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Liberal Democracy is an Inertia Engine

It’s been somewhat difficult to focus of late, and from what I hear I’m not alone in that sentiment. As much as claims of immanent collapse have been a regular feature of social life for some time now, there is a sense, month after month, of the world unravelling. It might be overstated, and it’s possible that eventually this will all settle down and we’ll all retreat into our cottages pretending nothing happened, but it seems unlikely; the notion that we will emerge blinking into the sunlight in a month or two’s time seems to ignore an inevitable surge in devastation that is going to follow and perhaps last well into the next decade, first from the notable perpetual catastrophe of neoliberal economic policy, and then more existentially in the increasingly mounting waves of climate change. The next decade or two are more likely to see the continual return of history in a cumulative sense and various explosions of social unrest than some kind of neatly segmented segue back into the rhythms of everyday capitalism.

If there’s something recent events have done for me it’s bring a few things into perspective, drawn them back into the limelight as it were, and one of those things is the pathetic illusion of liberal democracy, or whatever current title we give the integrated spectacle. The sudden rise in militant protests in reaction to a widely shared video of a police officer murdering George Floyd, the latest catalyst in a long, trailing lineage of horrific police violence against Black Americans, has lead more than anything in recent memory to an active confrontation not only with the thinly veiled blood soaked history of “western” Capitalism, but an illustration of quite how used we had become to the depressing inertia of official channels. When respected politicians, journalists and assorted commentators sit in their usually comfortable positions and demand that you reign yourself in, sign petitions, get elected, it seems like they aren’t quite aware of how staggeringly empty these words sound against a deafening backdrop of nothing happening.

If there’s anything that we’ve learnt from electoral politics in Britain more specifically in recent times, something that anyone who had any minor hope that the Labour party might have had some kind of positive impact will be aware of, it is surely that electoral politics is a vampiric entity more than a galvanising one, it builds us up to tear us down, it catches us between its monumental cogs and grinds us into a thin paste, at every turn the engines of capitalist democracy frustrate autonomy and hope. Recently, Rosa Luxemburg’s incredibly prescient arguments in Reform or Revolution have come to mind again and again, and the impotence of reformism rears its ugly head more than ever. It is easily forgotten that social democracy was always as much a way to prolong the existence of capital as an eventual vehicle for socialism. The question that forever arises for those who would call themselves social democrats is how, in their planned unbroken chain of social reforms, we can avoid simply building Capital mk2 instead of actually replacing it. Recently, this point has arisen regarding police, even if we are to abolish or defund police, something I do not stand against, how could we possibly prevent capital simply producing something that talks like a cop, walks like a cop, but calls itself something else?

The problem with official channels is precisely this, they are official. They require us to play within the co-ordinates provided, within the system we hope to oppose. The myth of entryism has always been the promise that you, personally, can resist the pull of the system you enmesh yourself within. Rather than outwitting it, it becomes simply a way of mitigating it, a gigantic exercise in damage control, meanwhile you become a link in the chain of propagating systems, swept away in a wave of complex counter-insurrectionary procedures. The emptiness of Labour politics today, the non-political slurry of it all, behind a mask of supposedly adult metrics and election-winning charm, was always going to be the result, a left that simply picks apart the faults in rhetoric, wags its finger at the prime minister like he’s stepped out of line in high school. It might all be very satisfying if we stake everything on politicians “messing up” and being inadequate, but unfortunately it remains true that, as Gil Scott Heron pronounced “The revolution will not be televised”. We have to realise surely that the justifications of Capital work not despite but because of its fuck-ups and contradictions; it doesn’t make sense from the ground up, relies on the strength of cognitive dissonance to survive. Simply pointing out inadequacies, stepping back and thinking we’ve done a good job is a fantastic way of ensuring its perpetual authority over political life at the same time as taking a moral high ground. It is the myth of a good and bad form of capital personified.

Reza Negaristani recently tweeted the following –

At the time it flew by, but increasingly I can’t agree more. While on the surface this could be interpreted or extrapolated into what I outlined above as the incredibly dreary failure of entryism, but in line with my recent research into the Situationists, a picture begins to emerge of a kind of extra-electoral action that itself relies on “feats of cunning and education”.Indeed, the fact that Guy Debord and co saw themselves as strategists is an important distinction to make, given their regular domestication into social or cultural theorists alone. While it can be fairly pointed out, and has been time and time again, that the uprisings of 68 failed, can it be said that the post-68 slide into a kind of endless anti-representation, the political coping mechanisms that theorists employed were any better?

