On Thursday, we interviewed David Harvey for Novara. We were discussing his new book – 17 Contradictions and the End of Capitalism – and you can listen to the conversation on the link above. I wanted to take up some of the ideas that were left in my head after reading the book. These aren’t quibbles about Harvey’s presentation of Marx – though there is ample room for such discussion, and I don’t think that’s merely scholasticism – but ideas arising from the end of the book. This is probably the most explicitly political book Harvey has written for some time, and it is its final chapters that interest me. He writes of three ‘dangerous’ contradictions – endless compounding growth, ecological disaster, universal alienation – which might spell ruin not just for capitalism, but for human beings, the ‘common ruin of the contending classes’ of the Communist Manifesto. In opposition to this he offers a defence of a ‘revolutionary humanism’ and a reflection on violence drawing from Franz Fanon, as well as seventeen points to frame political practice drawn from the contradictions he outlines.
Many of these points will be familiar to communists of any kind: production for human need, power over production vested in local assemblies, dissolution of class society. Some will be couched in unfamiliar language: a zero-growth society, diversification of ways of living. Some might require more elucidation: demonetisation but assurance of circulation of use-values. But they are an explicit call for urgent political action, when there are few of Harvey’s prominence willing to commit to explicit calls for revolutionary political action – which is what these polite and sensible points would require.
Some of this commitment comes from the qualified defence of a ‘revolutionary humanism’ Harvey articulates at the end of the book. It is a partial rejection of the Althusserian anti-humanism that has dominated much contemporary Marxist thought, while also rejecting appeals to a transcendent human essence, or a sentimental humanism on which cross-class and pacifist strategies rely. Harvey’s sensitive use of Fanon to reflect on the political uses of violence – but also its consequences for those who deploy violence – are especially timely when sporadic calls for terrorism emerge as a response to the seemingly immovable behemoth of austerity laying waste to social life. Political violence of the oppressed against oppressor may be necessary, or justified, but eagerness to embrace it can occlude the ways in which violence can degrade and destroy those who employ it, even justly.
Throughout the text there are signposts to a way of thinking about capitalism that admits the centrality of the capital-labour relation, but which understands its embededness in other forms of distinction (gender, race, social rank) intrinsic to capitalism as a social system. Alongside this, there is a warranted skepticism toward pedlars of revolutionary nostalgia, for whom the formations of particular historical moments – most often 1917 – provide the unalterable blueprint for social change. A call to attentiveness to the real conditions of the here-and-now that goes beyond mere lip-service is welcome, as is the basic optimism of the final chapter: that changing the world, as well as changing the fundamental experience of human life is possible.
There is naturally a hesitancy among communists to get lost in making blueprints for a new world – even if we did, we would consign them to the fire in the very act of making it – but I think Harvey is right that we shouldn’t hesitate to say, even specifically, things could be run better than this. In doing so, we can also go beyond the apophatic not-this that is so frequently the seed for political action. ‘Utopianism’ has a bad name, and sometimes for good reason, but for all of Marx’s justified excoriation of the disparate social theorists grouped under that heading, the impulse to think a better world has long nourished the working-class movement. Perhaps the answer here is not a consolatory dream of a better world (an ‘abstract’ utopia) but the demand and action to make it concrete.
Harvey and I likely differ in political methods: I know he has defended the party method in theory at times. I think there is likely a congruence between method of making change, and the kind of world that results, and the kind of human beings that come to populate it. That kind of argument can seem like the worst kind of abstraction in a moment in which the forces of social change seem at their weakest, but if anything, reading Harvey’s book renews for me the conviction that it is vital to put into practice these beliefs: it is no use being right after the disaster.
Throughout the book Harvey draws from multiple theorists within and without the Marxist canon. He often returns to Lefebvre, whom I have been rereading, who is probably the most acute theorist of alienation, even of alienation within political ‘radicals’ themselves, which may take the form of an all-encompassing cynicism, a perverse conviction that barbarism and the destruction of all social life is now utterly inevitable, or a bloodless fear of standing behind things they claim to believe. (And in Lefebvre, this was never an argument for abandoning thought or pretending it’s trivial.)
