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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Thursday, May 29, 2014

the end of alienation and the revolution of everyday life

 the end of alienation and the revolution of everyday life

Recently I was interviewed for 90 minutes for a research project on punk. The focus was on what influence my engagement with punk /anarcho-punk has had over the past 30 + years. As I was answering the questions I realised that punk/anarcho-punk had not directly influenced my political views. By 1976 I was already a self-confessed anarchist. Although I then, through 1977/8, became fascinated by punk, that interest would probably have faded if I had not met up with the Kill Your Pet Puppy collective at an anarchist [Persons Unknown] meeting in late 1979.

But, as even a brief flick through the pages of Kill Your Pet Puppy shows, KYPP stands apart from both Crass inspired fanzines and straight anarchism. The inspiration for KYPP was derived from the revolutionary aspirations of the surrealists and situationists, mixed with hints of gothic occultism. Looking back, KYPP was /is a potent record our lives and histories against ‘the false spectacular memory of the unmemorable’.

Another side of the deficiency of general historical life is that individual life as yet has no history. The pseudo-events which rush by in spectacular dramatizations have not been lived by those informed of them; moreover they are lost in the inflation of their hurried replacement at every throb of the spectacular machinery. Furthermore, what is really lived has no relation to the official irreversible time of society and is in direct opposition to the pseudo-cyclical rhythm of the consumable by-product of this time. This individual experience of separate daily life remains without language, without concept, without critical access to its own past which has been recorded nowhere. It is not communicated. It is not understood and is forgotten to the profit of the false spectacular memory of the unmemorable. [Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord, 1967, #157]

What we were resisting was our alienation. What we were celebrating were our utopian desires which we took for reality because we believed in the reality of those desires.

Fast forwarding to the present, I was reminded of the situationists when I found this passage in David Harvey’s new book  ‘Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism’.

The traditional Marxist approach to the revolutionary transfor mation to socialism/communism has been to focus on the contra diction between productive forces (technology) and social (class) relations. In the lore of traditional communist parties, the transi tion was seen as a scientific and technical rather than a subjective, psychological and political question. Alienation was excluded from consideration since it was a non-scientific concept that smacked of the humanism and utopian desire articulated in the young Marx of The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 rather than through the objective science of Capital.
This scientistic stance failed to capture the political imagination of viable alternatives in spite of the passionate beliefs of adherents to the communist cause. Nor did it provide any spiritually compelling and subjective (rather than scien tifically necessary and objective) reason to mobilise arms in a sea of anti-capitalist struggle. It could not even confront the madness of the prevailing economic and political reason (in part because scien tific communism embraced much of this economic reason and its fetish attachment to production for production’s sake). It failed in fact to fully unmask the fetishisms and fictions peddled in the name of the ruling classes to protect themselves from harm. The tradi tional communist movement was, therefore, in perpetual danger of unwittingly replicating these fictions and fetishisms. [Harvey, 2014, p. 269]

The situationists’ ‘spectacle’ is our alienation from society, from ourselves. Instead of actively participating in the construction of our own lives, in the making of history, we have become observers and spectators, watching our unlived lives pass before us. Punk- or at least the version I found via Kill Your Pet Puppy- was the negation of alienation. In this version of punk the DIY ethic was applied not just to the making of music or fanzines, but to the lives of the participants. To become a punk was to reinvent yourself as an actor rather than a spectator.

What the Harvey quote implies is that this process was and is ‘revolutionary’ even if traditional Marxists -and anarchists- do not recognise it as such.

Coming back to the present, the political struggle I am engaged with now is one which, unlike punk, is unambiguously  a history making struggle. On 18 September 2014, voters in Scotland have the chance to create a new nation-state. What is interesting about the Scottish independence referendum is the contrast between the Yes and No campaigns.

The No campaign is a top-down campaign. To get its negative message across it relies on newspapers and broadcast media. In contrast, the Yes campaign is relying on thousands of local activists who are organising meetings, canvassing and leafleting in their communities to get its positive message across- supported by hundreds of internet sites. If the Yes campaign wins in September, it will have done so by overcoming voters’ alienation from the political process. If a new Scotland is born on 18 September, it will be a DIY Scotland, a Scotland created by its citizens.

In their attempt to overcome alienation, radical punks turned first to squatting and then to travelling. These moves extended the brief experience of liberation achieved through collective participation at punk gigs.  Through squatting punk became a continuously lived experience, something closer to a counterculture than a music based subculture. Within the ‘underground’ network of squats which extended across London and other cities, participants were able to reinvent themselves as full time rather than part time punks. This movement echoed  that of the pre-punk  radical counterculture.

 In the early seventies, the pre-punk radical counterculture gave rise to the first free festivals. As the number of free festivals increased, by 1976 it became possible to spend the whole summer travelling from festival to festival. By the early eighties, many punks began to adopt travelling as an alternative to squatting. Kill Your Pet Puppy 6, published in June 1983 documented the transition as it described a journey from a punk squat in London to Stonehenge free festival. KYPP was successor to punk fanzine Ripped and Torn which was first published in October 1976.

