses and fiscal prestidigitation that followed laid out in very clear, sharp terms what the priorities of the state were. It is hard not to make the obvious connection, displayed on placards everywhere on demonstrations, that austerity measures were simply a reflection of those priorities, which placed the demands of a small, wealthy, connected elite, above the demands of the people. Equally, a minority government pursuing radical austerity measures, with the complicity of a party deemed in popular opinion to be ‘nicer’ but tacitly sharing a very similar economic agenda, served only to underscore those priorities and stimulate the dissatisfaction with a seemingly rigged political system. In the face of a future not worth the name, there is a choice of despair or action, and a great influence on that choice is whether the world as currently constituted seems immutable or whether, in fact, the whole edifice looks rickety and contingent. In a way that seemed unimaginable even five years ago, it looks increasingly the latter; those are conditions in which political action on a large scale blossoms. (Nor are they going away any time soon: the recent media-political scandal over phone-hacking and the cynicism of European economic manoeuvring certainly suggest otherwise.)

Such an excursus on Millbank is necessary, I think, to understand the phenomenon Hancox addresses in Kettled Youth, an account tightly focused through the lens of the barbaric and brutal police action in Parliament Square and Westminster Bridge in December last year. Where Millbank took the police and government – and indeed, us – by surprise, they were determined to contain and neutralise any disruption on the day of the fees vote itself. Hancox is acutely aware of the role of kettling as a tactic that extends beyond physical, logistical containment, acting as a crude, physical way of dissuading those inside it from ever returning to the streets in dissent. He is also raises doubts about its effectiveness in doing so, given the solidarity it evokes in those contained, the determination expressed by many to return, and the jarring, radicalising effect of physical containment. It should be apparent, also, that the physical kettle in many ways expresses the logic structuring the police approach to protest: the endless trawling of proliferating CCTV images, the absurdly overblown briefings about ‘violence’, the subsequent pre-emptive arrests and raids prior to the royal wedding. The insistence of the political class in reading these as the acts of ‘feral thugs’ or a destructive minority is equally an act of intellectual sleight-of-hand, designed to contain protesters as removed and distinct from civil society; in fact, what can be said about Millbank, Parliament Square and the actions of March 26th is that for the first time in a very long time, they weren’t the solely the domain of a cadre of experienced, organised activists, but instead involved and spoke to a broad cross-section of people, many of whom found themselves involved for the first time. It’s no surprise that as a consequence the political class has tried to reinscribe them as the actions of a ‘despicable’ and alien minority, but even in trying to do so concede that they present a very real threat, and reveal a poorly-concealed anxiety about the popularity of such dissent.

That they have failed to quite bring out the fear and hatred they desire as a reaction to protest has partly been due to the diminishing ability of police and government to determine what images and footage reach the media, with a concomitant upswing in the rise of camera-phone footage, social media dissemination and internet organisation. Hancox’s pamphlet recognises the importance of these means in bringing so many people on to the streets and combating disinformation campaigns, as well as containing numerous links to Youtube video footage, which has been crucial in establishing the reality of events in the face of a somnolent media machine; presumably the decision to publish digitally was in part a nod to this, there is also an excellent section on quite what the significance of the battle to control representation of reality means. Yet he is also right, I think, to avoid the temptation to write a panegyric to the wonders of the internet, the tendency to ascribe a total novelty and implicit egalitarianism in its modes of engagement. Though there is certainly a crucial dynamic between digital organising and propagandising, their usefulness would be minuscule without the rise of a new political awareness. (Hancox: ‘The smashing of the glass in Millbank tower marked the first shattering of capitalist realism, and the forging of a new mind-phase for a generation of protesters.’) What is that awareness? It is, in part, an awareness of just how much is at stake:

…the worst thing you can say about this government is not that they threaten ‘a throwback to the eighties’ or a ‘return to Thatcherism’. This is less a revival of the 1980s than a revival of the 1880s: a return to pre-suffrage plutocracy – the wealthy propped up by toothless, unaccountable parliamentary institutions, nobbled trade unions, and a butchered welfare state, with charities and philanthropists asked to rescue as many of the poor and destitute as they can. … What we are seeing now is the final phase of a Plutocratic Restoration, the re-establishment of Victorian wealth and power inequalities, after the relatively brief social democratic interregnum when we began to build a more equal society.