Basic fears about futurity aside – its tendency to suborn current suffering for a future perfection never to arrive, its quasi-religious role as consolation for the secular – I don’t think we should leave the future completely void. The answer is not in feeble rearrangement of cutlery on the bloodied dinner table, but to stake a claim to a far greater, unalienated life than can exist under capitalism. As far as I’m concerned, staking that claim cannot be made purely in the realms of theory, but through action – and it is through the two together that the possibility of surmounting alienation can be glimpsed.
I do not want to say exactly that this is a hopeful book, because we seem currently so very far away from instituting anything like its demands. But it is an urgent one: I hope it can impart some of that urgency to its audience. Since reading the book, I’ve had this line from Lefebvre in my head. It’s one with which Harvey would doubtless agree:
It is no coincidence that Marxists repeat the word ‘concrete’ so frequently. Adversaries of Marxism refer ironically to the exaggerated and excessive use of the word (Malraux, for example, apropos of the Communist Pradas in Days of Hope); but talk of the ‘concrete’ is only truly ridiculous when it becomes an abstraction itself, an automatism. (Which in fact is what happens when people who believe they are acting and thinking dialectically stop looking at everyday life, stop learning from it, stop searching for its deeper significance. This is treachery, self-betrayal: in their mouths the dialectic reverts to being just so much metaphysical waffle; they become congealed in their own mystical speechifying about movement and history; they talk about the ‘concrete’, but they end up being more abstract than anyone!)
Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life vol.1 (Verso, 2008), p.183
This is one of the few books that has made me – along with everyone I know who has read it – weep. I think it’s tremendously important, and I think more people should read it. The above passage is pp.46-8, in Sarah Schulman, Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012)
Earlier this week I spoke at an event organised by South London Antifascists for LGBT History Month, on a panel that included LGBT asylum seekers from Uganda and Nigeria, and people organising among sex workers. I returned home to find Stonewall celebrating the ‘final piece of the legislative jigsaw’ and thanking parliamentarians for deigning to give LGB people access to equal marriage. Below is what I said at the event, which offers a somewhat different perspective to the position of Stonewall and other rights organisations.
I want to start this evening by offering a message of solidarity to LGBTQ persons in Uganda. This morning, President Museveni signed into law the anti-homosexuality bill, which sentences those convicted of “aggravated homosexuality” to fourteen years in jail. There are complex reasons for this, not the least of which is as a statement against western impositions, or of colonialist tropes reheated by western gay rights organisations with little contact in the country itself. Verbal expressions of solidarity seem powerless in the face of this, like a futile gesture. Words are not enough, certainly; words alone do not break prison bars, or save lives. But our words can be a beginning. That is what I hope we do here tonight.
It’s LGBT history month. Again. And I’ve been thinking about our history – histories, plural – what gets left out, and left in. Whose names get remembered, and whose don’t. I’ve been thinking about official and unofficial histories. I’ve been thinking as well about where my political roots are, which come out of LGBT activism, and how those experiences shaped my perspective: the countless small acts of defiance, countless ingressions against a housing injustice, an injustice of asylum, finding somewhere for people who can no longer see their families to live –– these are small acts that do not make the history books, but nonetheless form the mainstay of that kind of activism. They will sometimes get looked down on by people who claim to be big-picture thinkers, who sneer and say, well, you can’t change the world that way.
As far as it goes, that is true. Merely surviving is not enough to change the world, and we must change the world – change it so far that mere survival no longer has to be the sole criterion, the sole priority of our activism. And this brings me to our history again. It would, I’m sure, be an argument of many in this room that the formal recognition of a minority, the guarantees offered by the state for our protection, are not only insufficient but are unequally distributed: that is to say that laws against homophobic crime do not offer equal protection, but protection to only those kinds of queer people whom the law deems it worth protecting. Most often those people look like me. And because the law deems it worth protecting people who look like me, the history of the LGBT movement has been transformed – transformed in what I would call an act of historical violence – into a story about people who look like me, about the sloughing off of so-called “ridiculous” or “unrealistic” demands, the quietening of slogans that demanded not just toleration but complete social overhaul, the silencing and disappearance of anyone too different or inconvenient. But the story of the LGBT movement, which is a story made up of those countless small acts as well as the birth of a collective struggle, is a story of people who do not look like me – and it is a story that is not yet over.
