Reflections from Housing Campaigning

Much to be said on the decision to defer the planning decision over the demolition of the LS26 estate today, which felt like little more than a partial victory – an attempt to kick the issue into the long grass, fob off the residents that have endured so much turmoil, prolonging the limbo they’ve suffered for over 18 months by jamming it in the bureaucratic gears. The foreboding, looming in the shadow of a bulldozer, lingers on, just as the fight does.

A community under siege, that has banded together with such courage and unity amidst that adversity, inheriting a spirit of resistance that is as much an heirloom as the estate itself. Faceless, opaque, byzantine planning rules, democratic processes stacked against communities and in favour of committees and developers and unaccountable planning officers, a culture of contempt towards tenants from landlords and even the council. Deception, the masking of political cruelty under administrative technicality, abdication: opulent committee rooms and impenetrable procedural labyrinths, not meant for oversight from people like us, decisions about the livelihoods of the poor in the clutches of bureaucrats and developers, ‘community issues’ a sideshow to their profits, their rules.

Gentrification, social cleansing, disempowerment; the despair of what seems almost a struggle to claw back the last remnants of a dying world, the rehearsal of age-old battles, the phantoms of austerity Britain. Some Labour Councillors, even, who brand social cleansing ’emotive language’ that distracts from the job they have to do, the rules they are constrained by, who are gracious to landlords demolishing an estate because they haven’t yet served eviction notices – Councillors that really need to learn to grow a spine. Anger, dislocation, demoralization, grief, hope – that, rugged, the fabric of community remains, that there is a power between us they could not factor into their calculations, that they did not count on.

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I think one of the most heartbreaking things whilst doing this sort of work is seeing tenants scared to be in their own homes because their landlords and agents are such utterly callous bullies. Always feeling on edge, unsafe, tugging at the thread of their history of exploitation and feeling it unravel completely out of control. Not being able to sleep at night whilst they do soundly, prospering from your insecurity, content that they can get away with anything without consequence, never taking responsibility while the burden of it – the suffocating mould, the leaking roofs, the tormenting harassment – chips away at you. No one should have to live like that, and we can only stop it by organizing, together, doing everything in our power to support one another.

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As of late we’ve been working relentlessly to set up ACORN Leeds from scratch. It’s incredible to see all those efforts finally bearing fruit, making worthwhile the setbacks and obstacles we’re still having to venture through and stumble over. I feel immensely proud to be part of this union, and an even greater gratitude to all those who came before us who established the foundation on which we’re really just building.

Upon receiving our branch t-shirts and flags, I was struck by sensations that were alien to me even when I was in a trade union: empowerment, ownership, purpose, solidarity, triumph. I think it’s the affirmation that comes with doing good, serious work, with feeling like this is what you’re meant to be doing, this is why you’re here. The strain of rebuilding class power is not easy; it will always to an extent be painful facing up to and tirelessly struggling against injustice. But that burden is part of our duty to one another, and it’s a burden we can and must share by creating robust institutions so we’re no longer in a position of retreat. Because, when you realize the strength we have together, it’s inspiring beyond measure too.

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It’s Leeds Pride today. Just yesterday I was harassed in the street by some guy trying to touch my hair and calling it ‘girly’. I spoke at length on the ACORN stall with an older gay guy who had been persecuted by his neighbours and neglected by the council for decades in his council home, which doesn’t even have central heating or double glazing; forced to sleep for months on his sofa despite chronic back pain, with the majority of his bedroom packed up in boxes after an untended leak flooded through the ceiling and damaged the walls and bed. He was deeply isolated, bedeviled by the sense that his dreams and housing were decaying around him, and suicidal.

I thought about what queerness and queer love is, often still wracked by loneliness and absence and aching, intertwined with oppression. But maybe, also, it can be the love of a union, of a movement, a community, the love of defiance and overcoming. I’ll carry all of that with me in the march today – celebrating, and commemorating.

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Last weekend I travelled up to Hebden Bridge to meet a disabled tenant and ACORN member who’s been experiencing dire problems with her housing association since she moved in there in the early 2000s. It was a tough and intense day, delving into years of distress accumulated from being treated like an inconvenience, being victimized and discriminated against as a trouble maker for raising grievances, support workers cut despite the daily throes of severe pain she endures from a degenerative spinal condition.

It reminded me how deep the scars in our communities run, in but also much beyond austerity, the difficulty of organizing outside urban centres where people are often isolated, the difficulty, most of all, of finding hope. The shadow of all that suffering weighs on so many of us most days, aches in our bones. But as I struggled in the sweltering heat up punishingly steep hills I noticed anti-fracking signs in the windows of terraced houses, posters for Corbyn and opposing education cuts guideposts to my resolve, raised in unassuming protest amidst the sunlight that reflected from houses linked arm in arm and radiated over the rolling hills.  It was such an idyllic place, verdant with culture and light and life. There are glimmers of beauty and resistance everywhere.

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Partings

A quick re-post of something I wrote a year ago after leaving university, that, though the reality of home is always rockier, still resonates today:

I left the West Midlands today. I was struck by an odd myriad of emotions: sadness, joy, wistfulness, nostalgia, unease, relief, love, loss, affection and heartache. Its difficult not to be sentimental in moments like these – and I’m wary of romanticizing the past few years and obviating its difficulties because of that. But regardless I find myself returning to the place I desperately wanted to escape by going to university more content, despite the teary departures. Not the kind of contentment that’s tied to innocence or abstracted from pain, but the kind that’s rooted in feeling blessed to have found a place in wonderful and resilient communities, feeling an overwhelming affection for those I’ve parted with and others I will soon be reunited with up North, feeling a gratitude for the wonderful and warm and rare memories we’ve shared.

Partings are always tough – but what a blessing it is, to have banded together and overcome despite sufferings and trials and hardships, to have loved such inspiring people, to continue to love them, to have even been lucky enough to be loved by them. What a blessing it is, for such joy to depart and yet persevere still, a joy threaded in quiet nights of conversation and film and celebration under fairy lights as much as forged in demonstration and occupation and struggle, peaceful and seismic and ordinary and extraordinary in equal measure. What a blessing it is, to have fought and convalesced and danced and chanted and changed and dreamed and demanded and tried and lost and triumphed and found one another.

Constellations of connections weave toward and in and through moments like these, radiating and reconverging endlessly. Partings are not the end, but to have found one another, to reconcile the story you’ve shared together, to resolve that we will continue to find one another. This, more than anything, then, is a thank you note: the most important thing I learnt at university is that it is connection that paves our lives here. To part with such bittersweet sorrow is a reminder of how important we can be to one another, to part in such a way that it is not a parting at all.

After Pride, Unionize

We recently began establishing a new branch of ACORN in Leeds, a membership-led community and tenants’ union that seeks to build power through direct action against inequality and housing injustice. It’s been both trying and immensely rewarding, reminding me what a left with a sense of direction, strategy and robust structures can concretely achieve in working class communities from which we’ve been too long severed. As an homage to Pride month coming to a close, I thought it worthwhile to figure through why queer tenants are strongly participating in the organizing drives in multiple cities. This is perhaps unsurprising: for all the chauvinism and social conservatism that abides in trade unions, particularly defanged and bureaucratized as many are today, queer and trans workers are disproportionately unionized, not least because, however hollowed out, union representation remains one of the strongest defences against discrimination in-work, especially in instances of unfair dismissal. But we do not just need people to be unionized, we need people to be organizers: militant labour organizers and queer activists creating autonomous institutions have a shared historical understanding that only our self-activity can ensure emancipation.

