Mustn't Grumble?

A contribution to the "Reflections on J18" collection from Paul Petard.

Oh what a lovely day for smashing up the city. June 18th; Well yes I came along too and found myself pleasantly surprised by the outcome. Several thousand carried off a big loud aggressive "carnival against capital" in the city of london. Buildings invaded, roads blocked, stock exchange temporarily besieged, cars munched, big swanky bank plate glass windows crunched, police van looted!... such excitement and entertainment we haven’t seen for a long time. Plenty of running around with cops at various points, quite a few injuries, but no instant mass arrest on the day. What with this being the end of the nineties inside the city’s ring of security this sort of thing isn’t supposed to happen any more under the post riotous consensus end of politics and history and such. It brought back fond memories of stop the city, or the days of the poll tax. And it was all simultaneously coordinated with demos in a whole load of cities around the world. With a score like that at the end of the day it was easy to get quite distracted by the adrenalin rush and the euphoria of the occasion and lose all perspective of what the politics was supposed to be about and what had really been achieved. The riot was a case of "enjoy" (SPGB leaflet) and it made us feel big and powerful for the day. But unfortunately let’s face it, we are not big and powerful, we are still small and weak, and if we are honest about it the "success" of the riot was more of a fluke than anything else. We got away with making the demo/carnival/riot happen because in effect the authorities allowed it to happen that day. Tube managers had already shut down the circle line all of a sudden that morning creating commuter chaos while other parts of the tube were disrupted as well. Also charing cross station had been shut. The police operation was bungled with police commanders losing control, while police on the ground, part of the time, were just standing aside either for fear of obstructing city workers or through laziness. I witnessed several occasions when seriously naughty things were committed in full view of nearby tooled up police who had the strength to intervene but just stood there watching and did nothing. The rest of the time the police whipped up chaos with their usual viciousness, clubbing people, injuring people, running people over etc. If you lived in a part of the world where street fighting was a daily occurrence you’d soon find that the novelty wears off. It becomes a routine, a daily listing of arrests, injuries,... not so thrilling or glamorous, it bogs down your community in a rut, saps its energy and ability to do much else. It has always been a mistake to fetishise street rioting and streetfighting and constantly try to read something social revolutionary into it. A mistake I’ve been guilty of myself over the years.

But nowadays, in this part of the world "riots", when they still occur, are often either the product of bureaucratic screw ups or sometimes pre-arranged police and journalist set-ups. Increasingly rare events here, street riots, like prison riots, tend to happen because the authorities have wilfully or negligently allowed them to happen. This could be because of simple bureaucratic and managerial inefficiency and wrangles (maybe they’re deliberately dragging their feet because they want to be paid more, or they’re just bored with their jobs, or they’re arguing with eachother and their communications have broken down), maybe it’s sinister machiavellian intrigue by the secret police to create more work for unemployed glaziers.

Usually it is the first kind of reason. Smashing windows is smashing windows, piling up rubbish in the street is piling up rubbish in the street, throwing things at police is throwing things at police, a buzz yes, but none of these things automatically imply the refusal of capitalist wage labour and commodities, the creation of common wealth and the building of world human community. The social revolutionary process we desire will sometimes involve a riot or two on its periphery, but a street riot does not a social revolution make. Nor does proletarian bargaining power come primarily from streetfighting. Proletarian bargaining power comes from collective withdrawal of labour, organising solidarity, sharing free goods in the community,...

It is not as if on june 18th some group of workers in the city like secretaries or cleaners were in dispute and called on other workers and unemployed to join in with them in picketing out the city. Nor is it a question of some big industrial struggle or social struggle elsewhere giving rise to a flying picket going to the city to create a diversion and open up some sort of a "second front". There is certainly an element of proles and lumpenproles who are struggling informally or in diffuse small groups around work/dole/housing/community who express their alienation and frustration by turning up and coalescing at events like june 18th and this is a positive development. At the moment they cross over with these events but they don’t lead them. It is still a professional/semi-professional protest activist sub-culture which leads them. it is the predominantly white, majority middle-class, protest fashion scene putting on the style. Some of them are seriously bourgeois, megarich, or in high powered professional career paths.