It is a story that is unfinished, that is a half-completed step, partly because of the way that history has been rewritten. The history of a movement that came from the margins has been made into a history of people who were, in the eyes of government, *people who were just like us all along*. We are told not to be ungrateful. We are told that, to enjoy an equal footing when it comes to property rights, to rights of visitation in hospital, to rights of protection against violence in public places or simply against murder in the streets that we must pack away our dreams of anything more than that, we must look away from the detention centres and violence at our borders, we must dissociate ourselves from sex workers, or our trans friends, we must be happily ornamental, provide sufficient human rights cover for politicians or large corporations. We have been taught, in other words, to modify our demands so they can be easily met and close our eyes to the violence that guarantees those rights.
I want to tell a brief story tonight. These are not special stories, and they are not unusual stories. They are, in fact, so typical that I’m sure many people in the room will have similar ones. They make up the background noise of homophobia to which we have become so acclimatised they do not, perhaps, seem even slightly out of the ordinary.
In 2007 I was leaving a club in a smallish city with a friend. It was a club that hosted the only gay night in town, and was across a car park on a back road, badly lit. When we were crossing the carpark – as we had done before – some young men jumped out of the bushes near the club and assaulted us. As is often the way with these things, I do not remember the exact sequence of the violence, whether the kick to my ribs came before my face hit the gravel of the car park. I lost it. I know I lost it. I know they ran off eventually. I remember being angry all night, after cleaning the blood off my face. I remember walking around my kitchen at 4am thinking whether it was my fault. I remember my friends – who are progressive, sweet and clueless – urging me to report it to the police. I made that decision when we were told the next morning that someone else had been jumped, and that they weren’t able to go to the police because of the kind of work they were doing at that time. Now I don’t trust the police. I didn’t at the time. But they said, at least get it recorded as a homophobic crime.
I went to the police and they took photos of my injuries. They gave me a gay policeman. They offered me a cup of tea. Then they asked me if I’d shown off, or sworn at my attackers. If I had done anything to provoke them. They told me they couldn’t use the CCTV, because at night the cameras zoomed in on the parking payment machines. Then they told me the crime wasn’t homophobic because no homophobic words were used. That it was not homophobic – not sufficiently homophobic – to lay in wait outside an isolated gay club. I remember feeling like the room was spinning around me. I wanted to be sick. I only half remember what happened after that because of the rhythm of the blood pumping in my ears.
The next time I was assaulted I didn’t call the police.
What I am saying here is not a plea for police reform. It isn’t a sad story of good cops wanting to meet targets, resulting in bad policing. It isn’t about lack of communication. It is about the fact that the protections that are given to us are given grudgingly. They are contingent. They are never complete. Where they act, they act only partially. What I’m saying is this: that with all the privileges I have – I am white, I am well educated – I was treated under the logic of suspicion that somehow I must have deserved it. This kind of treatment will not be a surprise for many in this room: it is how the police operate in the vast majority of their operations. All I want to say is we cannot and should not displace our responsibility for our community on to the organs of the state, especially when they protect so very few of us and regularly harass, beat, arrest and deport others.
Why choose that story? I have others: I could tell you about organising in a gay-run business in which sexual harassment was rife, and the defeat of the bosses by people who worked there. I could tell you about asylum cases we have won or lost. I could tell you about the drag artists who saved my life. I could tell you about the horror and disconsolation of trying to do HIV awareness work with gay youth. I think we should share these stories more, not least because our history is not written down. But I chose a story of violence – and the sad truth here is it is one of several I could have chosen – because our history is a history of violence, as well as pride found despite that violence, and resistance to it – and because that history is one that continues. It is a violence that is unequally distributed, as homophobic, transphobic, queerphobic, that exists at the hands of border guards and police, and that exists in subtle forms in the medical establishment and among our employers.