This is especially significant on the 35 year anniversary of the formation of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, whose fervent support of the miners remains an inspiration to those of us who believe class injustice and LGBTQI+ oppression are fundamentally bound up with one another, that the indignities inflicted upon us share a similar source, and that only collective power can defeat and supplant a system that has division, bigotry and exploitation at its core. Their legacy, our heritage, is a watchword that can sometimes seem distant, both for the political pacifications of neo-liberalism and the seething prejudice that continues to resurge: solidarity. That our destinies are intertwined, that divisions between us can be overcome through struggle, that a challenge against any one oppression bears with it a duty and commitment to the cessation of all oppression.

In short, that the power we have to transform society derives from the leverage we have as workers, as tenants, as communities to directly shut down and repurpose the infrastructures of production and reproduction. That mass social and labour movements, whether Act Up groups blockading the FDA building to demand the adequate provision of AIDS medication or miners engaging in mass pickets outside coal mines, have much more in common than we might imagine, fighting for livelihood as much as dignity, bread as well as roses, often in the very same historical periods where states and corporations were besieging both working class and queer communities. That the organized working class, and agitations for a politics of liberation within it, has been a key driver in civil rights movements the world over, and precipitated many of the advances in rights and protections – such as Equal Pay legislation deriving from the Ford Dagenham strikes – that seem under renewed threat today.  That the fabric of our world, that can so often seem to be fraying under the ravages of neo-liberalism, climate change, and the far-right, was formed by the vision of unity and solidarity these movements, at their best, shared – a mantle we must now extend in our struggle over the future.

Indeed, it is in realms like struggles over housing that I believe we can fruitfully develop common cause to combat both material exploitation and social oppression.  It is in such arenas that discrimination and inequity converge to manifest in acute forms of dispossession, as exemplified by those who are homeless being disproportionately LGBTQI+. We know what the trauma of losing a home is like. Housing as a terrain is uniquely disposed towards community forming, because it is where we share living conditions, intimacy and care, but it is also where misogyny and queerphobia are systematically brought to bear through abuse, exclusion and violence.  As such, it is a site of contradiction where alternatives are most needed: where we might both organize with those who have been dispossessed to demand public housing provision and proactively intervene by bolstering communities so people are less vulnerable to such oppression.

Indeed, it is also a site where we are increasingly atomized and isolated, whether through cuts to disability benefits, cycles of rental house shares with strangers, or blighted community and support services. And though the influence of the patriarchal nuclear family unit is waning, the power relations it mystifies still have a hold: property ownership, the guarantor of resource distribution in capitalist society, increasingly out of reach for young, precarious workers whose families might be at odds with our sexuality or gender identity.  Disowning conspires with displacement by gentrification and avaricious landlordism to broker a raw deal for a generation that is queerer and poorer than their parents. This, alongside the dynamics of insecure work, perhaps goes a great way to explaining the trajectories that are resulting in more young people conceiving of their lives in terms of class, despite the long decline in trade unionism: a whole industry of agents and landlords, and increasingly universities themselves, engineering themselves specifically to fleece and capitalize upon an ever swelling, unhinged, predatory rental market. Exorbitant, spiralling rent for collapsing roofs, black mould and faulty electrics: ever deteriorating living conditions to further line the pockets of those who control our lives simply by virtue of being rich enough to afford a property outright.  Suffering and insecurity for the workers, profit for the bosses: housing and work are two pillars of the same dismal fortress of inequality.

Because, of course, the conflict is not just internal, other tenants or our families that might be hostile towards us so as to diminish our power and resources, but also overriding, a class conflict between tenants and landlords. An antagonism that probably is the most clear-cut, the most egregious, the most acute, younger people encounter on a daily basis, as they are harassed and bullied by tyrants who ratchet up the rent year-on-year with impunity, revenge evict them if they complain about health and safety, and sell the house out from underneath them when it’s decided speculation is more profitable than leaching away half of someone’s wages so they can access shelter.  The reservoir of indignation is profound, because the degradation is: entrenched by decades of policy of housing deregulation, fire-sale of public housing and rampant speculation by landlords, property developers, investment firms – and the same building companies that are spearheading precarious contracts and turfing undocumented workers into the Home Office after hyper-exploiting their labour. A vicious cycle, a poisonous web, the very same profiteering whose fallout haunts us from the financial crisis, willingly abetted by the powerful in Westminster who reap the spoils and benefit from the turmoil.

Because it’s not just younger people: long-standing working class communities have been and are being socially cleansed, as epitomized in the ongoing struggle of the Save Our Homes LS26 campaign to stop the demolition of their former mining estate right here in Leeds, just around the corner from where I used to go to high school, parents of peers who they probably rarely see now, who I wish I’d known better, who I can’t help but think of still. It will often be public sector workers inhabiting these estates, who already bear the experiences, memories, and scars of class struggle, who have endured the brunt of the bloodied impacts of austerity policies, and remain some of the most densely unionized workers that we must unite with.  The ‘managed decline’ of social housing, where working class estates are left to crumble into disrepair to rationalize their eventual sell-off, the institutional indifference and facelessness of ever more commercialized housing associations, the toothless enforcement mechanisms and negligence of local councils: older working class tenants are subject to appalling profiteering and contempt, often from the same ‘public’ bodies that were supposed to protect them.  With more and more shafted into the private rented sector, we have common foes and interests; though neo-liberalism has eroded public housing provision and local government, councils are often accomplices to property developers, and should not be absolved of their own political weakness in addressing the housing crisis. We must stand up for ourselves, hold them to account for their abdication, by developing our own collective power.

In and after Pride, we must stand shoulder-to-shoulder with these struggles, reach out and form alliances across communities, embed ourselves in the kinds of organization with the potential to win back class power and upend this rapacious social order. Just as LGSM fought alongside the miners then, we must stand with the residents of Sugar Hill Close and Wordsworth Drive now: what more apt way could there be to inherit and honour that noble history of solidarity than opposing the threat of eviction against one of the last enduring mining estates? It is in our power to continue that story, not just to preserve it as a relic but to reclaim and take it up and advance it as we too become authors in the persistent struggle for emancipation. In the process, the legacies of institutions of queer life flourishing outside the bounds of capital and the state, the furtive solidarity underpinning queer shelters and the expansion beyond family structures as the sole basis for community, the rage and defiance inflamed by dispossession, could be instrumental in deepening class struggle.

While we nurse the vitriol burning from the wounds of bigotry and hatred, we cannot resign ourselves to the bitterness of lonely refuge, to insular competition for absolution.  Our salve is compassion for the forsaken, for each other. That is the fount of our pride: to affirm and discover one another, to love anew, to resist, through even the most desperate grief, for that chance to love. More deeply, more passionately, and more freely than we might ever have imagined.  United on the picket lines, in the streets, in our homes: rejoicing together in the yearnings of dignity and hope, the spirit of a drag queen pummelling a cop with her heels at Stonewall and the fortitude of the miners at Orgreave defending themselves from police alike blazing in our chorus of commemoration.

Pride is finding somewhere to belong. A home.


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Corbynism, Brexit and the Local Elections

Interpreting local election results is often a byzantine, fraught exercise in confirmation bias. Traditional maxims and received wisdom coincide with cherry-picking analysis to shore up the cause of the speaker. Bias, I think, is not itself a bad thing – but when ideology is framed under the cloak of neutral, empirical analysis – that is, when politics is presented as a game of calculations, a technocratic dispute within the bounds of preordained conventions – the most important core of politics is lost: people, their agency, stories and emotions. Reason, ideology, are often not the overriding motivators, and orthodoxies are contestable, contingent, increasingly upended, neo-liberalism no longer the fixed standard. The burgeoning success of independent candidates everywhere attests to this just as viscerally as many continuing to renounce the polling booth, with the rules of the system fracturing. Resentment, in various shades, germinates amidst such political decay – a dismal landscape comprising the deadlock of Brexit, the collapse of the ruling party, the ravages of austerity and the free market, the erosion of communities by gentrification, the hollowing out and malfeasance of local councils, to name but a few. Politics, for all the imputation of deformation by fake news, has never been a sensible endeavour, for it is fuelled by the clamour for and frustrations of change, on deep conflicts, pressures and yearnings.