So the class composition of an event like june 18th is heavily confused and contradictory, leading to confusion and contradictions in the politics and tactics. It is funny how politicians are expected to declare their personal economic and financial interests but political activists can conceal theirs. Not even Class War would introduce the means test for membership, it might be too embarrassing for them in what it would reveal. R.T.S.; a good way of getting laid, shame about the class composition. Meanwhile the city folk have a clever line of argument they use half seriously half jokingly: Why if it wasn’t for the city hustling and dealing generating money and bringing in revenue from around the world there would be much less money for the nation to spend on social security and welfare handouts. The government wouldn’t be able to pay giros to dole scrounging squatters and anarchists and scruffy anti-roads protesters and the like. Indeed if it wasn’t for the city generating the money to subsidise it there wouldn’t be hordes of drongo greens and anarchists blocking the streets and grumbling about the trees and GM crops. The stereotypical (in their view) grungy doleite anarchist who every few years gathers in the city to breathe bad breath on poor office workers and moan and whinge about world capitalism is in fact protesting against the very thing that pays for them to exist. The protesters are just the dropout sons and daughters of the bourgeoisie while it is they, the ordinary boys and girls turned city whizzkids who are the real rebellious working class, so they love to tease. There is a danger of just turning some of this upside down and taking the reverse line of argument in order to reply to them. Why if it wasn’t for anarchists and half the population cashing their giros or getting their pay out of the bank and spending it as good individual consumers in the off license then there wouldn’t be so much money for big companies. It is the money we spend as consumers, buying products produced by the multinational corporations, that gives rise to their profits and helps make the mean and nasty city institutions rich and powerful so they can rule the world like Dr. Evil. Better then that we spend our money on alternative products in the wholefood shop. Of course both lines of argument are silly, neither explains what is really going on in the capitalist economy or where the wealth really comes from, but there are plenty of people who would take one or other argument quite seriously.

The city of london and other financial districts around the world are just one particular part of a much wider global financial system. The global financial system is itself just one part of capitalism as a whole, it is a reflection of the whole capitalist industrial production process, everywhere built upon wage labour. This includes the local flower shop on the corner as well as the big corporation and the chemical plant. Big global capital is not more nasty than little local capital. Today one is an expression of the other and vice-versa. Big horrible banks in the city are simply an expression of all the big and small businesses that put their money in them. Small capitalists will grow into big capitalists. The financial districts are not the real "centres" of capital. If it means anything at all to talk about "centres" of capital then from our point of view as dispossessed proletarians ("The proletariat is the industrialisation of the third estate, a class now amounting to almost half the population of the world", Two Hundred Pharoes... Manifesto, Box 100, 178 Whitechapel Rd, E1 1BJ) the real "centres" of capital are not the financial districts but....

1. Working in a job in order to live (wage labour)

2. Housework, washing the dishes, changing baby’s nappies, queuing in the supermarket, running for the bus, when one has no real choice (reproductive labour).

These are the real "centres" of capital for us. These are the two points where we come up against capital as a social relation that exploits us in our own lives. And it is these two points where we as proletarians might have any direct or indirect bargaining power to pull the plug on the system and start collectively transforming things. "Capitalism" is not an external "thing" to protest against. It is an exploitative social relationship which has come only in recent history to dominate virtually everything and in this part of the globe everyone is involved or trapped in it to a greater or lesser extent. None of us, not even nutters like Green Anarchist shouting "direct action" while holding a loaf of bread impaled on a stick, are outside capitalism. The June 18th carnival was certainly not devoid of proletarian subjectivity but this tended to be contained and something you had to feel apologetic about, or again something external to be "linked up" with as a separated thing in a cringy way("support the such and such workers"). Despite the day’s spontaneous happenings (and many of the crowd also missed the more hardcore stuff as they were in other parts of the city), the event remained in part a somewhat alienated exercise protesting against the evil corporations and the immoral things they do. It wasn’t based primarily on confronting one’s own role within the system and as a result it continued to obscure our potential subjective bargaining power as proletarians against capital, whether revolting at the point of wage labour or reproductive labour. Some individuals managed to successfully sneak off work to get to the demo but to what extent might this have influenced or involved their colleagues? Attacking capitalism means revolting against one’s own life not just going for a day out in the city to have a go at other people about their lives. That is too easy and safe. Not everything bad in the world can be blamed on "yuppies" and anyway there are thousands who work in the city who are neither yuppies nor bosses. Many of those present on the day were conscious of this but at the same time there is still a big lazy minded element who just want to "bash the thing", whatever the "thing" to blame everything on happens to be that day; the car, the office window, the police officer’s hat, the person wearing a suit.