I want to say: look at how far we’ve come, and how much further we have to go. I want to argue against a conception of politics that sees its mainstay as gladhanding MPs who are happy to vote for gay marriage but fall silent when it comes to asylum claims by LGBT persons; that says politics is a narrow matter of formal recognition in law. That is not the end, but the first step of our politics. Hunger is political. The defunding of HIV research and the gutting of safe sex initiatives is political. The distribution of funds to campaigns for gay-friendly boardrooms and not to organisations dealing in queer homelessness is political. Adverts for pride parades with a smiling cop and a narrow range of professional equalitarians are political. The internal policing that brokers hesitation when I reach my hand out to my partner’s hand in public is political. A press that will cover homophobia abroad but cannot recognise it on its own doorstep is political. Sex which comes hand in hand with violence and fear is political. A culture which deems gay rights a western innovation and deplores all other countries as barbaric, which avoids its own involvement and complicity in the establishment of regimes of torture and murder in the first place is deeply political. Our demands were never historically for toleration, for merely a formal recognition of homophobia, but the very abolition of the conditions that made homophobia thinkable in the first place.
That SLAF is doing this tonight is a good first step – because it is important to recognise that fascist movements in the UK and Europe are often openly homophobic, eliminationist, but that in the UK they often deploy this notion that one must be racist, one must join their culture of fear, to protect the western “innovation” of gay rights. I think we must refuse this. We must refuse this partly because it is a lie, but also partly because, under the veneer of toleration, these are the same homophobes who vary from the genteel supporters of section 28 to the violent eliminationists who want us dead. That refusal must be the first step. But we must also reconstitute a history that looks not just at Stonewall Lobbying but at STAR, not at only Harvey Milk but at Marsha P. Johnson or Sylvia Rivera as part of our history that has been silenced, and help to rebuild that political project of which we have only taken the first half-step.
I want to end with a thought that has been playing round my head for days now. It is a thought that comes and go over the years, but which has been in my head because I have been thinking about the huge rent in LGBT culture that was left by the AIDS epidemic, which we still hesitate to name as a political crisis exacerbated by homophobia, refuse to name as a crisis that should always have been laid at the door of the government. It is this: which lives are grievable, and how? Which lives get to count, and which don’t. What I mean by this is we should start to realise that the way in which some segments of society get their oppression, their deprivation, their harassment and even their deaths treated as merely unfortunate but natural phenomena (which cannot be avoided) is politically charged, and can be changed. I mean by this – if the point is not clear by now – that after the nominal end of the AIDS crisis (which didn’t, in fact, end) we have been subject to an overwhelming and coordinated political and cultural assault that tells us that the lives of people with AIDS, as the lives of other segments of queer populations whose existence repels the people who run our society – who are black, who are migrants, who are sex workers, who are non-normative in other ways – are not grievable in the same way as other lives. They do not get monuments; their deaths do not get entered in the annals of our history as political obscenities. This logic, which attempts to privatise and naturalise what is a political and collectively-lived experience, is everywhere. It is the same logic that says of every gay man who is murdered by homophobes – well, did he try to cruise them? It is the same logic that teaches suspicion and difference, and which threatens potential relegation to excluded status should you speak out against it. Which says that you are here under sufferance. Against this, I want to say the hands that do violence against any LGBT person, which imprison them, which turn them away at borders, which harass them or beat them, which break windows or bones – they are not meant for them alone, but every LGBT person in this room and beyond. When we accept that, when that truth becomes clear, so too does the need to build that power which is not simply a politics of survival alone, but a politics of survival which does away with the very conditions that made our injured survival necessary in the first place. I hope we are taking a step in that direction today.
Every so often, I link to this text, which was produced and distributed anonymously at NYC Pride in 1990. I do it because I think it’s valuable for us to know our history, but also because there is a lot in it that still remains important, unfulfilled, and challenging to LGBTQ organisations (remember: focus on the G, the other letters can fall in behind.)
I’ve been thinking about it a lot around the outbreak of rainbow razmatazz, homonationalism and foot-in-mouth gestures around the Winter Olympics. The history of LGBTQ struggle, heavily whitewashed and wrapped in a rainbow boa, has certainly feathered a few caps. Suitably progressive, and, after all, they’re so good at antiquing – and terribly musical, too. I look forward to our corporate Lords and Masters – and Stonewall’s crack team of boardroom infiltrators – devoting similar energies to dismantling the repulsive treatment of LGBTQ asylum seekers. Or is that a little close to home?