The BBC proclaim that ‘both parties have been punished’ to encapsulate this anti-systemic discontent, as if there was an equivalency to be drawn between the calamitous Conservative loss of over 1300 seats and Labour’s loss of just over 80. Commentators and politicians melancholic for Third Way politics assert that the Liberal Democrat gains prove zombie centrist politics have now been revitalised and reclaimed. The right of the Labour party will weaponize the results to vilify Corbynism, contending that Labour’s mild defeats in the heartlands such as Bolsover prove the deficiency of the project in the wake of ongoing Tory disintegration, abdicating responsibility for Labour’s long-term decline in these areas that long precede Corbynism. In response Corbyn loyalists will rightly gesture to the wins from UKIP in Thanet, and risk masking the broader picture and lessons to be drawn under a triumphalism that can lend itself to ossification and complacency, especially where Corbynism already has real, shorn influence in local Government (e.g. Haringey). Both Leave and Remain will mobilize the data for their own ends: the former pointing to frenzies of spoilt ballots and the latter to the surge of the Lib Dems and the Greens. And so it goes.

I would suggest some more cautious critiques – namely that Brexit, while eclipsing the political arena and reinforcing a sense of disillusionment with national politics that exacerbated backlash and low turn out, remains more a broader signifier for anti-establishment sentiment than its entire explanation. It is much more deep-rooted, as the Lib Dem gains in predominantly Leave areas like Sunderland or Barnsley attest: clearly these votes hinged more on protest of local dysfunction, neo-liberal depredation and political stagnation rather than some miraculous defection to Remain.  Similarly, the surge of the Greens might well predominantly reflect increasing political tension over the climate crisis, but it would be remiss to not acknowledge the sway its bold Remain and progressive stances could gain over Labour’s younger base, many of whom are fervently pro-Remain and not as attached to the traditional parties. The cluster of losses for the Tories in pro-Remain areas and losses for Labour in pro-Leave areas are embedded in but not limited to the context of Brexit.

Indeed, the great anguish of Brexit is that it has displaced uniting political antagonisms – over class, shared material conditions – into immutable, paralysing cultural divides.  A pitched battle between sections of the ruling class over membership of a trading bloc, intended to hold together a divided governing party and divert domestic dislocation into nationalist rancour, with all its ensuing bureaucratic contortions, is hardly a conducive terrain for a transformative socialist politics. Here Labour’s strategy of ‘constructive ambiguity’ is understandable: but it could return to haunt them in the European elections, with insurgency over Leave and Remain cleaving away from their party, their valiant attempts to shift the conversation to a more productive terrain of domestic concerns ultimately pleasing no one, especially if they are perceived to co-operate over a back-door deal.  There is, then, no easy fix here.

The continued weakening of the Tory party should be of great consolation to Labour – the only problem of course being that Labour generally did not reap the spoils of these losses. The conquest of some Tory southern marginals is heartening despite this (and one should probably not expect its more well-heeled constituencies to defect to anyone more progressive than the Lib Dems), and the in-roads in places like Worthing and Preston are encouraging.  Accounting for the fact that Labour voters are generally less likely to turn out for local elections, the fact that many more urban boroughs were not up for re-election where Labour is very popular, and that defending its General Election advances necessarily proves difficult – the catastrophic losses suffered by the Tories and the much milder defeats suffered by Labour were nonetheless concentrated in their traditional heartlands.  The reason for this clearly extends beyond axioms that local elections enable people to register discontent with major parties in a way they wouldn’t risk in a General Election, that constituencies will always lash out at whoever is in charge locally to vent their grievances, that national patterns cannot be extrapolated from local results – even if these explanations contain kernels of truth.

Indeed, such maxims risk becoming self-defeating because in order for Corbynism to fulfil its potential it must find its home in local elections. The distributions of the local election results reflect, if nothing else, a disenchantment with formal politics, a ‘fanning out’ to more marginal parties to dissent against business-as-usual. Brexit offers a partial explanation as an impasse that could well fracture traditional electoral coalitions away from major parties. The terminal decline of the Tories, ghoulish and crumbling after a decade of wrenching austerity, social sadism and political incompetence, is unsurprising. But the lack of advance for Labour, rather than attesting to the failures of Corbynism, imply quite the contrary: that Corbynism has not hegemonized the whole of the party but more the leadership and the base, that right-wing Labour councils still fester with venality and contempt for their constituencies, and that a national transformative agenda lead from central government has intrinsic limits in the interim of restoring democratic control and political ownership in deindustrialized regions that have been politically and economically marginalized for decades.

Corbynism not only has to contend with the sordid legacy of Blairite councils in these regions whilst contesting for power, confronting a generalized political and economic attrition in the heartlands, but, harder still, advance a program that translates its characteristic spirit of insurgency to a local level where cuts and outsourcing rage on.  Regional investment banks, green transition of decaying industries and reviving high streets and public services otherwise in demise are noble ideas: but simply reversing austerity is insufficient. Bold and radical proposals to revitalise political participation, innovate new cultural institutions, centre rank-and-file trade and community union engagement, devolve power regionally, and transform public resources are necessary here: a meaningful municipal strategy exploring concepts of regional parliaments, devolution of power and redistribution of wealth to local councils, federated forms of ownership in all sections of the economy.

Here the community organizing units Labour is pioneering could be essential to more than just expanding canvassing efforts, but joining with institutions like Momentum to provide collective forums for strategizing around such plans, developing cultural and social programs to answer pressing material needs in our communities, and enhancing the infrastructure of unions and movements with the force to challenge exploitation and animate people as political actors in the here-and-now. To overcome the recuperating pitfalls of social democracy, and for its spirit of insurgency to not be stifled by the market and bureaucracy or overwhelmed by the predations of the far-right, we must look long-term to both the fundamentals of the labour movement and novel strategies, in which organizations like ACORN and the Climate Strike and feminist struggles can pose visions of emancipation that augment traditional trade union activity.

As such, an in-and-against the state approach is perhaps the only answer to these local ailings, to the intense disenchantment with Westminster politics inflaming the populace. Indeed, it is here, in local elections, that the inertia of business-as-usual is epitomized: the left must have an answer that is neither content to secede from the project of the state nor couched in subservience to the party-political system. The transformation incumbent on us is not to settle for rituals of low turn-out, fighting rear-guard battles as we wait for a General Election to break the impasse. Instead it is to reforge processes like local elections as the key drivers of domestic politics, creating the bases for real community, real belonging, real solidarity.


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On the Dismissal of Extinction Rebellion

Extinction Rebellion are now in their 6th day of blockading a number of key London landmarks to draw urgent attention to the climate crisis.  It is, regardless of political disagreement, undoubtedly a major, bold and remarkable upheaval.  But much of the radical left – not without cause – remain wary, with fundamental misgivings around their approach of deliberately seeking out arrests, related shortcomings in understandings of state power, capitalist exploitation and colonial injustice at the core of climate devastation, and a fetishization of moralism and mobilization over politics and strategy.  Despite this, the undeniable practical achievements of XR are beginning to sway the sympathies of the left, precipitate a serious rupture in business-as-usual, and provoke the resentment of many in power.