However, the mass arrest of 500 travellers en route to Stonehenge on 1 June 1985 , along with other events from that year- the eviction of Molesworth peace camp in February and the crushing of the Miners’ Strike- revealed the limits of  the alternatives to alienation. As Margaret Thatcher had proclaimed ‘There is no alternative’. For what David Harvey now call the neoliberal counter-revolution  demanded the forcible re-imposition of alienation.

This is an important point. While the Miners’ Strike fits within a class struggle narrative and the eviction of Molesworth peace camp was part of the Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union, the attack on the free festivals and the travellers suggests that the neoliberal counter-revolution was also a cultural counter-revolution, one which was continued through into the nineties when the focus was on acid house raves and road-protestors. So while traditional Marxists may have neglected the importance of alienation [see Harvey quote above], the neoliberals did not. They understood that the hegemony of capitalism depended on eliminating the (by now) punk infused counterculture and its Situationist inspired efforts to negate alienation.

The pre-punk counterculture relied on a combination of  alternative media, including music and its own underground newspapers and magazines, to reproduce itself- with  some help from LSD/acid. The punk and post-punk counterculture likewise was able to reproduce itself  by similar means. Within these countercultures, the alternative media were more trusted than the hegemonic media which demonised the countercultures via a repetitive stream of ‘folk devil / moral panic’ news stories.

It is interesting/ significant that a similar situation has emerged in the context of the Scottish independence referendum. As James Foley and Pete Ramand spell out in their book ‘Yes- The Case for Radical Scottish Independence’ [Pluto, 2014],the driving force behind the campaign for Scottish independence is not nationalism but opposition to the neoliberal counter-revolution. At the same time, while support for independence is strongest among poorer Scots/ people living in Scotland, it is more than a straightforward class struggle campaign. Many non-working class people living in Scotland are also alienated from a UK political structure which is moving further and further to the right. If this group could vote for a UK level form of north European/ Scandinavia social democracy, they would do so. But since the Labour party have become a neoliberal party, this option is not available. Therefore the option of voting Yes to the Scottish National Party’s version of social democracy within an independent Scotland is appealing.

At the same time such potential (former Labour) Yes voters are being turned off by the unremitting negativity of the No campaign. Fortunately the Yes campaign is able to reproduce itself via social media, the internet and thousands of small scale / community level public meetings. The No campaign are unable to match this grassroots ‘countercultural’ movement. What the No campaign can and are doing, through their complete control of the media, is radicalise  the Yes campaign. As the No campaign reveals itself to be a front for the neoliberal State, the Yes campaign is having to confront the everyday reality of alienation.

As the countercultures discovered, the act of self-creation is the negation of alienation. The difference is that what is being created in Scotland is not a large group of empowered individuals, but a new nation. In a talk I gave to Radical Independence Dumfries and Galloway, I argued that the Yes campaign represented Scotland’s civil society which was in the process of creating a rational state as ‘the actuality of the ethical idea’. The phrase is Georg Hegel’s, taken from his ’Philosophy of Right’ (1821). Hegel had borrowed the idea of civil society from the Scottish Enlightenment. Civil society was held to exist between the private realm of individuals and families and the political realm of government and the state. Civil society was also the realm of economic activity.

The idea of civil society emerged out of the alienation of Scottish thinkers from the shift in political power which followed the Union of 1707. Without a Scottish state centred on a parliament in Edinburgh, most of Scotland’s former elite- including its intellectuals- were physically separated from  the new centre of power in London. Without the French Revolution, the Scottish Enlightenment may have eventually nudged the UK state towards a rational form. Unfortunately, reactions to the French Revolution and the later struggle against Napoleonic France saw the rationality of the Scottish Enlightenment as dangerously subversive. Then came the Industrial Revolution which established capitalism as the dominant power, rooted in economic alienation.

In Scotland the impact of industrialisation was immense. For over 100 years, iron and coal were mined to feed the furnaces which produced the iron and steel which  were made into ships and locomotives. These industries are virtually all gone now but,  until very recently, their legacy survived in support for the Labour party. What Scottish voters expected from the Labour party was progress towards a rational state exercising democratic control over the economy. By aligning itself with the neoliberal UK state  as part of the No campaign, a crisis of legitimacy has overwhelmed the Labour party in Scotland. The Labour party in Scotland have been revealed as a conservative organisation, holding back and suppressing aspirations for the democratic control of the economy. Without the deadweight of the Labour party, via the grassroots yes campaign, civil society in Scotland is rediscovering its radical, even revolutionary, traditions.