That story (here, if you’ve not seen) is galling. It is galling not because of the obscene treatment of asylum seekers, but because we’ve been here before. Every few years, people who work with LGBTQ asylum seekers manage to place such a story in the papers. Cries of horror, protestations of well-placed ignorance, resolutions that something must be done follow. Decent people burnish their decent reputation with decent outrage. Hand-wringing occurs in the Lords and the Commons. The issue – as these inconvenient issues do, and the inconvenient people at the bottom of it – fades gradually from view. Three years pass, and nothing changes. But we have all been terribly decent, and, well, it plays well in the metropolis.
They've taught us that good queers don't get mad. They've taught us so well that we not only hide our anger from them, we hide it from each other. WE EVEN HIDE IT FROM OURSELVES. We hide it with substance abuse and suicide and overarhcieving in the hope of proving our worth. They bash us and stab us and shoot us and bomb us in ever increasing numbers and still we freak out when angry queers carry banners or signs that say BASH BACK. For the last decade they let us die in droves and still we thank President Bush for planting a fucking tree, applaud him for likening PWAs to car accident victims who refuse to wear seatbelts. LET YOURSELF BE ANGRY. Let yourself be angry that the price of our visibility is the constant threat of violence, anti- queer violence to which practically every segment of this society contributes. Let yourself feel angry that THERE IS NO PLACE IN THIS COUNTRY WHERE WE ARE SAFE, no place where we are not targeted for hatred and attack, the self-hatred, the suicide --- of the closet. The next time some straight person comes down on you for being angry, tell them that until things change, you don't need any more evidence that the world turns at your expense. You don't need to see only hetero couple grocery shopping on your TV ... You don't want any more baby pictures shoved in your face until you can have or keep your own. No more weddings, showers, anniversaries, please, unless they are our own brothers and sisters celebrating. And tell them not to dismiss you by saying "You have rights," "You have privileges," "You're overreacting," or "You have a victim's mentality." Tell them "GO AWAY FROM ME, until YOU can change." Go away and try on a world without the brave, strong queers that are its backbone, that are its guts and brains and souls. Go tell them go away until they have spent a month walking hand in hand in public with someone of the same sex. After they survive that, then you'll hear what they have to say about queer anger. Otherwise, tell them to shut up and listen.
Below is Goldsmiths Solidarity Network’s statement for #copsoffcampus. It’s very much worth reading in full, and, as ever, building active solidarity between this upsurge in militancy and organisations doing difficult and often widely ignored work on police violence and racism.
Last week, months of careful organization and mobilization came to a head as students at ten universities occupied their campuses in support of the HE strike. The last of these occupations, at Senate House in Bloomsbury, was met with violent repression: UoL management called in the police, and the results were appalling, if not surprising. Hundreds of us gathered the following day to defy police in Bloomsbury. We are intensely proud to be struggling alongside our fellow students, and we will continue to do so until we get the cops off all campuses. In addition to their brutal interventions this past week, they have been conducting racist stop-and-searches, arresting ULU activists, and arresting students active in the 3cosas campaign. We are proud to see students protecting one another and standing up to the police, to see the de-arrests and the passionate indignation, as well as the refusal to be divided into “good protesters” and “bad protesters”. We are proving ourselves capable of responding to police aggression and are ready to strike back.
We need to remember, however, that we (as students) are neither the first to suffer such attacks, nor bear the brunt of state violence. Since we are living and studying in South East London, the police’s ongoing campaign of violence and intimidation against working people, and people of colour in particular, is painfully clear to us. The sirens are a permanent feature of life — as are stories of young people locked up or beaten, roadblocks targeting Black drivers, the aggressive UKBA raids, or the constant, petty harassment and stop-and-searches. Not to mention the recent police raids brutally targeting sex workers in Soho this week [http://www.sexworkeropenuniversity.com/2/post/2013/12/press-release-swou-responds-to-the-soho-raids.html] which have also been passed over in silence.