This is what is fundamental: a realisation that the victories gained in establishing a more just situation were never permanent, always inconvenient and more under threat than we could have imagined. The education issue foregrounds many of glaring contradictions of the cloak of ‘fairness’ or ‘necessity’ under which the government seeks to sneak in its agenda: it is a permanent restructuring in order to deal with a half-fictional temporary problem, and one which rests on a preposterous crazed faith in some very shaky economic creeds; it is sold to the public on the basis of hazy promises of future ‘fairness’, or by appealing to the parsimonious, jealous suspicion that someone, somewhere might be getting something for free, or, most of all, by insistently reconfiguring every human interaction as one of market exchange. The austerity agenda has very little to do with concern over justice, or fairness, but is at its heart, as John Lanchester put it:

The austerity is supposed to be a consequence of us all having had it a little bit too easy (this is an attitude which is only very gently implied in public, but it’s there, and in private it is sometimes spelled out). But the thing is, most of us don’t feel we did have it particularly easy. When you combine that with the fact that we have so little real agency in our economic lives, we tend to feel we don’t deserve much of the blame.

The explosive potential of the realisation that this is the private opinion of our nominal masters is what we saw burgeoning on the streets and in the determination of student and UKUncut activists to refuse to let this obscene realisation – that they think what little they condescend to give us is already too much – slip back beneath the folds of political culture. It is a startling, shocking, sometimes frightening awareness to hold on to, but one that impels change. Inside the kettle, in front of the police lines, we saw just how dangerous, how threatening a realisation it is to have.


There is too much in Hancox’s essay to dilate upon here, but much worthy of reflection. One thing that strikes me the connection between the chosen lens of analysis – the largely young, contained and violently-treated demonstrators in Parliament Square – and the passionate sense of hope and engagement that suffuses the essay. I am certain that Hancox, like me, drew an immense, revitalising sense of hope from participation in those demonstrations, and that sense suffuses the essay. This is what I mean when I argue that the best kind of journalism refuses the false reflexivity that drains writing of emotional or political attachment to a cause in the service of a hand-wringing ‘balance’: no account from inside the kettle could read otherwise and still be true to the experience. Many of us who had secretly made concessions to the diminishing possibility of radical responses to the neoliberal onslaught will recognise that sentiment:

Idealism always gets corrupted, leaderlessness never lasts, bonapartism will always triumph, cry the cynics – well, maybe: but I’ve lost patience with cynicism. Protest works, and it’s addictive, and it radicalises, and it’s transformative.

The choice to centre the essay around the moment of the kettle, what went into it, what came out of it, what was transformed in its crucible, necessarily brackets some of the other distinctive features and concerns about the disparate and diversely understood youth movement: the modes of formal organisation (the ‘consensus’ process) and the reflected dissatisfaction with orthodox vehicles for change, the diverse class composition of protesters, the stumbling interactions with the media, the inspiring, flawed, but above all passionately engaged student occupations, the question of the involvement of young people in the coming, wider anti-austerity struggles. Hancox’s choice to focus on the kettle is because it is a potent and timely symbol which has only partly been decoded: what is most impressive is the defiant insistence on reclaiming the kettled space, refusing to reduce it to a simple litany of brutalisations, or portray those inside it as simply kids whose innocence precedes and eclipses their intense, intelligent, political anger.

Writing like this is retrospective, and as such differs substantially from the analyses and responses emanating from the movement in the heat of the moment, collected in the Fight Back! Reader, as it serves to illuminate the causes and potentials that may not have been immediately obvious in the spate of rapidly-produced journalistic commentary during that time; equally, I suspect, and hope, it presages some longer reflections from other participants in the movement, too. We are in urgent need of such reflections, especially because occasionally in this piece one sees other avenues of thought that urge opening up: for instance, the psychology of debt as a part of subject-formation, or what the much-defended ‘prefigurative politics’ of either the kettle or indeed the occupations prefigure precisely. To me the most telling of these avenues is the extent to which the psychological fact of kettling, the media and political response and the avenues of organisation pursued by the student movement put them in conflict not simply with the policy choices of the government, but the very structure of the state itself; this is most obvious when Hancox talks about the ‘lengths the state will go to’ to protect the rich. What this instinctively-realised politics means – that it is not just those in government, but the apparatus of the state itself that’s complicit in silencing dissent – needs to be explored, especially by those holding anarchist views.

Kettled Youth, then: not simply a description of something that happened, but a phrase expressing the political conditions we find ourselves in. It’s a timely essay, both for those who have been involved and those who want to understand some of what was actually going on in those protests. I can’t read its conclusions as anything other than a call to arms rather than a mourning over loss. And that makes me very, very hopeful.