But is a rational state anything more than an ideal? The way I look at this question is shaped by the problem of climate change. Our knowledge of climate change is scientific knowledge, which is a form of rational knowledge. It should be promoting rational debate about how best to make the transition from economies based on  energy from fossil fuels to economies based on energy from renewable sources. This debate had the potential to begin in the 1970s when advocates of ‘radical’ or ‘alternative’ technology proposed a shift towards renewable energy sources. These proposals were understood to be part of the radical restructuring of society imagined by the counterculture.

The problem then and now is that such a restructuring of society would require an economic system focused on minimal or zero growth- which would make existing models of capitalism, which depend on ‘infinite economic’ growth, impossible. In the 1970s, climate change was an obscure theoretical possibility and was brushed aside during the neoliberal counter-revolution. Now climate change is a reality which challenges neoliberalism. The reaction to this challenge has been an attack on science and rationality. What the attack on the science of climate change shows is that the neoliberal project is an irrational project and that neoliberal dominated states like the UK and the USA are irrational states. Such states, in order to continue ‘business-as -usual’ are prepared to sacrifice the interests, the future, of their citizens for the short term profitability of the corporate elites which have captured these states.

What has obscured the irrationality of the neoliberal/ capitalist world order in the past has been the lack of any absolute choices between the world as it is and the world as it must become. Climate change is an absolute. Global temperatures are rising, the oceans are warming and the polar ice caps are melting. Working back from this absolute, we can re-understand  the radical counterculture (including punk) as a rational response to the absence of a future. However, following Hegel, we can also now see the consequences of the counterculture’s failure to recognise the necessity of rationalising the state. The persistence of irrational states which fail to impose democratic control over capital now threatens not only the heat death of modern civilisation but also the liquidation of capitalism in a drowned world.

On the other hand in all my years as a keen countercultural I never came across the idea of the/ a rational state. Or mentions of Hegel. My discovery of Hegel came via stray mention that he had  read and been influenced by Scottish Enlightenment political economists and social theorists. I have been reading up on Hegel’s political theories about a rational state because part of the discussions about Scottish independence involve a plan to create a written Constitution for the new state. Which conflicts with the more anarchist aspects of the counterculture and also with the ‘independence as a class struggle‘ aspects of the radical independence campaign.

Is it possible to embed social and economic justice with a written constitution so strongly that the new Scotland becomes a rational state rather than an ‘external state’ (Hegel’s term) or neoliberal state?  That a written Scottish Constitution would be full of fine words but the reality of economic power in the new nation would prevail (realpolitik). There are proposals to crowd-source  the Constitution, to involve civil society via a continuation of the Yes campaign in its formation, but unless such participation can be maintained over time, the interpretation and actualisation of the Constitution will revert to ‘experts’, to lawyers and other members of the professional class. Thus the people or citizens of the new state will once more become alienated from  their/our nation. The Scottish state would still be an external state rather than a rational state.

To end, for now, on a positive note, it does seem that the unremitting negativity of the No campaign and its full spectrum projection is pushing the Yes campaign to towards Hegelian ‘[collective] self-consciousness’. This is potentially a revolutionary development which picks-up from the frozen moment of modernity when conservative reaction to the French Revolution stopped the Scottish Enlightenment in its tracks.

I guess that is my next job. I need to write up my research on the Scottish Enlightenment and show the links to Hegel and then on to the present/ near future. I have already covered some of the ground in my talks at Radical Independence Dumfries and Galloway meetings. Quite a challenge to make it relevant though.



Blogger Unknown said...

Nice one Alastair! A lot of food for thought here.

Particularly interested in whether it is possible for the state to act in a scientifically rational manner to tackle issues such as climate change.

I think there is currently far too little discussion between scientist, politicians and philosophers about how to proceed.

At present scientists talk (a bit) about the political context of climate change, but they really mean the policy context within the existing political structures. Partly this is because many scientists don't feel empowered to talk publicly on things outside their "area of expertise" (which ignores the fact that everyone is an expert in being human!), and partly because they are warned off doing so by funders who insist that reports stick to the scientific facts.

Social scientists look at the current and actual social impacts of climate change and at public attitudes to change, but rarely look big enough to see the real barriers to change. So we get reports which say e.g that uptake of insulation grants is low because people don't like the mess entailed in insulating their walls. There is almost never any comment about the effect of the commercial interests and power blocks who want to keep things as they.

Most politicians short-termist and can't work with timescales beyond the electoral term of about 5 years, and many philosophers seem to think that tackling climate change is a practical scientific thing which they don't need to be involved with. These means that an overarching philosophy of the Green left which is scientifically cohert is often lacking. I'd like to see a lot more discussion of this to develop something which is more scientifically valid than "we don't like chemicals in things because that supports big business" and more socially aware than "we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050" without thinking about how we will need to re-invent society to do this.

I also agree with you on the challenges there will be in drafting a Scottish constitution and ensuring that it is used to safeguard and encourage the grassroots empowerment which seems to be growing up around IndyRef.

Interesting times!

12:02 pm  

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