It’s worth mentioning here that, as with the majority of social movements over the past few decades (even in contexts like the Gilet Jaunes, where the socialist, communist and anarchist left in France is organizationally much stronger), XR have circumvented the institutionalized left but are not uprooted from the left more broadly, with many of its leading figures and core staff active in social movements such as Occupy, Climate Camp etc before joining XR.  That is to say, it would be unfair in the first instance to insinuate that XR is entirely divorced from an anti-capitalist orientation, and their opting for a non-violent and ‘non-political’ approach, whatever our skepticism and however we might contend this is predicated on a misreading or short-circuiting of social movement history, is a deliberate choice rather than an inadvertent flaw.  The movement, as with politics more generally, is rapidly unfolding and evolving, which of course renders static critique contingent and difficult, but the practical evidence of success demands our introspection as much as critique.  Perhaps inevitably, the degree of this success is at this point ambiguous – such as its durability, or whether the movement has rippled beyond simply activating broader layers of a dormant socially liberal constituency – but the media coverage, impact of continued disruption, and organizational dynamism all attest to success nonetheless, especially weighed up against the failings of other responses (including the institutionalized left’s) to climate change.

I am, then, wary of contributing to the caustic, opportunistic cycles of reaction with this piece, especially because I am not in the position to survey the Rebellion on the ground, despite being impressed with their local activity in supporting the Youth Climate Strikes in Leeds (and I am sure elsewhere).  Indeed, I think we risk not seeing the forest for the trees here – that is to say, to be so pre-occupied in the critique of a necessarily amorphous, fluid, messy movement that it outpaces the left’s participation and solidarity over an issue of such fatal inequity and gravity.  It goes without saying that not every social movement warrants the allegiance of socialists, but perhaps it is not reflected on enough that fixed identifications with such political classifications – in movements and society at large – are not as commonplace as we might imagine or hope.  All of our politics are highly malleable, contradictory and always circumstantially in flux – and movements, then, are a crucible for that mutability too, particularly when contemporaneously mediated by the frenzies of social media.

This is not an argument against political programmes in our movements – I agree that lack of direction and vision has hampered their strength over the last few decades, that a preference for non-politics amounts to a hollowing out of key questions of systemic analysis and change, an evasion of all the exercise of politics already arraigned against the lives of the global poor through the state, through work, through oppression.  But it is to reckon with the allure of a ‘non-political’, unfettered-by-bureaucracy mobilizing approach where people feel, above all, a profound grief and rage that rouses them to act.  The constitution of social movements over the past few decades, that might be loosely clustered around the ‘neo-anarchist’ method, has deep resonances in the dynamics of XR, but its focus on consistent training, ecological ideas of ‘regeneration’ in the context of cultural events and welfare, and replicable militant action mark it out as distinct too – particularly in how informed its ‘Momentum’ volunteering model is by the Sanders nomination campaign.  It has amalgamated these contemporary activist practices with a civil disobedience tradition that appeals to public sympathy through a kind of conscientious objection, in order to rectify a societal plight in which the state is charged with failing in its civic duty.

In a similar sense that a movement cannot work off catharsis and rejection alone, we might too interrogate how a temptation to caricature the movement can harbour its own impulse of nihilism, vitriol or moral superiority.  Similarly, if the ‘official’ approach of XR is to sanction a dearth of liberation politics and an idea of social change that substitutes leverage and solidarity for orchestrated state repression – that is, if these are active political decisions from central political actors rather than lapses of a movement in evolution (participants’ worldviews might be developing, but nor are they stooges) – comradely appraisal is reasonable too.  There is a risk here of judging by a communist standard a model that is not oriented around a communist politic – but that does not entail ceasing to push at the limits of the model itself.

In this regard, I think there’s a range of reasons why dismissal of XR is happening – the ‘sniping’ that social media logics enable, very legitimate grievances with the racism and class composition of the climate movement, trauma from state repression informing activists’ alarm with a strategy that exalts arrests, a sense of disaffection on the part of ‘seasoned’ activists who (I think in many cases quite rightly) think what’s happening is not actually all that novel and, from the anti-globalization protests to anti-roads protests to climate camp, has a trajectory of strategic failures due to its fixation on disruptive spectacles, self-selecting martyrdom, and veteran movement ‘leaders’ treating especially younger activists as cannon fodder or footsoldiers.

The latter point about strategic disillusionment can be taken at the least generous interpretation as dovetailing with drifts towards Labour party politics – and perhaps a lack of self-awareness or even lashing out at how naive and ridiculous the image of our younger activist selves seems looking back, at how many of our movements (though of different potentials) struggle with similar problems around class and race, at how XR remind us of our own impotence or guilt or what we couldn’t achieve etc. At its most generous it’s a hard-headed assessment of XR’s (I think) misplaced theory of change and how we need to reorientate social movements to genuinely build collective, robust power. I generally fall into that camp but think, in lieu of a sustained general strike being nowhere on the horizon soon, we could do with less acerbity, and more recognition that we’re all really stabbing in the dark here, especially on climate change.  That is to say, we should always be engaging with the movement as it is, rather than how we wish it to be.

Having myself endured a fair amount of state repression, and XR racking up ~700 arrests already with seemingly little infrastructure (or indeed will) to support them, I can’t shake that lingering instinct of foreboding that they’re going to get the movement crushed before – even by their own estimations, that 3.5% of the population is all that is needed – they have any critical mass, and seriously damage a lot of young peoples’ lives in the process. It’s of course worth remembering movements are not a zero-sum game and that we can be in solidarity without agreeing with their approach entirely, rather than just falling back on abstract principles of purity that justify inaction and are more concerned with being right above all else. But at the same time I understand viscerally the reservations toward a movement whose leading figures (who, importantly, do not define the movement) shamelessly describe going to prison as comparable to boarding school.

However, an official stance that glorifies arrest does not mean individual participants are not fearfully languishing in the isolation of police custody, dreading what the fallout might be, desperate for solidarity despite the frantic drive to sacrifice everything to the cause (a drive that need not simply mean an encapsulation of privilege but also a response to a sense of powerlessness and helplessness).  This is no more the case for those halting the DLR overground train at Canary Wharf, who will now be remanded in custody for a month until their trial.  Those braving the ire of airport passengers to highlight the catastrophic environmental impacts of the aviation industry at Heathrow were surrounded by vast reinforcements of police vociferating the Riot Act underneath their chants, just as forces seem to be escalating their containment strategies in central London, with even Legal Observers subject to arrest and roadblock props seized.  Charges against protesters are rising, and the creeping grind of bureaucratic violence will soon set in.

The derision and vilification of the movement by media commentators has doubled down in earnest, echoing the outcry of reactionary legacy media blaming the weakness of the police and politicians demanding they bring the ‘full force of the law’ to bear on the protestors.  That is to say, the establishment feedback loop that rationalizes and escalates authoritarian repression is already in motion, and this is cause for worry for us all, marking out the need for solidarity.  I’m sure hopes XR can be waited out, the police being deeply over-stretched (the strength and scope of the protests are more relevant than cuts here), shifts in policing tactics, attempts to preserve an image of benevolence and harmony, and the whiteness of the protests are all contributing factors to why this crackdown has not happened sooner – but it remains surprising.  One should naturally not trust the police reports at their word that the ‘peaceful’ conduct of the protestors is the underlying reason, because that has hardly been a reason before for the police not to fulfil their fundamental role of controlling dissent and executing the organised violence of the state.  Nonetheless the strategic choice of XR to pursue non-violence might have indeed stayed such a crackdown, whether through the state not wanting to play into XR’s hands and create martyrs, or because violent struggle can provoke (but not justify, as the state’s power is necessarily a self-justifying monopoly on force, as police harassment of BME communities attests) a more immediate violent backlash from police.