No one who was there will forget it. In the sway and passage of argument over precisely what Parliament Square signified, however, our memories may become too easily slicked, too triumphalist, or too despairing, mindful only of the brutality or of the rage and unexpected solidarity of that day. Journalists scuttled frantically to divine its significance, corseting it uncomfortably into narratives about a generation in revolt, a repoliticisation of youth, the emergence of a new politics; six months later, it is still hard to know where the balance of truth lies, but it is harder still not to think that the events of that day serve as a barometer and paradigm for interactions between dissenters and those in power. That is to say that several salient features – the kettle, the anger, the collective action, the scrabble to frame the meaning of action in the media – serve as predictors that set a tone that resonates when we are now thinking about what to do next.

The kettle is the most obvious sign of containment, and debate about it has been the foremost feature of discussion about the re-emergence of protest in Britain. Most of this has recognised the aptness of the figure, a ‘kettle’ being something which brings water to the boil, thus laying the blame for the exacerbation of anger at the feet of the police. They themselves prefer the evacuated, securitised language of ‘containment’ and ‘dispersal’; this language itself casts the police in their preferred role as protecters of a precarious order, which at all times threatens to tip over into mere chaos.

I have argued before that the language of containment, of ‘sterile zones’ and pre-emptive action, is sustained by an overarching biological metaphor, in which the police are glossed as the white blood cells, and in which dissent is seen as disease or sickness, a mark of uncleanliness. Hence, in the long corridor of jeering police through which one finally exited Westminster Bridge, the sotto voce remarks about hygiene; hence on the internet, anonymous policemen fantasise about violently eradicating a disease of the body politic. So much, so obvious.

But containment is not limited to the fragile ecology of delusion that sustains police officers when they are beating protesters’ heads in: it characterises, too, the subsequent state responses to protest, it structures our anxieties and our fears. It is not only the act of violence that contains us, but the sense (obvious to anyone who has been on a protest recently) that police recourse to violence is only ever temporarily suspended, and hangs over all interactions between us.

In practice, this means that we have seen the emergence of a psychic kettling, a repressive technique at its most effective when it imposes on us a psychic and political containment for fear of what might happen if we step outside of proscribed boundaries. Of course, this was at its most obvious when the frantic desire to avoid the kettle at all costs neutered demonstrations, but it is also at work when we don’t step on to the street for fear of what might happen, when we retreat into anonymity for fear of persecution for speaking out, when we mute our demands, when we give up.

In the first flushes of action it can be easy to misread adrenaline-fuelled defiance for lasting political change, but there is something substantively different about the way protesters are reacting to the diktats of route stewards and the police. It is not so much that people are breaking police lines, or refusing the ritualistic bumble into obscurity that defines much political protest, so much as the end of a culture of deference towards the state and its mechanisms that stunts so much of our political life. This is not novel: that politicians are motivated by self-interest and a good line in platitudinous heartstring-tugging has been the silent conviction of most people for a long time; it is with weary relief that we can shrug off the pantomime of pretending otherwise. The talismanic phrase of the Cameron government – ‘we are all in this together’ – will hopefully be carved on its tombstone as a symbol of their flagrant complicity and culpability. But most telling about that phrase is what it unintentionally admits about who the we is for Cameron: in the wake of the Murdoch phone-hacking crisis, we see that this ‘we’ extends from senior journalists and editors to judges and politicians, businessmen and PR people, television presenters, from Paul Stephenson’s nestling comfortably into the arms of News International, to the braying cabinet of millionaires, to Miliband’s robotic public cowardice and slinking off to laugh and jest with those lower than vermin while thousands were out on strike. Yes, we know who the ‘we’ is.

'LOL, complicity.'

There is some anxiety on the liberal left about the wholesale rejection of the narrow ambit of Westminster, which paints dissenters as rabid nihilists bent on destruction, or politically illiterate youth who should channel their energies in the proper setting, five years down the line. Many on the left fringes of the Labour Party are willing to talk now about a ‘crisis of representation’ – that despite the apotropaic brandishing of John McDonnell, Westminster is heaving with rot and corruption. The most astonishing part of Gordon Brown’s attack on the Murdoch empire was his willingness to lay aside the code of omertà that protects the civil service from any imputation that they might be less than neutral arbiters and functionaries. That is harder to deal with than simply saying MPs are often venal and careerist, because it suggests that the structural corruption goes very much deeper than the personal choices of political representatives. Indeed, what thematises the distrust of political representatives, placating union bureaucrats and the laughable notion of policing ‘by consent’ is not a crisis of appropriate and accurate representation, but the suggestion that the structure of representation is itself the crisis.

