Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Radical Philosophy at Work

Philosophy students at Middlesex are currently occupying their campus in protest over the planned closure of the department. The Middlesex administration claims to be closing the department down on the grounds that it's no longer economically viable, but this is far from true, as is clearly proven on the 'Save Middlesex Philosophy' FAQ. So why is it that the Middlesex administrators would want to shut down an internationally recognised centre of research excellence? My guess is that it's based on three factors:

1) Middlesex University wants to close down the department as a kind of symbolic sacrifice in the hope of gaining favour with future government funders. It can't be easy to solicit funding from a conservative government when you’re hosting the most radical philosophy department in the country.

2) By trying to close down the philosophy department, the Middlesex University administration is capitulating to the new political reality for post-1992 universities, which no longer need to entertain the illusion of being on equal par with their better-off 'Redbrick' peers (even if they can occasionally surpass them in terms of high-quality research, see Nina Power's article on Comment is Free). Better that they teach more 'vocationally-oriented' courses for the less academically suitable: that is, leave philosophy for those who can afford it.

3) Basically, in both cases the Middlesex administration is engaged in a not-so-subtle PR move to try and make their university more attractive to future government funders, by being quick off the mark to axe a department which doesn't sit well with the new austerity measures set to hit Britain over the next few months. Rather than simply looking for short-term profits, Middlesex University is actually 'looking ahead': and the world-class Philosophy department is an embarrassing reminder of what could have been.

The battle to preserve the Philosophy department at Middlesex is about the concrete ideal of Middlesex University as an open and accessible institution, with a first class teaching staff who can teach a broad range of students; students who might not be able to afford the expensive course fees of elite institutions like LSE or Warwick, nor have the right kind of academic profile which would allow them access in the first place. Whilst CRMEP staff would most likely find jobs elsewhere, their commitment to staying on at Middlesex is also a commitment to the broad base of students that they teach-instilling critical thought in those who have the most to gain from it.

Thus, the action of the Middlesex administrators cannot be reduced to a simple miscalculation of value, and nor is it just a collective psycho-pathology of management: it's their deliberate political decision-one which must be resisted by a more determined political force. The Middlesex administrators want to portray the Philosophy department as some kind of malignant cuckoo which has outgrown the nest; but judging by the recent success of the protests, it looks set to be their albatross.

Join the facebook group for updated information,

Sign the petition,

And for those of you lucky enough to be in London-get down to the protests!

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Beyond Bloctivism: Critique of Greenpolice

The following post is a critical response to a communiqué from the black bloc: ‘Greenpeace-Greenpolice’ (available here) which contested the role of ecology in political demonstrations taking place around the recent COP 15 Summit with the intention of drawing support away from the Reclaim Power action at the Bella Centre on the 16th December.

I was glad to see that the 'Greenpeace-Greenpolice' document had been posted up on Indymedia. I first encountered it on one of the large organisational meetings at Ragnhildgade a day or two before the Reclaim Power action in Copenhagen, and it was given to me as an anonymous handout without any explanation. Two things struck me about it on my initial reading: firstly, that it was a well-written piece of postmodern sophistry, and secondly, that it may have been disseminated as deliberate 'misinformation' by some covert E.U. intelligence service, as a means to confuse, divide, and conquer the gathering protest movement against COP 15.

Now that we know it was composed by someone associated with the black bloc and the reason for its publication we can a bit less paranoid about it. I also attended the Copenhagen Climate Justice protest on Saturday 12th December; I wanted to be involved in the action so I stayed close to the black bloc. At the beginning, I was walking with the 'System Change' section of the procession when the sound-bombs went off, and I must have narrowly missed out on getting a ‘preventative arrest’ with the other nine hundred that day. But I wasn't aware that black bloc members were physically prevented from joining the non-violent ‘System Change’ protesters, and if they were refused entry into the ‘non-violent’ section by the Climate Justice Now organisers then that's clearly a bad move politically, even if we accept that there were undoubtedly agent provocateurs amongst us who had orders to disrupt the peaceful protest, and that every political movement must occasionally discipline its own forces to comply with the plan of action. Yet I never heard anyone discuss this ‘refusing entry’ incident during the course of the following week, which certainly doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. What I did hear afterwards were one or two people arguing that the whole procession should have stayed behind in support of those innocent protestors held under ‘preventative arrest’. Perhaps if the hundred thousand people had stayed in one spot and demanded their release the riot police would have had to back down, and that might have been a highly symbolic victory for the protestors. Personally, I would have preferred it if the protest had taken this direction, that would have been much more interesting; as it turned out the Saturday peaceful protest was a dull trek through town occasionally enlivened by the odd sound system or samba band, culminating in some well-intentioned but rather feeble speeches which were palpably ineffective as a political strategy.