It perhaps goes without saying that over-reaching towards a dogmatic insurrectionary position is misguided, that open hostility towards the police does not instantly make a movement either more intersectional or more effective, just as the greater threat and patterns of subjugation experienced by black, working class and marginalized communities by the police should not be neglected.  It could be contended that overt antagonism towards the police, however understandable, may not be conducive to the development of mass movements, but even if that were true the alternative need not be actively supplicating arrest (which even on its own terms perhaps short-cuts the ‘moral outrage’ repression of a righteous cause is supposed to provoke), nor is it any less an affront to cozy up to and laud the police and disregard their functions, injustices and brutalities.  Similarly the shortcomings of a dogmatic position of non-violence when the crackdown does come should be grappled with, especially when the state defines the content of these terms to constrain the ‘legitimate’ boundaries of resistance efforts (here XR’s buying into these terms, such as officially branding the property damage at the Shell building ‘criminal damage’, effectively depriving their comrades of a defence, is ill-advised).  The dimensions of non-compliance under the remit of non-violence should be interrogated, particularly with regard to the legacy of camaraderie forged through the common sense that arrests are an injustice to be hindered not invited, with the utility of a tactic of non-violence not collapsed into a general moral, even theological, prescription.

All this to say: these are strategic questions to deliberate over, rather than, as they are sometimes treated, simple questions with ready-made solutions or sacrosanct answers.  A critique ensues here: XR does not really have democratic structures or forums to deliberate over these questions.  That – alongside the obvious over-arching problem that the movement is more attractive those with a background in finance or academia in the position to suspend their jobs for the cause, than it is a working class struggling day-to-day through the throes of austerity still – is often one function of such decentralized movements, where process can be counter-intuitively opaque rather than open.  But the fluidity of the movement grants license for different kinds of intervention that socialists could pursue – forming affinity groups and eco-socialist messaging and banners of our own, popularizing the Green New Deal in public assemblies, bringing the Youth Climate Strikes and institutions of the labour movement more into synthesis with XR’s actions.  That is to say, the practice of politics has much currency here. A discussion focus on decolonization at the occupation sites might well not entirely redress the lack of diversity and dearth of cogent initiatives against colonial domination, but nor should the interventions of groups such as Stop the Maangamizi in the movement or XR’s remarkable global scaleability be overlooked.  The sometimes pious, conspiratorial-leaning asseveration to ‘tell the truth’ – as if the problem were a matter of impaired enlightenment, of Last Judgement melodrama, rather than severe injustice and the interests of capital – should not belie the important power of grand, emotive moral narratives – even, dare I say it, faith – in fortifying the convictions of individuals and collectives in our movements.  We should engage seriously with the content, capabilities and consequence of the movement, which the surface can sometimes mask.

By way of conclusion, then, I’m currently caught somewhere between admiration at the genuinely vibrant, militant, ambitious, internationally coordinated, significant activity currently in motion around such a menacing threat, fear at the state crashing down and how unforgivable it is to at best downplay and at worst collaborate with the grievous violence it inflicts on oppressed people, and sheer bewilderment at how they got all their money.  I’m conflicted, like I’m sure many out on the streets are, like we all are, at this bleak juncture.  It’s why reflexivity and adaptability is so important, for all of us, and I think the movement seems to be affording space for that.  Like all events of this kind, it channels multitudes of contradictory potentials: we should embrace the idea that its approach might well have merits rather than trenchantly discarding it and alienating participants because it does not reconcile with pre-configured models.

Social movements will necessarily always surprise us, will always be messy and challenging and fraught.  Perhaps it is only serendipity that XR has emerged at a point where tension over climate change is sharpening, and its success is simply that it has tapped into this sense of panic.  Even if that were true (though surely too pessimistic and deterministic a reading), this is the expression the movement has found, and the one we must reckon with, and its boldness in the wake of climate chaos is an inspiration.  And in it, many people animated, finding their power, feeling just as we did when we first began activism – all the fury and doubt and fear and joy and courage and hope you’ve ever known unleashed amidst the flurries of struggle, the whole world quaking and reverberating beneath your feet through a desperate clamour for change, the thrill and emotion and energy of thousands coursing through and inflaming your every fibre, surging in concert against all the horror of the world.  But what that sense of empowerment, unity, future means beyond the intensity of moments of resistance is the question that now confronts XR, and all the left, too.

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High and Lonesome

We traversed across the haze of time and space
Signals overlapping, fired like staggering sparks
Into the enveloping valleys of the night.
I think maybe I stayed awake to talk to you
Or that I just sleep better when you’re here.
And while the city was on the verge of slumbering
I was returning home from another meeting
Kindled, or burnt out – disoriented
That you couldn’t be there
As we pursued our subterranean plotting
In the humble enclave of a pub
Navigating ancient questions
Like who are we, and what do we fight for
Aching with smothered stories
And longing for freedom.

I know it’s a burden sometimes,
To resist, until all the world seems hollowed out
How dawns can smoulder in the hail of duty
How daunting it is to be brave
In the wake of all this chilling terror
How crushing it was when we were separated into cells
And couldn’t reach one another.
But you’re so important
And in the desperate reaches of the night
To these high and lonesome strains
There’s no one else I’d rather march beside.
You lit the match, reigniting lost trails
Of embers adrift and huddled in the rain
Reflected, now, in the sprawl of restless illuminations
Of a glistening, spiring skyline
Mingled with flaring constellations
Scintillating across the horizon, descending the hill
To a place that would not be home without you
But that still feels lonely sometimes.

Because love is not salvation
But a lambent solace,
A kindling among ruins
A tender companionship through grievous nights
Cooking leftover food for one another
Through the throes of foreboding and pain
Dancing clumsily and feverishly at the fireside
Into the release of one another’s embrace
Among blistering anthems of disaffection.
It is to hold one another in consolation
Against all the horror and hatred and shame
That haunts the streets we struggle to reclaim
Revolting in the day with furious chants
And sentinelling the night with panicked affection.
And our hands were sore
Our hearts seared, and heavy,
From trying to forge hope
Out of these flickering remains.
And I suppose it just feels dismaying
To not be able to hold your hand.

But then I think I glimpsed your spirit,
Just over the ridge, a lingering spark
We discovered here, that first night in the dark
With hastily packed bags in tow
As if perpetually in flight
And all that was once familiar felt so alien, and fraught,
Except for you, and I thought,
Just for a moment, that we might be all right.
And it was beautiful, just like you said, the sight
Of these secret and radiant horizons:
The wondrous and tranquil glimmers of the night.
And maybe we could fall asleep talking,
Ensconced from the dread,
Like we did when we first met
Waxing in capsized and cosmic whispers
Stronger for our vulnerability – reprieved
In the gentle comfort that anchors every spark of passion
That wards off violence, and softens the pangs of bitterness
So we can find the courage to not hide away.

I could listen to you forever
And cherish the thread of each patient wish
Through the shadows of absence, and chaos, and war.
For love is the grace not of joining
But simply becoming ourselves
Transcending ourselves through one another
Finding one another
Like cloverleafs wafting across the void we all bear –
Accomplices in the tangles of vicissitude.
It is the rousing of beauty at the edges of the night
A wager on lightness, and kindness, and adventure
Against the petrifying resignations of suffering.
I could stay up ’til dawn yearning for the words
To describe the majestic traces of the museum we visited
And the weathered tones of pink, white and blue flags
Hoisted aloft, if still buffeted, and beleaguered,
In the intimate recesses of the city
Fluttering like wisps of cloud amid the idyllic evening sky
We delighted in, as it wove with the quiet resolution of miracles,
Suffused by the echoes of a dream
That furtively, incandescently, endures;
Seeking the contours of a future
In the muted, indomitable refrains of the past
Because through agony and joy, history is neither halcyon nor mire
But a reservoir, a spring.