That to one side, the decline in deference is to me the great locus of hope. Much as the most moronic of commentators want to call radicals ‘nihilists’, the reality is that such a refusal is an uncompromising recognition that we can do far better, that we do, when organising among ourselves, practice a politics struggling to engender a far better world; it is hard not to find the frantic assertions of authority in the face of such refusal amusing and absurd. Such lack of deference irritates those in power immensely. In the video below we see precisely how true that is:

Here’s the obvious absurdity of someone arrested simply for talking to a police officer and pointing out the absurdity and extremity of their position. It is worth watching carefully. Like all conversations with the police, it has about it the fraught air of the Damoclean sword, which might at any time drop. The language, most of all, is what interests me. The initial joke being made is an attempt to recognise that despite the grim expressions and body armour, a policeman is in fact in no way superior to anyone else, and is making a tidy sum through arresting protesters arbitrarily. Like many jokes, it relies on the incongruity between the pompous gravity of the officers and the reality of the situation, as such it’s doubly infuriating because not only is the protester not sitting meekly and nodding at authority, but actively pointing out how ridiculous it is. That is one way language can work. The police response, however, conceptualises language in an entirely different way; for the policeman, language is not a mutually-communicative medium, but a series of protocols by which he can enforce behaviour. In distinction to the joke, which makes common humanity the basis for pointing out his absurdity, the policeman’s delineation of the performative function of his speech underscores the incommensurability of their positions: he is using his language to distinguish, separate and contain the person he’s speaking with. More than that, though, he seeks to remind his audience that at any time he retains a linguistic code that allows him to force you to the ground and drag you to the cells, that the moment the sword drops remains entirely in his hands. But attend to the anxiety and confusion of the performance: such reaffirmation of power is jerky, anxious, and unable to escape its own bleak ridiculousness.

Of course, such anti-deferential jests are merely a small subset of responses to police containment. Far more ire has been reserved in the comment pages for the specific act of ‘kettling kids’; in a sense this propagandistic metonymy has become the touchstone of the establishment objection to containment, as well as setting the stage for a wide range of tendentious and romantic generalisations about the youth. Yes, certainly the political outpouring can be seen as surprising if you were lazy enough to believe that teenagers had somehow become apolitical and feckless, and certainly many of the most militant and angry were both young and poor, but it’s important not to elide the range of ages and backgrounds inside the containment line that day, and far more important not to make dissent the domain of ‘the kids’.

This is why the temptation to leap on the challenge to kettling in the European court needs to be understood more widely. I hope that the challenge succeeds; I hope that they throw a spanner into public order policing for the Met. I think it is probably good strategy. But there is also a reason for us to resist talking about ‘the kids’ as the ethical object of police action: as someone who respects the ability of under-18s to think and engage in politics, I want to put them on a continuum with the rest of the dissenters, rather than locate them in a special other category. Arbitrary detention, collective punishment and indiscriminate violence on the part of the police affect all of us, and to oppose them because the category of ‘the kid’ is morally exceptional is to give them the ammunition to harass, chase down, persecute and imprison those who are less blessed with the imprimatur of public morality.

The category of ‘The Child’ is invested with a particular political morality and weight, one which means it is frequently bandied in speech by politicians to signify a deferred communal gratification, a sleight-of-hand that argues for temporary strictures so that ‘our children’ can have a better-functioning world when they grow up. That in itself is not so objectionable a desire, though it concedes too readily that change is only possible at some displaced point in the future rather than now; as we know, ‘temporary’ measures are a cloak for permanent change. The destruction of public services, the privatisation of provision, the importation of market forces to every zone of life are not temporary measures. They are permanent and unalterable. For this to be true, then, we must view children in a certain way – blameless, naïve, in need of protection from the depredations of the world. There are contexts in which that is true, but in making them the category by which the propriety of kettling is judged concedes many other things as well: that it might be justified if it were applied to people lacking that moral status, but also that the political demands expressed are a function of that status, that they are in turn unrealistic, utopian, impossible to meet. As Adam Castle points out in the linked article, a disengagement from the issues is the most ludicrous thing you could level at those inside the kettle.

There is a peculiar piety involved in talking about ‘kettled kids’ that ill befits a proper engagement with what was really happening inside the kettle – as is equally true when talking about UKUncut or the black bloc on March 26th. Arguing that police response is excessive because protest is peaceful, or because it involves bringing state violence, arrest and harassment to bear on ‘good’ people depoliticises the action and the police response to it; it suggests that the police argument that they exist to ‘facilitate’ protest is on some level true and their actions have merely gone awry somewhere along the way. A more forceful critique is needed – one that recognises that there is no base state in which dissent is comfortable unless it has been facilitated into total uselessness.