But as far as my limited understanding of the black bloc as a protest tactic, I'm all for it. They offer much needed protection from the riot police who will try and intimidate the non-violent protestors into giving up, and they also inspire courage in inexperienced protestors who are not used to seeing the violent side of state-power. I think protests need this ‘antagonistic edge’ which the black bloc has now come to represent, and this mode of political resistance is essential to prove that sometimes, through determination and sheer strength in numbers, the people can effectively surmount state-power and expand the scope of what is politically possible, at least for long enough to apply pressure on a particular issue (think poll tax riots). But in my view the black bloc’s activities must ultimately filter in with the broader counter-hegemonic struggle against exploitative neoliberal governments. Whether this effective surmounting of state-power is expressed through closing down the financial district of a city centre or through inflicting collateral damage on a symbolic piece of private property, this will all depend on what is tactically viable on the day. The point is that these activities should make people question why it might be right to occasionally break a shop window, or shove back a riot police who is violently trying to prevent government delegates from joining the activists outside and forming a 'People's Assembly'.

Whilst a protest can be rendered ineffective if the media coverage only concentrates on the question of what degree of police brutality is necessary to prevent a broken window, it’s also true that protests which lack a black bloc element-(regardless of what colours the activists wear on the day)-fail to attract significant media coverage and can appear to the public as a contained and powerless display of affected politics. In contrast, an effective protest is one which manages to reveal the real weaknesses in state-power through direct actions which generate media interest, and inspire a broader public into getting directly involved with the political issues which affect them. It is the possibility of success, rather than the occasional acts of violence or vandalism, which is arguably the most thrilling aspect of direct action.

During the COP 15 protests many of the most intelligent and inspired people I met were associated with the black bloc-and they were certainly the most defiant. On the 16th December, inside the controversial rabbit cages which the Danish police had purpose-built for the protestors at Valby, the black bloc arrestees managed to tear up the internal walls of their cells in active rebellion against the riot police, who in turn would repeatedly carry out their threat to pepper-spray them inside their cells-but the prisoners persisted with their action, demonstrating that their political convictions were more powerful than the legal violence of the state. In the cells that day there was also good discussion about the current relevance of black bloc tactics-about whether the sporadic vandalism of the black bloc did more harm than good for the Climate Justice movement. Yet for me, this isn't even a question: the black bloc anarchist wing of the movement are vital to have onside for the reasons given above, and they're not genetically determined to be a nuisance nor psychically programmed to throw a brick every five minutes. If there's the possibility of making a great direct action so long as they can keep strategically inconspicuous in the meantime then of course that’s compatible with their general objectives. Currently, the main thing which unites all protest blocs is our shared objective of trying to throw a huge spanner in the works of neoliberal government, at a time when it’s most vulnerable, to show people that an alternative politics is both possible, and preferable. This will require organised collective action.

Yet the 'Greenpeace-Greenpolice' communique seems to argue that no one political situation is preferable to another. Its appeal to conserve a 'living excess' from the reach of all political calculations does so only at the expense of precluding any means of measuring the value of different social organisations (of people, of other forms of life, of a political ecology). And, if there's no way of rationally deducing which kind of political organisation is preferable over another then we may as well give in to our intuitions now and do whatever feels best, whether that means throwing a brick through a window, or throwing in the towel, or both at the same time.