And the balm of spring is in the air now
And the ashen bushes near the house
Are all ablaze with vibrant, sweet hues
Just like you love.
I thought maybe we could go to the park when you get back
Those that fleetingly passed us by in the whirlwinds of obligation
Just entrust ourselves to the trance of perfumed blooms
And the euphony of bird song
And the soothing caresses of the sun and grass.

I thought that maybe we could change the world.

Reflections On the Leeds Climate Strike

The Leeds Climate Strike rally in front of the town hall on Friday was, I think, nothing short of phenomenal.  Its turn-out, creativity and strength of feeling was enough to dispel the creeping sense of jadedness surrounding activism in towns outside London that rarely witness mass political activity on the streets.  Joining protests across the country and across the world, the scale of the organization and the spirit of protestors daring to confront the most daunting of political and social challenges was itself an inspiring and impressive triumph.  The cause clearly struck a nerve with a generation that feel sold out by a callous political and economic system, opening a space for them to assert their collective agency and their right to a future amidst the anxiety and despair of austerity, a resurging far-right and climate catastrophe.

This was indeed latent in the incendiary energy and organic political articulation of the young crowd as they flooded the steps of the town hall.  Wielding vibrant home-made placards and indignant chants demanding ‘system change not climate change’, perhaps one of the strongest slogans to emerge from the climate movement and one that must be its watchword advancing forwards, the yearning to decisively break from business-as-usual politics was palpable.  Indeed, many young people spontaneously took to the mic to speak with passion of their weariness with feeling powerless, of the risks they had bravely taken in missing school despite threats of punishment, of their fear but also importantly of their hope.  Confronted with the cynicism of political leaders and commentators branding them naive, entitled idealists, mounted police looming vigilant against any disruption, and the bonds of a school system increasingly dominated by imperatives of market discipline, the crowd was ablaze with an exuberant sense of hope.  It was an extraordinary sight not just for its political potential, a generation discovering its collective power in the wake of capitalist stagnation and political inertia, but because it was an expression of joyful irreverence: the young being bold and animated and free-spirited exactly as they should be.

Indeed, with the strikes in Further Education colleges not long ago, and many from the sector populating the crowd, this radicality is perhaps unsurprising.  The mirror to the riotous student protests in 2010 and 2011 is relevant here as the most significant uprising from the sector, provoked by EMA cuts, for almost a decade, with muted, despondent, and rear-guard strike action the only bulwark since then due to the sheer barrage of vicious budget cuts.  Similar shockwaves could arise from this activity as it did in 2010/11, particularly with even otherwise politically dormant towns across the country experiencing a wave of coordinated action on the 15th of February that is only likely to swell in organizing towards the horizon of 15th of March.  Its capacity to merge with workers organizing in school and FE, and its alliance with class struggle and community campaigns more broadly, will determine not only its own success but whether it can transcend the anchorlessness from the labour movement that has too often hamstrung the climate movement.  The boon could, then, be two fold: FE students’ militancy, fomented by class grievance as much as climate injustice, could revive campaigns of trade unions long withered, in decline and timid on environmental issues, galvanizing broader revolt as it did in 2011, whilst threading together social and labour movements too often siloed off from one another.  Through this we might further highlight how economic justice and climate justice are fundamentally intertwined, rather than a trade off.

It is salient that the context for this protest is situated in a broader left-ward shift in the political mainstream.  In many ways the Climate Strike signals both the ascendancy and inertia of Corbynism: the space for Corbynism would not have been possible if not for the rupture precipitated by the youth-led anti-austerity movements at the turn of the decade, particularly its commitments to a National Education Service.  Since then Corbynism has revitalised the expectations of a left suffering a series of defeats by the brutality of neo-liberalism, reactivating constituencies long dispossessed by the machinations of formal politics – but it remains subdued on climate change.  There is something of a paradox here, then: Corbynism was a crucible for dissent against the misery wrought by austerity and its project cannot triumph against the ruling class without rank-and-file power, but also in part its institutional turn arose to compensate for the relative weakness of social movements.  Perhaps reinforced by the impasse of Brexit deadlocking parliament, the energy and activity empowering the base has waned as of late, and only triangulation can follow without pressure from the bottom up.  As such, it will fall to movements like the Climate Strike to force climate change on to the political agenda, and urgently carve out the legitimacy for a Green New Deal.  It will have to contest the influence of the trade union bureaucracy’s conservatism around fossil fuel and aviation jobs over the Labour Party, as much as developing a collective strength that can leverage the rapacious interests of fossil capital and its stranglehold over the political system.

Indeed, the climate movement’s neo-anarchist orientations are reflected in the Climate Strike’s circumvention of traditional political channels, taking matters into its own hands through decentralized, grassroots action.  Extinction Rebellion are the most recent manifestation of this approach, and its Leeds networks were indispensable in mobilizing for the rally, suggesting much potential for collaboration.  Overarchingly, XR’s aims and disruptive activity are laudable and inspiring but without institutional durability the shortcomings of its activist model (burn-out, repression, marginality, moralism, ephemerality) will likely set in.  The adoption of the strike tactic by the movement could be conceived of as an attempt to overcome the reality of limited industrial power as well as a necessary re-orientation of the climate movement towards a politics of mass non-participation: to not just generate a series of militant and sacrificial spectacles but render the existing arrangement of power unfeasible.  The active links forged between institutions of organized labour and the climate movement at the Leeds rally were heartening in this regard: the labour movement could learn from the climate movement’s courage and dynamism and the latter could learn from the former’s endurance and organization.

The question of organization going forwards is pivotal here: what formations to utilize to sustain, embolden and strengthen the incredible outbreak of resistance on the 15th of February.  Questions will need to be answered in the long-run about whether some of the more NGO-like organizations overseeing the mobilization will become a hindrance, particularly if they maintain an opposition towards militancy.  Many of the demonstrations were vibrant and antagonistic: a temptation towards the passivity and spectatorship of static rallies and ritualized speeches should be resisted, with combative marches, blockades and other kinds of direct action politicising and energizing participants to realize their own power.  There is seemingly much malleability on a local level: the organizational structures are very porous, and there is a versatility and fluidity there that should not be recuperated or co-opted, but the movement does need a robust infrastructure if its potential is to flourish.  Much of the mobilization occurred through social media and What’s App, an increasingly prevalent (and probably unavoidable) strategy in our era.  The broad-ranging, globally scalable connections these platforms lubricate are crucial to ‘hyping’ sentiment around particular issues among informally linked and diverse social groups: but they can be no substitute for offline organization (and, importantly, democracy) and their tendency towards transient volatility should be reckoned with.

An interplay of institutional vehicles and social movements, then, will probably be incumbent on the aspirations of this movement as it progresses.  Momentum and Young Labour in particular could facilitate the expression of this movement within Labour, offering resources and a site for strategic convergence with other campaigns.  Many ‘head girls’ also spoke at the rally: there are organic leaders in place that can command their social influence within the education sphere to mobilize their friends and colleagues, and creating pluralistic organizations to support the development of these leaders and the popular capacities of the movement is essential.  The Labour Councillor who spoke of fuel poverty at the rally gestured towards a crucial facet of any movement towards climate justice: rooting its principles in the everyday lives and material conditions of a working class struggling with ever higher fuel costs, poor quality, expensive housing, and brutal social security and public service cuts.  The movement must actively grapple with these injustices and demand decent, fully sustainable, publicly-owned infrastructure, extending from energy companies to transport to housing, rather than appealing to individual or consumer solutions in the context of deep privation.  A fundamental transformation of the global economy, particularly a reckoning with the devastating colonial inequalities that underpin the climate crisis, can be the only viable answer to the gravity of the challenge before us.