This issue is urgent, because we are now seeing the prosecutions of those arrested for the diffuse charge of ‘violent disorder’ as well as the remaining cases from Fortnum & Mason’s coming to court. That the political utility of these sentences in marking very clearly that dissenting political action will be punished harshly is not dependent on the moral standing of the individual should be apparent. It is not a matter of ‘political’ policing or sentencing: the focus of the police and CPS is always political, in that it seeks to engender particular political conditions, and lets slide the variously formal criminal acts taking place in the City of London and the corridors of power. The purpose and function of these sentences do not depend on whether the individual was a good or bad person, and to be drawn into such a discussion is to miss the crucial point, which is that they are the conclusion of the logic of containment: they contain individuals in prison as a symbol to the rest of the movement. If you struggle, we will contain you, we will blacken your name, and we will fragment you until you can do nothing.

How to struggle against this? It is hard not to get a low, sick feeling in the gut when faced with the seeming ineluctable power of the courts, the bizarre theatre of what seem already predetermined decisions, the asymmetries of power. It is hard to avoid the temptation to fade out, to avoid the harsh hand of the law, to have no opinion which might bring the vigilant eye of the state to bear on you. It is harder still to avoid the silent compromises and concessions we make by not speaking out, or to face the morass of manufactured newspaper opinion and internet bile. It is hard, too, to sustain oneself purely by anger, and not feel it winnowing away at the bonds of affection and trust so vital to being able to continue the fight.

Such suffocating containment is precisely what they desire for us, it is why collective action is so obscene to them; they want us to despair at what looks impassable. In the past year, I have met dozens of people distinguished by their passion and sincerity, some of whom are now facing prison sentences on the flimsiest of pretenses. How do we struggle against this? Perhaps one thing we might do is put away the hesitancy to speak strongly and in public to people not already on our side, to engage deliberately with the media – there are any number of remarkably acute thinkers in the anti-austerity movement, and we must have the courage to speak out more forcefully. A hesitancy to act or to speak in public or through media is understandable when committed to democratic and non-coercive means of organising; it would be cretinous to believe that the corporate media want to do anything other than sell papers, but for all that’s true, let’s see if we can’t push a little more out there than there is currently.

The battle is not purely discursive, either. It’s crucial to avoid, also, the ritualistic repetition of demonstrations without purpose, operating under a logic of registration of dissent, that if somehow the right number of voices were raised, we would change things. We know that power loves nothing more than a good demonstration, an opportunity to fawn magnanimously over the reanimated corpse of democratic participation, as we trudge zombie-like into futility. The ‘left’, too, is hardly without stain: the lure of self-ennobling failure, in which we struggled with purity but tragically lost, is seductive for all that it promises about affirming one’s worth as a person. We must be uncompromising with those nominally on our side who cheer and jeer when someone they dislike is hounded by the media and the courts for taking political action; we must come to understand how vital it is that we defend those victimised by the courts, deprived of their liberty, that we do not sit licking our wounds – in short, we must break the kettle.

Marks of Truth

One day, someone will write the history of the quotation mark, and it will be fascinating. This is not one of my pithier or more heaven-rending prophecies – not least, in part, because it has already been done – and you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s the kind of tedious historical blether that stirs the loins of a dusty community of vellum-fetishists. In fact, the quotation mark signals key issues about what writing is for, what it’s supposed to achieve, and what its relation to truth is.

I’m writing this in the wake of the furore that’s blown up around Johann Hari’s misuse of quotations in his interviews of various intellectuals, and the range of posturing about journalistic ethics and propriety that followed. I’ll have something to say about that, but it is worth bearing in mind that the initial complaint against Hari was around the specifically political and propagandistic uses of quotation in his interview (‘intellectual portrait’?) of Antonio Negri, rather than the ethical function of journalism per se. It strikes me, however, that this is also a question about the uses of the fragment, or the quotation, and what it’s supposed to do, and to approach it from that angle might relieve us of some of the moral bluster obscuring the issue.

The standard assumption for any contemporary reader is that a phrase bracketed in quotation marks bears a greater fidelity to some prior speech act than other segments of prose – that is, it is directly taken from either speech or writing, and can be specifically tied to that author or speaker in that context, and a range of readerly assumptions about its usefulness (as illustration, as evidence) may proceed from that.[1] But this only really holds true from the end of the eighteenth century; their function as guarantors of accurate transcription and representation is only a feature of the past two hundred years.