But let us examine the arguments of this text in close detail:

First paragraph:
Argument: Suggests that we should feel suspicious about the similarity of the rhetoric of those organising the COP 15 and those organising the protest: rhetorically at least, they appear similar.

Refutation: Rhetorical similarities are merely that: One must still rely on words like ‘freedom’ or ‘power’ even if these words are also used by the Nazi’s or George Bush.

Second paragraph:
Argument: Despite stylistic differences, both COP 15 organisers and protest organisers rely on similar institutional spaces and communicative technologies as a means of achieving political organisation; therefore, they may both be equally culpable as oppressive powers which limit human freedom.

Refutation: Although both COP 15 organisers and protest organisers utilise similar institutional spaces and communicative technologies, this does not mean that their respective politics are by any means equivalent. Political positions are determined by a set of scientific and metaphysical convictions which ground them. For example, a neoliberal capitalist might argue that competition and free-markets are the best way of enabling life to flourish on this planet, whilst a social ecologist might contend that there are more reliable means of making life flourish than the loaded dice of the free- market. It depends on which argument you find most convincing after considering the evidence, and this is the essence of what forms a political view. As for human freedom being something outside of politics, then one should also be free to participate in a collective political action, and perhaps we are more emancipated through the collective organisation of our environment rather than through an individual’s crude struggle against nature or society.

Third paragraph:
Argument: Questions whether the protest may itself be a part of the state system, which is allowed to exist to represent 'political resistance' without actually doing so. Furthermore, it implies that by actively struggling against the media spectacle of the COP 15, protestors are inadvertently legitimating its existence as a political forum. What does it mean to want to save humanity? From who, or from what? For who, and for what? If all political positions share the singular aim of saving humanity, then this could nullify all political conflict, which may be essential to a healthy human culture.

Refutation: The protest is in an antagonistic relation to the state: it is not outside or isolated from it, in the same way that the politicians inside the COP 15 were equally human with those who were outside it. This needn’t be cause for concern. It’s true that the COP 15 protest also drew attention to the COP 15 conference, but this was because a serious political struggle was taking place over who represents the real interests of the environment along with a concern for the future generations who will live in it and be subject to the undemocratic policies being decided upon inside the Bella Centre. That the environment has become an issue which can no longer be swept under the red carpet is partly due to grass-roots political activists raising awareness on these environmental issues. That’s why it was crucial for activists involved in these issues to try and make their voices heard with whatever means were at their disposal: brute force and old media dominance for the neoliberal western governments, genuine popular support along with creative means of enticing the media for those associated with the Climate Justice movement. The abstract question of what it means to ‘save humanity’ can easily turn into a theoretical dead-end if it paralyses the possibility for direct action; neoliberal capitalists might have one idea of what it means to save humanity, whilst the anarchists clearly have another. It’s up to everyone to consider the evidence and decide on what is right. Afterwards, individual opinions may coalesce into differing political groupings and that’s how united political struggles are born. There is nothing sinister about the fact that opposing political groupings can both claim to be saving humanity. Both the rhetoric of George Bush and the anarchists claim to be standing up for individual freedom, but their political struggle for organising a society in which individual freedom can flourish is premised upon entirely different conceptions of what it means to be free and how it might be manifested here on earth. Just as there is a world of difference between George Bush’s means of defending freedom and an anarchist’s conception of the free individual, theoretically anarchist politics should have much more in common with the protest movements than those delegates representing neoliberal governments inside the COP 15. Sometimes it’s necessary to join forces with your enemy’s enemy and leave the theoretical discussion until later. The Reclaim Power action was one such occasion.

Fourth paragraph:
Argument: The COP 15 is the most recent example of an emerging ‘managerial turn’ in contemporary politics. This managerial turn allegedly seeks to measure and quantify all former political externalities (such as social life, environmental concerns, and even resistance itself) in order to incorporate it into a more complete state dominance. Yet there is something immeasurable within the field of state-power which cannot be reduced into any objective schema: the living excess.