Humility

Protests like the remarkable climate strikes yesterday remind me how important humility is as an activist. You want movements to run away from you. Content to be just another face in the crowd, not vying for recognition or status or career but to participate in something meaningful, something greater than yourself, to be remembered for the movement you were a part of even if your individual name is forgotten, no less and no more than anyone else. An ordinary person that tried their utmost to further the extraordinary cause of collective emancipation. We sometimes get used to wanting to be the smartest, the most organized, the most sophisticated in the room, because to do otherwise is to feel impotent in the wake of bitter defeats, but the currents of history sweep that away. And damn, that’s okay. That’s liberating. To matter to something so potentially powerful and magnificent, where individual courage is incumbent on us but heroism has to be a collective act.

This is not a call for abdicating responsibility – quite the contrary. It’s wise and necessary that people are organized, invest themselves in politics, feel a duty towards it. Organization underpins every significant movement, and, importantly, sustains those flashes and outbursts. But oftentimes something will spark that overwhelms you, that exceeds expectations deflated by toiling away to little fruition for so long, that makes you wonder how this happened, how demographics of young people got mobilized that you couldn’t reach for years. And at that moment, it’s important to let go of cynicism, to recognize your organization is probably not the centre of the political universe, to learn and don your mask and get stuck in. Because resistance is a thing of chaotic, fervent beauty, epitomized in the utter fearlessness of those who have never been on demos before risking detention in order to take a stand, boldly facing down police horses in a way trade union bureaucrats wouldn’t dare. Because it’s about conviction and faith and heart, over and beyond being seasoned or right. Because, in the end, it’s not about any one of us – it’s about all of us.


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Work Memoirs Pt.II: The Job Hunt

(The first part of this series can be found here.)

What happens to those who didn’t get the job?

The common parlance deployed to discuss work tells us much about the ideologies undergirding it.  ‘Hunt’ invokes connotations of Social Darwinism: it encapsulates both the tacit fact that our political economy is organized around competition over fundamental resources, that the means of subsistence and production are dispossessed from common ownership, whilst also betraying a furtive alertness, disconcert or discontentment with the brutality of such a state of affairs.  It is a conflicted, contradictory gesture – epitomizing how the hegemony of wage labour has been formed through its mystification as a natural and immutable order (posing competition over resources, and by extension aggressive self-interest, as simply an evolutionary impulse inherited from primitive society), whilst smouldering with a kind of wistful yearning for escape from such a cutthroat ‘race’.  Inevitably, so the argument goes, society just has its winners and losers.  You should have run faster, toppled the other contestants, risked more, whatever it takes to get ahead.  We taunt ourselves with structural failings, because capital – predatory, and sacrosanct – taunts us.  Is it not unconscionable that the system is arranged such that great swathes of people will lose out, branded and abandoned as surplus, as disposable?

*

What would happen if you could stop running?  If you could breathe without such panicked, bated exhaustion for just a while, if your lives were not gambling material for the high-flying elites in the luxury box, if you were not treading desolate tracks and vying against others amid the rubble of communities razed to raise such grand, rotten stadiums? That urge becomes its own leverage, the ‘motivational’ gift sold back to us by the ever more fraught promise of stable employment itself, by the elusive ideal of advancement and promotion especially.  Aspiration is capital’s ideological relief to the asphyxiating boundaries of entrenched inequities, those that constrict and haunt our whole lives. The only thing worse than having a job is not having a job, after all, to be ensnared in the callous, punitive and Kafka-esque nightmare of welfare bureaucracy.  Capitalism is founded upon a disciplinary work ethic: the exaltation and veneration of work relies upon a demonization and degradation of those out of formal work.

This ideology – of work as duty, of pain and toil as virtue, as a solution to the very privation the system itself inflicts – promotes and is reinforced by a totality of power relations and inequalities that legitimize lopsided resource distribution.  The fiction goes that the poor are feckless, the disabled are shirkers and frauds, immigrants and black communities are criminal.  Border controls, draconian policing and imprisonment, exclusion from work and services, the destruction of the welfare state, gentrification are techniques to debase and subjugate communities so as to create marginalized demographics and captive zones for capital accumulation.  Work and unemployment are dismally interpenetrating landscapes, encroaching on one another with their travails and dread, whilst paradoxically promising mutual salvation from socio-economic conditions we are compelled to blame ourselves for.  The insidious common sense of Social Darwinism mobilized by capitalism, then, bleeds into the hierarchies wired into the system and its history – allocating people to stations of labour and power according to fabricated contours of class, race, gender, sexuality and ability and concealing the indignity with the seal of ‘meritocracy’.  In particular, such stratifications sanction the devaluation and appropriation of the work of social reproduction that has always been under- or un-remunerated by the formal wage relation.  To interrogate the forces that structure both the tyrannies of work itself and exclusions from the workplace is to chip away at both the myth of meritocracy and the notion of wage labour’s inherent sanctity.  It is to ask: what happens to those who did not get the job?

*

Neo-liberalism could not survive without a heady, bittersweet fusion of deflating cynicism and privatised utopia, without both impoverished duress and zealous ambition.  Conditions necessarily circumscribe (but do not determine) consciousness; necessity and self-preservation, not to mention desperation, become their own self-perpetuating ideology.  We need money to get by, jobs enable us to access money, and so work is rendered the self-justifying arena of human subsistence. But it is also rendered a site of fulfilment, social status and community because capital has otherwise blighted and depredated the social landscape, decimated the idea that there is any such thing as society so as to subordinate all human activity and moral worth to unchecked private acquisition.  Another contradiction, then: capital’s commodification of human connection into ‘networking’ and ‘teamwork’ expose the frailties of a system that must micromanage impulses towards collective relations that might otherwise grate up against rapacious managerial interests.  Even a socio-economic system predicated on the dictates of competition must concede how integral co-operation is to the maintenance of any kind of production and the sustenance and governance of human life.

The mechanical rituals and draining alienation of work must also be embellished with ‘company values’ to ensure affective compliance with ruthless imperatives of efficiency and profit-accumulation, to merchandise human relationships, personalities and subjectivites towards optimized service delivery and tailored consumption.  In this context it is not that people do not recognize their exploitation, that people do not feel dejected, used or cheated by the facade of corporate social responsibility.  It is that we are materially rewarded for not asking questions like: what happens to those who didn’t get the job?  It is not that individuals are selfish, an idea which is itself a byproduct of capitalist ideology, but that we are constrained to prize money as a social goal because to be without is to have no opportunities, no comfort, no provision for the well-being of yourself or those around you. Indeed, it is such questions that expose the cracks in the road.  They shatter a fantasy of individual striving we both necessarily indulge and disavow.  They are secrets masked by the pageantries of the finish line, secrets shrouded in shadows of domination and oppression, secrets bound up with countless dissonant, tormenting trade-offs over career and love, faith and pain.