Now that a small measure of this violence has struck us too, we call on our fellow students to actively support the struggles of groups and organizations such as the London Campaign Against Police and State Violence, Newham Monitoring Project, and the United Friends and Families Campaign. The actions of the police last week in Bloomsbury have attracted more media attention than the far more brutal violence committed against people of colour daily, and mobilized more students on the street and the internet than past responses to appeals for solidarity from the UFFC or LCAPSV. It would be nothing short of a disgrace if we fail to point out that police violence is structural and a constant feature of life for hundreds of thousands of Londoners. It would be shameful if we fail to act in solidarity with others facing police violence. Our solidarity is an empty and self-absorbed gesture if we are incapable of extending it beyond our campuses.
In the short amount of time remaining before the national day of action, we call on all Student Unions, independent student networks, and organizing committees, to get in touch with local groups campaigning against police brutality and offer their practical solidarity. We firmly believe that the national day of action should provide a platform for these groups to voice their anger; under no circumstances should the day be reserved for students alone. The strength of our actions from the previous week is a consequence of our willingness to support the struggles of workers and to find common ground with the people with whom we share the universities. This national day of action is another opportunity to find common ground with our neighbours and friends with whom we share this city, but only if we are willing to cede centre stage and organize in a manner which acknowledges that this issue is bigger than cops on campuses. We cannot, and should not, attempt to lead a campaign; rather, we need to be intelligent and humble enough to learn from and support communities who have been struggling and fighting for years with dignity, creativity, and an inexhaustible patience in the face of institutional indifference and token media coverage.
Cops off every campus, and out of every neighbourhood!
Goldsmiths Solidarity Network
Commune Editions in Oakland have put up a little collection of transcripts from the trial of Louise Michel, partisan of the Paris Commune, social revolutionary and anarchist, and schoolteacher. It is rare I get sentimental about figures from our past, and doubtless she would chide me for for doing so were she around today, but it’s hard not to be astonished by the woman who comes through from these accounts. It includes this famous exchange:
Louise Michel: I must be removed from society; that’s what you’ve been told to do. Well, the prosecutor is right! Since it seems that every heart that beats for freedom has no right to anything but a bit of lead, I demand my share!
If you let me live, I will never cease crying out for vengeance, and I will denounce the assassins of the Board of Pardons to the vengeance of my brothers…
Judge: I cannot let you speak if you continue in that tone.
Louise Michel: I’m finished… If you are not cowards, kill me…
It is this exchange in questioning, however, that I think is poignant and surprisingly touching:
Q: A black flag was found so easily and by chance on the Esplanade des Invalides?
A: All it takes is a black rag and a broomstick.
Go read it.
"It is not a crumb of bread, but the harvest of the entire world that the human race needs, without exploiters and without exploited."
I left Saturday’s demo feeling quite depressed about the turnout and support. UFFC is a collective campaign uniting families and friends of those who died at the hands of the police, in custody or psychiatric hold. It’s the kind of thing you imagine – you hope – would be widely supported by the left.
I don’t want to get into the berating game: people have legitimate reasons for not turning out to things. I don’t want to get into the game of measuring political work as a matter of turning out to demonstration after demonstration, either, with diminishing energy and effect for each one. But this isn’t that. This is an annual procession that ought to see far more active solidarity than it does. It’s not a matter of personal failure, it’s the ubiquity of absence of the left – or, as a friend pointed out to me later that night, the white left – in support of this that leaves me puzzled. Well, perhaps not puzzled, exactly.
Yes, it is more important to support the ongoing, difficult and often painful work of justice campaigns, rather than turn out once a year and nod your head. That’s a given. But it seems to me there’s a skew in priorities when a piece of stunt-activism, or an absolutely useless and disconnected march, draws thousands in support. There were perhaps 150 people here for this, and I think that’s worth reflecting on.
Organisations like UFFC and LCAPSV do work on the effects of police and state violence and repression – I hope the energy that has gone in to LCAPSV translates also to some further support, however it may be needed, for UFFC. Some of these campaigns have been working on bringing the police and state to account for twenty years. And it would be good for revolutionaries, leftists – whatever – to hear some of the words and stories spoken at the procession too, certainly more important than most of your top-table speakers, or rally leaders at most demonstrations. It’s not simply a memorial, or an act of grief or rage – but those things are intensely political, too, in the face of a state that seeks to erase the evidence of its murders, and block every avenue of holding its murderers to account, and deny even the faintest hint of justice.