Prior to that point, the quotation mark was a marginal device, used largely by annotators of text (manuscript or print) interchangeably with pointing hands, to indicate a saying with authority, highlighting the consensually-agreed truth of a phrase. Generally, these would point to classical or patristic wisdom, and they facilitated the lifting of these phrases into commonplace notebooks, or florilegia, gatherings of useful verbal bouquets. A key point to underline here is the minimal weight put on the precise verbal accuracy of these sayings or ascription to correct sources, instead it is their moral, rhetorical or pedagogical weight that is most crucial.

That such a use of quotation seems strange to us bears witness to a striking change in approaches to the totality of the discursive field, what we might call the commons of language, that with the rise of the printing industry, copyright and literary editorial practice (which may fairly be said to have begun with Pope) we also see the rise of what we understand as quotation today, that is, the apportioning of particular parts of language into owned tracts (‘enclosure’ would probably be pushing it) that must be treated in a particular way. The delineation of this history is not to lament the change, but simply to mark a change in the culture of language and what it does, the virtues of either model being far from complete.

Perhaps the difference relevant to us here is between the impersonal quotation as consensually-acknowledged, incorporated authority and the direct (accurate, ascribed) quotation as a reflection of a particular person’s viewpoint. In the former case, there is little chance to distinguish between the author and his quotation; they are both part of the seamless robe of textual authority, meting out common truth. In the latter case, however, there emerges a distance between first and second author, between writer and person cited. In some cases, this might lend weight to the text in question (a quotation from an expert or witness, in any case predicated on who they are as a person) but – to my mind more interestingly – it can also serve to distance the writer from his quotation, to render it strange, isolated or ironised. Hence it is only today that we find the abundance of ‘ironic’ quotation marks, as deliberate pieces of textual severance. In a typically incisive but complex essay, Adorno refers to the ‘abundant ironic quotation marks in Marx and Engels’ but suggests they violate the rules of irony by – and this is the point most relevant to the current issue – ‘separating it [the quotation] from the matter at hand and presenting a predetermined judgment on the subject.’[2]

In our current discursive regime, then, the quotation is a fragment from elsewhere which is held to illustrate some particular truth about the other to which it is ascribed; the quotation mark is the guarantor of some fidelity to the subject concerned. So a writer is left with some fragments that bear directly on a particular subject, and the arrangement of those pieces provides some kind of thesis; in some cases drawing out a particular facet, in others tending to caricature, incoherency, selective representation, or simply the starkness of the fragment that provides no inner access to its author. That is to say: the quotation itself is not in any sense moral, it is the selection and arrangement of quotation that comes under ethical stricture – the use of quotation to bolster a particular argument or sell a particular idea. (The notoriously excised quotations on movie posters being the unfortunate nadir of the art of selection.)

Where does this leave us with Johann Hari? As I mentioned above, it’s imperative to remember that the piece that sparked off the current debate wasn’t simply framed about whether it’s ethical or not to paraphrase poorly-made spoken points by lifting text from more eloquent published works, but about the reframing of those works to bolster a thesis about the interviewee or his work. There are, of course, a number of issues here: an interview is not simply an encounter with ideas, but with a meeting at a specific point in time, with all its attendant contingencies; the possibility that an intellectual may change his ideas over time, or refine them in speech, aware that an interview and a book are hardly the same thing; the unarticulated assumption that writing takes primacy over spoken expression. These are partly questions of literary aesthetics, but they are also questions with a political dimension, which cede greater and greater power to the interviewer over the meaning of his subject; yet the issue here is not simply about transcription, or about appropriate substitution, but about the way in which quotation functions to make an ideological point.

Hari has defended his interviews as ‘intellectual portraits’, with the implicit suggestion that they sit halfway between the record of an encounter and a piece grappling with the implications of an individual’s thought. Both are laudable aims, but hybridity can produce monsters, in this case a piece faithful neither to ideas nor the encounter, but a cartoonish jab in the dark. Were this all it is, it would merit little attention, but to my mind what distinguishes the Negri piece from the others is that it moves from mildly mendacious sleight-of-hand to the land of the hatchet-job; in this, it illustrates why it is an issue to be taken seriously, because the ‘virtuous’ use of substitution (clarification, comprehension) can slip quickly into a muddying of the waters around extremely serious issues.

It’s obvious that Johann entered into his interview with a dislike for his subject, confessing his incomprehension at Empire and his disbelief in revolutionary Marxism of any stripe. Contrary to the beliefs of many on my side of the political fence, this in itself is not a crime, though I confess some scepticism over his bafflement by Empire, which, despite its occasional infelicities, is not a hard text to grasp – and the ‘random’ selection of an excerpt from it looks rather calculated indeed. The piece recites the allegations against Negri, then concedes that he was jailed for rather more nebulous charges, but sticks hard on the question of what criminal acts the philosopher committed. Instead of telling us what Negri did say in response to this accusation, he lifts the answer –which does contain a denial of murder – straight from Dufourmantelle’s Negri on Negri. It seems an odd thing to do with an issue of this magnitude.