Refutation: It’s correct to state that there has been what could be termed a managerial turn in neoliberal western governments, which now concentrate on managing the growing incorporation of free-market competition into all spheres of life, rather than claiming to represent a distinct political position. This is because we have all accepted that free-market capitalism and individualism is the most liberating means for organising society, right? The argument that there is something ineffable about human life which exists outside all objective modes of analysis makes truth a relative concept and inadvertently plays into the hands of neoliberal ideologists, to the extent that it can sometimes justify the reduction of the state (that’s welfare, education, and health, as well as police, armaments, and prisons; although in practice it’s usually the former that faces the cut-backs) and consolidates the present inequalities in society as being a product of that ineffable difference between individuals: some people are just born to rule.

Fifth Paragraph:
Argument: Ecology has come to function like a ‘universal religion’ and one should be suspicious of the fact that all political positions are trying to claim its authority. To be a political activist for the environment is ultimately a matter of submitting yourself to a tyrannical future goal, which in the process sacrifices all that is valuable about our essential humanity. If ecology is concerned with environmental equilibrium, then isn’t this analogous to an oppressive politics which quietens all dissent? Furthermore, it teaches us to distrust our own inner human nature, even causing us to ‘police’ ourselves.

Refutation: One doesn’t need to be suspicious of a word, although one might benefit by examining its differing uses before categorically condemning it. Differing interpretations of the concept of ecology are part of a political struggle. One conception of ecology, such as James Lovelock’s ‘Gaia Theory’, may argue that the earth will always find its own ‘equilibrium’ and that it’s pure hubris for human-beings to try and prevent climate change. This conception results in a political position known as ‘quietism’, which contends that future-orientated political projects are against the natural tendencies of human beings, whilst what is natural for us just so happens to be how things currently stand. Another conception of ecology, such as the one articulated by Barry Commoner in ‘The Closing Cycle’, might argue that our shared reliance on the earth’s finite resources ought to be the thing which unifies us as a species and inspires us to protect the natural ecology of the planet for the good by ensuring the biodiversity of life. This conception of ecology results in a political position which has been termed ‘eco-socialism’; it relies on the conviction that we can all work together for the common good and that collectively we can reach agreements and define the nature of this common good. The argument that all political commitment to a future-oriented goal sacrifices ‘everything that makes life worth living’ is as infantile as arguing that peeing in your pants is an active rebellion against the tyranny of the toilet bowl. We all ‘police’ ourselves to some degree-and this only has a nominal relation to the way in which actual police forces may or may not serve to further the interests of oppressive governing powers.

Final remarks:

Insinuation: If the success of the COP 15 summit in some ways depends upon popular interest, then perhaps we shouldn’t give it any attention or go anywhere near it?

Implication: The failure to significantly breach the Bella Centre perimeter fence was partly a result of the split starting points of the Green, Blue and Black blocs. Perhaps if we had started out from the same station then we may have managed to hold back the police for longer and create a ‘cop-free’ autonomous zone for the ‘people’s assembly’ to take place.

Insinuation: And if the police are the new essence of global politics, then shouldn’t we renounce all politics?

Implication: The exceptionalist understanding of politics as something which occurs only outside of the established channels enables those parties in power to maintain their grip whilst the possibility for resistance withdraws-and diminishes.

By way of conclusion, I’d like to again re-emphasise that I think that this communiqué from the black bloc has a very seductive argument which I imagine could easily confuse those who lack the theoretical sophistication of its author. Regardless of the intentions behind the piece, I imagine it must have been music to the ears of those undercover police agents who attended the organisational meetings. Of course there should always be room for opposition within any political movement, and the author of this communiqué is right to question the rhetoric of ecology when all colours of the political spectrum are claiming it for themselves. Likewise, the reasons behind the various struggles which made up the protest movements surrounding the COP 15 can not be subsumed under the theme of ‘ecological concern’ no matter how it’s defined. Nevertheless, in my view, it is only by collective action and careful strategising that we can reveal the weaknesses in state-power, and it’s only through collective organisation that we can construct a political ecology in which ‘the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’.