The notion of “strategy” seems itself to have become domesticated, and has tended to ignore the kind of militaristic organised attacks and complex, systematised mechanics that we are up against. As sympathetic as I was at a base level for the cause of extinction rebellion for instance, it was [I know it still exists but with all due respect it’s hardly a going concern anymore] the sheer inability of the movement to actually conceptualise an enemy that crippled it as it has any number of movements before it, and this always formed my misgivings towards it. While the kind of militancy of recent events is probably the most welcome development in a long time, it’s already shown signs of becoming rounded off, de-escalated, dissipating into nothing more than a set of reformist demands. The aim must, on a basic level, be to cause consternation, to worry capital.

This is precisely where the recent glorious act of public vandalism in Bristol, in which a statue of a slave trader was pulled down and thrown into a river, succeeded where hundreds of peaceful marches could not. The claim, from conservative ministers everywhere, that the peaceful protests were being undermined by “Thugs”, a loaded term if ever there was one, is the identification on the contrary of the moment the protests might have actually had an effect. It is certainly true that this single act had more of a direct effect than anything said “peaceful protestors” had done thus far, opening up a fault-line in British politics around its inability to imagine its own history as anything besides an abstract good and leading to the questioning of statues and monuments everywhere, but the arguments around it also lead back a long way.

I recently read through Alberto Toscano’s historical study of Fanaticism, a book in which we find that this repeated outlining of protesters, revolutionaries and radicals of all stripes as “religious” Schwärmer opposed to the secular, realistic centre of enlightenment discourse [primarily appearing in the notion, itself utterly absurd, that measured discussion is the cure-all of social ills], has repeatedly arisen in defence of an established order, whether that be feudalism, capitalism, or both. The policing of disorder into “legitimate” and “illegitimate” is at root the wish to ensure that change becomes impossible. You can protest, but only within the square we provide, and only using the methods we’re setting out here. Slow and steady wins the race is, in this context, a way to convince the tortoise that the hare has its best interests in mind and should simply allow it to win.

Of course, Toscano’s final, open ended statement in the book is a complication, and one in line with Negaristani’s observation above-

“Urgency and intransigence must be coupled with patience and strategy, if there is ever to be a history without fanaticism.”

This speaks towards a radical politics that, rather than mitigating its energy in favour of the slow-burn dissipation of elections, or unleashing itself in a singular display of anger and tearing everything down at once, can maintain its energy and couple it with a complex strategy, a way to outmanoeuvre its opponents rather than cede ground to them or throw itself against their shield walls. The problem in part is how we view protests as a single element of the mechanisms they are trying to oppose, and eventually all we can imagine in terms of action is simply turning up with a sign and walking down a road chanting. I’m not demanding that we all become guerilla fighters against capital here, but we have to start thinking around and behind the machinic operations arrayed before us or we will continue to be crushed. The very notion, on the part of the situationists, that they were strategists, and that detournement or the derive folded into pointed tactics, is a valuable pointer towards something that really does appear lacking today in our concept of “organising”, the notion that it’s not just important to oppose but to outwit.

The implication on Negaristani’s part here, that opposition to capital must be a rational one, does of course speak against the transcendental, the notion that markets, elections, politics is to be maintained as some kind of black box through which everything operates, but which we cannot hope to understand or mitigate. This is perpetuated to the degree that a lot of politicians themselves believe it, and simply act as unknowing progenitors of an unconscious engine to which they attribute some kind of supremacy without ever being able to explain it. The notion that the complexities of the systems we hope to overcome is some kind of epistemological horizon must be abolished, as much as the obfuscatory and contradictory claims it makes for itself, and we must attempt to take apart and understand its most insidious mechanisms; more than the undeniably important “diversity of tactics” a left that is to change the course of history must also embrace and practice complexity at the very same time as militant anger. We must seed both consternation and confusion wherever we appear.

… I do apologise that this post isn’t the music-related one I had planned from the end of my last, events got in the way. That is absolutely coming next.

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