But beyond oddness, it strikes me that there’s a deliberate rhetorical strategy in operation throughout the piece, of which the placing of lifted quotations is a major part. First, there’s how they’re framed – a panoply of invented or imported gnomic pauses, with cigarette smoke hanging in the air, spliced into the middle of the lifted quotations, presumably to give some ‘colour’ to the piece, but nevertheless refracturing prose that was once whole on the page. These have an obvious interpretive effect: if Negri is pausing here, why is he pausing? Is he concealing something? Is he obstreporous or fraudulent?

Having left the issue of Negri’s criminality unresolved, but hovering around in an odd paraliptic gesture, Hari eventually moves on to the issue of memory and truth. Others have commented on the rather base irony of using lines in which Negri is discussing his opposition to the USSR to suggest he refuses to face up to its bloodsoaked historical reality, but the placement of this quote strikes me as a well-positioned conclusion to a running thesis about Negri’s refusal to offer justifications for criminality in 70’s Italy. I don’t doubt that Hari liked these lines from Dufourmantelle precisely because they’re immensely useful in advocating the line that he takes when discussing 20th century continental philosophy (‘postmodernism’ as he hazily calls it) – which is that it’s prevaricating, irrational charlatanry and indeed dangerous to a pursuit of truth. Hari is a veteran in the tired rehash of the philosophical culture wars as a staunch defender of enlightenment values, so one can imagine Negri’s (to my mind rather beautiful) lines getting to him.

But this isn’t simply an issue about whether one would champion Heidegger over Quine, because this line about truth – deliberately taken from Dufourmantelle and placed in the interview – comes scant paragraphs after highlighting (again, with a lifted quotation) Negri’s refusal to engage with questions of criminality. There’s an obvious implication here, which is that communists of Negri’s kind don’t feel subject to their past acts; surely any reader might be forgiven for then looking sceptically at any protestation of innocence over the murder of Aldo Moro, or of bank robbery, and so on. So, here we return to the issue of quotation: that it directly ascribes a position to an individual, that it allows the writer using quotations to position them in suggestive parataxis while distancing himself from the conclusions that they imply; in this case it is all the worse because the lifted quotations are taken out of a much longer, nuanced text and substituted as lines shorn of context, apparently given in conversation, and thus as bald fact.

I don’t know if Johann meant his work to be so easily read as an extensive smear against Negri (I’d hope not) and I don’t think intent is necessarily exculpatory here – but I find it strange and dismaying that it’s an issue he hasn’t addressed in his apology. If this were a mere question about journalistic propriety, as many seem to think it is, then it would be of a lesser magnitude – over-hasty generalisation, moralising, rickety historical theses are all indelible faults of most comment journalism, largely because of its instantaneous, ephemeral nature. Schopenhauer: ‘Journalists are like dogs, when ever anything moves they begin to bark.’ But the extent and deliberation with which this piece marshalls its quotations as evidence seems worthy of highlighting, because it’s profoundly depressing, profoundly disappointing – and demands an answer.

[1]For this potted history of punctuation, I’m indebted to, inter alia, A.J. Minnis’ Medieval Theory of Authorship, Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life, and the work of Margreta de Grazia and C.J. Mitchell.

[2]T.W. Adorno, tr. Shierry Weber Nolsen, ‘Punctuation Marks’, in The Antioch Review Vol. 48 no. 3, (Summer, 1990), p.303


The slogan I’ve always liked best from the recent student protests has been ‘Free Education Now!’, because the word ‘free’ in English hides two meanings. The first meaning, the one which has been the easiest to grasp at for corporate media reporting on the protests, has been ‘free’ in the sense of price: hence reports of ‘fees protests’ and the like. This, the economic sense, has also been central to a lot of discussion over financial models, costings, and leads inevitably to framing education (though, more accurately, the possession of a degree certificate) as a matter of benefits accrued to the student-consumer. But there’s also another sense of the word ‘free’, one that’s not concerned simply with a defence of the educational status quo, but which seeks to free education from the humdrum tedium of corporate-speak, manageriality and bloodless irrelevance sought for by the administrators of universities and colleges. In that sense, free education is not something that can be achieved by resisting the most recent steps in the long march towards total marketisation, but by moving against the institutional frameworks that determine what education should contain, or should do – which are so deeply embedded in the notion of marketable ‘skills’ and corporate box-ticking that they’ve become a seeming ineluctable condition of education for those of us inside those institutions. A truly ‘free’ education requires first, and above all, an act of imagination which refuses to be conditioned on the premises of education as it already exists.

