The Commons: A Tale of Two Tweets

At the moment of writing, thousands of Spanish citizens and their relations and supporters are massing in cities around the globe to claim back democracy from politicians and corporations as part of the ‘Democracy Real Ya!’ movement. The analysis and tools that this movement uses have drawn on the memetic possibilities of the ‘Arab Spring’ and whether it will be successful remains to be seen. What is undeniable is that it involves the substantial and largely decentralized mobilization of bodies into demanding their own re-engagement in politics. At the Spanish embassy in London, many local people and activists, from the student movement, trade unions, UK Uncut and other dedicated activists turned out to show support to the Spanish community gathering outside the building. They’re still there as this is being typed (photo h/t).

On the same day, roughly two miles away from the Embassy, and a stones’ throw from the site of many of the student occupations in the Bloomsbury area earlier in the year, the (Labour Party run) Progress Annual Conference took place. It could not have been more at odds with the actions by those at the Embassy and in the squares of Spain. While the democracy movement of Spain is about prying open access to power, to reconfigure it’s flows and instrumentality, the PAC featured Ed Miliband as a keynote speaker, and seems to have been, for all intents an purposes, aimed at finding means to placate such movements while preserving parliamentary-political privilege. Two successive tweets from the different events sum this up perfectly;

The first read: “good to see Ed not anti-Tesco. Supermarket-led regeneration can transform communities, would be a huge error to knock this #pac11”.

The second: “Spanish protesters call for end of “dictatorship of the markets”. With them in spirit. #solidarity”

There is a fundamental division in responses to a coaxial recession of politics and finance, then, and it extends beyond these events.

What makes this differ from previous years, in which an anti-capitalist left pitched itself against a neo-liberal left ‘New Labour’ position, is the general acceptance that capitalism has, at least in part, failed. When Miliband spoke at the PAC it was to promote the ‘building of a better capitalism’, building on his claim that he should “Make capitalism work for the people” in the Guardian. The central concept in Miliband’s discourse is that capitalism is the naughty child of the west and needs some time in a corner to make it know its place. Whereas the Spanish movement addresses capitalism as a violent and coercive force, Miliband addresses it as an equal, and thus the privilege of (capital-P) Politics is maintained.

Meanwhile Maurice Glasman, the new guru of ‘Blue Labour’, was present at the PAC along with his counterpart, Philip Blond of ‘Red Tory’ fame: It’s important that we don’t make the mistake of thinking that either of these men are party-loyal theorists each working their own little furrow of social activism that has some similarities. It is necessay to realise that they are part of a broader church of mercenary theory that politicians turn to in search of a ‘Third Way’ now that neo-liberalism can no longer provide. They are a tool for apolitical centrism. What these thinkers express, more so Glasman than Blond, is a curiously similar desire to that of those protesting in Spain, or Egypt, or even Student Occupiers. Namely, it is the desire to access or create the commons.

The common is the classic ‘third place’ or way between the State and the Private forms of ownership. It has been fought over for a very long time indeed; we can turn to the days of the English revolution for examples of battles over the enclosure of land previously held collectively by communities (see Christopher Hill’s work for the classic account of this struggle). This process of enclosure of land continues today in the places like India, were neoliberalism is increasing it’s reach. Land and physical goods are perhaps the clearest and most traditional example of the commons in action, and while the contemporary political actions are often urban and do far too little to address the issues of the countryside, they nonetheless draw on this tradition.

The uprisings, occupations and camps of the moment offer us a new perception of the commons. This understanding is closer to that of Hardt and Negri, who posit the commons as an ever-present category of human existence under global capitalism, which has accidentally created us a shared world, through new technologies places and experiences. This is a re-imagining of Marx’s internationalism of the worker, through what Foucault calls the use of “a certain manipulation of force, a rational and concerted intervention in those relations of force, either to develop them in some direction, or to stabilize and utilize them” (H&N Commonwealth 126). The aim is not so much to accept and be subsumed into this shared world, but to re-purpose it for a ‘multitude of the poor’.

The direction Glasman takes is the opposite to this, a retreat into “family, faith and the flag”, and institutions that often preserve, rather than mobilize and open up, social norms and currents:

“Football clubs are a form of magic and a form of belonging, of hope, of glory, but fans are just being exploited by venture capitalists from a thousand miles away. It offends against the sacred sense of belonging. Ideally I would like to see the Labour party taking very strong support for mutual ownership of football clubs. I would like to see the endowment of local banks so there is regional capital and regional economies.”

In Kōji Wakamatsu‘s documentary-drama about the Japanese Maoist group the United Red Army, a member of the army is put to death for ‘violating the sacred space of the Party’ by the URA’s political leadership. Is this just the extreme end of Glasman’s logic? Designating space as ‘sacred’ also creates the profane. Here Hardt and Negri brilliantly dissect Glasman’s position on the family, observing that those things that seem most community-building are often   those we will destroy others for:

“although the family pretends to extend desires and interests beyond the individual toward the community, it unleashes some of the most extreme forms of narcissim and individualism…When school decisions pose the good of their child against that of others or the community as a whole, for example, many parents launch the most ferociously antisocial arguments under a halo of virtue” (Commonwealth, 161)

Glasman’s understanding of the family is based upon an extension of the self, rather than a connection of the self to another through shared cause and capability. He fails to understand the potential for extreme and personal violence in the instituions he proffers. While Glasman doubtless believes in the ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ model of society- the community bank, the loving family, the society where each individual is essential to their community, it is, at the very best, the farcical suburbanism of Mary Poppins’ Banks family.

Furthermore, isn’t the positioning of the ‘sacred sense of belonging’ in the football stadium in denial about its own similarities to neoliberal cyber-utopian understandings of the ‘singularity’, a unified technological consciousness that frees humanity from the self in its entirety? Offering us a transcendent community such as that which he sees in a football stadium, like Blond, Glasman’s position is a thin veneer for a false religiosity; an irony of today is that while the Spanish movement and Miliband’s speech seem like the most obvious possibilities for the Blue Labour/Red Tory positions to take, their true genetic inheritance is shared with with Harold Camping’s abortive rapture that didn’t take place at 6pm on the same day; some will invariably be left behind, the surplus flesh of an unwanted humanity.

Meanwhile, the pro-democracy movement is already extending and reconsidering the kind of understandings that Hardt and Negri offer. They are establishing nodes to operates as centres of a new form of subjectivity, and creating new possibilities; many new ideas about the commons will be built on the backs of what we’ve seen today. These aren’t perfect movements, indeed they retain many of the worst traits of what Glasman valourizes, but they also insist on the key element of what is sorely missing from Glasman’s ideas; true, active, and productive control over the way power works: in short, democracy. Rather than sitting in conference halls, discussing what a political party might do in a few years time, they are questioning the necessity of the party itself.

A translation of the subsequent ‘Spanish Revolution’ manifesto is here

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One Response to The Commons: A Tale of Two Tweets

  1. DiversityAndEquality says:

    Let us state the problem very clearly: it’s capitalism.

    There is no “real democracy” and no democracy at all in a capitalist society.

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