This is far too often an excuse for a cover-up: a refusal to talk about oneself, one’s history, one’s own daily life, and the power one might have within the class struggle to revolt against that. This cover up and the refusal to talk about themselves and their own interests and desires is a recurrent theme amongst the "protest against the thing" protest activist scene. This sometimes leads to a kamikaze-martyr small group mindless direct actionism as a substitute for a self-critique locating one’s own struggle in the wider society of which one is a part. This in turn can lead to an elitist activist meritocracy, sneering at the majority of working class who "don’t do anything", i.e. don’t spend all their waking hours engaged in alienated activist "protest against the thing" kind of petty guerrilla actionism.

We are living in a part of the world , particularly britain, where capitalism is very strong and the state very entrenched. The infrastructure and machinery is very much developed and working well. Much of the traditional industrial bargaining power that once existed has been defeated and shifted to other parts of the world since the seventies. Reproductive labour has become a lot more atomised and individualised. So for the time being class struggle here is bound to be sluggish, weak, only partially visible, but it does go on (electricians’ strike, waterloo building wildcat strike, council worker grumbles, still some successful domestic squatting,...). The déclassé protest activist scene appears hot and lively and glamorous in comparison. But this is a bit of a seductive illusion. The problem we face isn’t just the media or consumerism, it is the successful redevelopment of fixed capital. Nowadays the architecture changes shape a lot faster than it used to. town centres, roads, housing estates, prisons, transport systems, leisure complexes, warehouses and industrial areas, all these can be completely redesigned and rebuilt in a matter of months. They keep building and rebuilding everything at a faster rate. Add computer technology and it gets more awesome by the day. As the infrastructure has been redeveloped since the seventies and early eighties on such a vast scale and at such a dizzying speed it has left proletarians feeling trapped and unable to move. In the face of a formidable infrastructure, constantly changing shape, they feel physically powerless.

This feeling of physical powerlessness expresses itself as a conspicuous proletarian silence. A lot of politicos and activists usually mistake this silence as "apathy", full of notions of their own specialised importance it suits them to do so. But this silence is not apathy at all. They may not speak it out loud but in the back of their minds millions of proletarians are deeply aware and anxious about their own situation. They have also learnt the hard way over two decades not to get dragged into every limited partial struggle, particularly in cases where there is no chance of winning. Their refusal to get dragged into this issue or that issue is often a sign of collective intelligence rather than indifference. Like a submarine gone to ground at the bottom of the sea maintaining radio silence while the battleship capitalist restructuring circles above we face a difficult waiting game, waiting for that window of opportunity to finally move and attack. There is no easy solution to this.

But back to the surface, sunshine and june 18th: One comrade did point out to me that despite its shortcomings it was de facto the most revolutionary demo that had happened in london in many years, in the sense that it was a loud aggressive manifestation of several thousand in the city, simultaneous to demos coordinated by internet worldwide, demanding nothing less than the overthrow of capitalism and the creation of global commonwealth amongst its leading slogans. How many other demos in london have that as slogans! And as we said above proletarian subjectivity was not lacking, nor will it be next time.

paulp. 1999

ppetard@hotmail.com