This is why my favourite image of the analogue fliers produced at the Really Free School is this image of a book simply emblazoned with the word ‘FREE’. I’m sure anyone could rehearse a well-known argument about the liberatory potential of reading – for instance, the role of the printing press in stoking dissent, or opening up access to texts from the confines of monasteries and private libraries, or the development of mass literacy – but there’s also the removal of the book as private property and experiments in mutual construction of education. Additionally, in contrast to the increasingly paranoid and securitised institution of the university – which sees itself as a concentration of resources, a treasure-house in which potent ideas can only be unlocked by possession of the right credentials – what would it be to posit a space in which the logic of acquisitive concentration was itself rejected? Universities increasingly justify their existence by agreeing to a set of proposals about the way the world must be: strike an unholy alliance with arms dealers, bankers and corpocrats to endow plush buildings and locked-up libraries, extort students and inflate rents to pay for upkeep, tailor the syllabus towards employment and cart prospective graduates round job fairs, where offers of leather executive-chair luxury mingle with exhortations to be more ruthlessly cut-throat, out-compete your neighbour, and be forever acquiring more CV points because your job will be (must be) always precarious. In such an atmosphere, might it be worth asking, could we not try things a little fucking differently?


In terms of protest itself, well, this weekend was interesting. Much of what went into preparing for the protests on Saturday was a reaction to the experiences of containment and kettling that characterised last year’s protests: a desire to be free of containment. In that sense, it was a success in that protesters avoided being kettled, instead running in small groups around the streets of central London, and taking over the roads. However, I’d hardly call it an unqualified success, because what was striking was how reactive it was: so much energy having been poured in to avoiding containment meant that there was little knowledge about what should follow successful evasion. I don’t think this entirely bad – it’s never a bad thing in my book that anyone on the street should see a couple of hundred people running through the roads followed by cops, as it’s at least more immediately baffling and disruptive than a staid march down streets where no-one’s actually watching or listening. Equally, it was nice to see that the lessons of containment have been learnt by pretty much everyone on that demo – ‘let’s not get trapped’ and so on. But it’s also true that the energy of Millbank or Parliament Square simply wasn’t there, replaced by a dutiful conviction that those smaller numbers who turned up still had to have some kind of protest, but what shape that should be taking wasn’t clear.

Is this the death of the student movement? Possibly. But then I’ve never really been overly invested in the ‘student movement’ other than as a peculiar irruption of a wider discontent, and my experience of it is that much of its resistant core spreads over a far wider and more amorphous demographic than ‘students’. What I think we’ll see – and hope we’ll see – is a broadening out of resistance over the coming months, and with that a form of resistance that’s not based simply on demos or actions, which are fruitless without more sustained action. That means a kind of activity which builds community strength and solidarity. Given that one of the first effects we’ll see from the austerity agenda is a widening inability to meet basic costs of living, this means projects like eviction resistance, food projects, simple, less glamorous activities which are nevertheless the heart of building an effective resistance.

That’s not to say that I think demos and actions are unimportant. They are, for a variety of reasons, very few of which are to do with whether they achieve their putative ‘aims’ or not. But what struck me about Saturday was how intelligently policed the demo was: under it all was the realisation that the physical manifestation of police power in the act of containment is an act of aggression that confirms the deep-seated knowledge that most protesters have about the police already. Instead, it’s far better, far more insidious of them, to rely on the imaginary potential of the police – the image of line upon line of riot cops is doubtless stuck in the head of many protesters. While we were at no point kettled, those of us running around the city were also very rarely free of a police presence – at most points you could see a cop or two somewhere in your line of vision. This sense of police ubiquity is disturbingly effective tool: while apparently not transgressing freedom of movement, the imaginary weight of the police, and their vans trundling a hundred or so yards behind, prevent any attempt to engage in serious disruption. At the few moments a store might have been shut down, they materialised reasonably effectively, their constant presence having already drained many of the spark necessary to dare to act. Thus a crowd of 250 sat down for 5 minutes in the centre of Oxford Circus, and then ran off again, solely because the police were arriving; I can’t hope to count the number of times I heard the hysterical cry ‘they’re going to kettle us!’, but it was alarmingly frequent. Paranoia. They’ve colonised our imaginations: maybe we should free them?