Secrets like: whether I obtain this job is more contingent on if I can ingratiate myself to the hiring manager, mutilate any feminine presentation, perform to arbitrary standards of enthusiasm, devotion and positivity, than it is on any skills or knowledge.  That one masks the vicious uncertainty, stress and worry of defeat beleaguering our days and bleeding into the verges of sleep – the future eclipsed by faceless algorithms and relentless reels of job applications, deferred to the self-serving whims of managers.  How minor slivers of security, a frantic anxiety over money to pay the rent and bills so you don’t fall behind, the capacity to just leave the house without fearing the spectres of your bank balance, engulf the horizons of your imagination, consume any possibility or plan or dream.  How all sense of rootedness decays as connections contract into Linked In networks, candidate profiles on a throng of tangled job sites meant to fabricate human beings into instrumentally authentic personas and polished company avatars, a smoke-and-mirrors simulation monitored by customers and bosses and HR departments, the ache of job portals warping reality.  How all life becomes devoured by work, the readiness to work, a preparation for work, research into work, loyalty to work, by frenzied urges of exertion that are never quite enough, by cravings for some kind of fruition that cannot find release, by flurries of targets and quotas you can never quite reach.  Feverishly cheering for the chance to commit to drudgery as if it were a salvation, restlessly waiting on work that might never come or might only last the week, always in the lurch; pitted in an ever-sprawling, bloodthirsty and rigged game where you never really had a goddamn chance, where odds and obstacles are utterly stacked against you in poles of stagnation and affluence, where success becomes a substitute for purpose.  Enervated and enfeebled, running on empty, chasing drab jobs to dead ends, menaced by the stakes of our every insecurity, the fog-horn of incessant, cacophonous agency emails blaring, we collapse in the terrible futility of it, in the shadows of the prosperity rent from our bodies and minds.

*

We are encouraged, at the end of the interview, to ask questions about promotion, responsibilities, training.  To vaunt our strained, weary, effervescent passions.  But the question of loss, the most important question, is a foregone conclusion: what the hell happens to those who didn’t get the job?  The deep depression so many of us feel is, in part, due to the helplessness of repressing the part of ourselves that dares to answer that question.  Bit by bit, these contradictions and secrets fracture and erode us all, hollow us out and bereft us, cleave us off from the world as we lose one another in the forlorn hunt, in the dismay of the fog and mire and ruins.

It’s Christmas So We’ll Stop

For me, and for many others, 2018 was a year indelibly marked by the suicide of Frightened Rabbit’s singer, Scott Hutchinson.  Suicide – even the mention of its name can seem daunting to behold, to bear.  To be explicit is not to distinguish it as a unique evil from other kinds of death or passing, but rather the opposite: to neither romanticize it as a salvation from pain, nor to besmirch its victims as callous or villainous.  It is to be forthright, to be pointed about our vulnerability, to render it incumbent on us to discharge shame whilst not countenancing suicide’s inevitability.  I think that’s what Scott would have wanted.  For throughout his artistic work, he embodied this vulnerability, this candour.

One of the most excruciating dilemmas to grapple with is whether this was salve or further bane to his suffering.  Perhaps it was both.  It is necessary to dispel the damaging idea that writing must be a torture, glorifying suffering as a fuel for artistry, but this can elide the very monstrous recesses into which imagination can in fact lead us.  Where is the boundary between catharsis, and bloodletting? Did vividly singing about suicide in Floating in the Forth time after time wreak an anguish in him?  What responsibility did the music industry, the spotlight, the world, have for what happened? Unanswerable questions still plague, frozen in limbo.  None of this seems right, or fair.  How are we supposed to know if we’re doing any of this right, dazed still by the vicissitudes that have come to be petrified in Frightened Rabbit’s music?

Every song can seem now a dirge, a harrowing divination of what has come to pass, a red flag fluttering henceforth in tatters, an ever smouldering flare.  Like he was crying out, and the world did not answer.  I’m sure they did, particularly his family and friends, and it would be wrong to edit out the sheer, wretched blankness and dullness that filters through deep-seated depression, to retrospectively map meanings or predestination on to his art simply for the sake of desperate consolation.  But horror compels us thus, with stability disintegrated so, eclipsing into maelstroms.  This is especially the case because that desperate consolation coursed through Frightened Rabbit’s songs.  They felt like pleas for hope. Prayers for the fucked.  Perhaps something more could have been done to protect him, as he sang about in It’s Christmas So We’ll Stop.  I wonder what Christmas will be like for Frightened Rabbit without Scott, especially for his brother, how haunted or cold those festive lights might feel for his absence, that it can never be the way it once was.  How all that was enchanting can seem a necromancy, as if there is no respite from pain such as this, and what little serenity remains feels simulated or frail or ephemeral, vitiated by the endless collapse, life itself drowned and halted, spiralling with a screech in freefall.  I wonder what hearing those songs is like for them now, how one possibly picks up the relic of an instrument again after a world is shattered like that, how they might always bear the grievous, strident echo of loss.  He should still be with us.  He could still have been with us.  Bargaining – a consolation, and a torment.  A buffer against the terrible turmoil of the realization that he is gone, and could not be saved; the paralysing despair that sometimes we cannot help when those we care for are most in need.

The key may well be collective agency, but it sometimes feels remote, impossible, formulaic: another layer of helplessness, the social order malignant and crumbling so, material conditions so abject, that it’s entirely inexorable that we feel this way.  How do we thrive, amid cutthroat circumstance, in a context where short-circuited fantasies of individual will are weaponized to morally punish us for not recovering, to perpetuate the vicious cycles of stigma and blame? How do we empathise utterly with the constraints of these conditions, whilst not resigning ourselves to them?  To honour that the gravity of loss is irredeemable, whilst seeking out hope, is the labyrinthine knot of processing grief – a knot we feel most painfully at Christmas, when the mythical joy of intimacy that seems to belong to everyone else can feel most acutely vanished in the comparison.  What does it mean not to simply ‘move on’ or ‘let go’, but neither clutch with bloodied hands to the shards forever?  A prayer can feel more honest, can resonate more, even if it might be a cop-out.  There’s no key when all that surrounds seems to be a void.  Reason is often little safeguard.

And so Frightened Rabbit’s songs were something of a portal, albeit firmly anchored in malaise.  A chance for the rot to stop, if only for a while.  A warm, if draughty and ramshackle, sanctuary, the sticky floors and dazzling lights and inelegant dancing of a dingy venue.  A relief from that wrenching weight that bears down on all our chests, lifted in the surge of the crowd.  A solace, illuminating and resounding through the disquiet that we are a blot on the world in refrains of aching, bruised communality.  Clumsy and brave, wry whilst not as cynical as they would like to believe, wistful but only seldom resentful.  Raw, and tender because of it.  Bittersweet. Vivid meditations on the agony of living with suicidal ideation, forestalled by the affirmation that it was worth persevering.  Beset mercilessly by illness but still declaring triumph against death, still demanding another day, still finding the heart to ask how your loved one’s day was because however strained it feels connection is the balm to grief, because those day-to-day concerns are the most important details in the world, because to go on and to not give up on goodness or kindness or hope is the most magnificent of victories.  What happened to Scott doesn’t detract from that.  I think he would have wanted us to not let it, for us to still chant the chorus of Modern Leper with all the heart and fire we can possibly muster, even through the tears that he couldn’t make it, that he should still be here singing it and never again can.

At depression’s core is an assertion that all happiness is a ruse, an illusion, always feigned; there is something in that which taps into the broader absurdity and dread of the human condition as much as the profound alienation, curated positivity and immiserating ‘prosperity’ of capitalist society.  Frightened Rabbit’s songs resonated at the contradiction all those who have experienced mental illness will be familiar with: happiness is a sham, and it damn well isn’t.  It is a sideshow, and the whole reason everyone stays on the stage to outlast their doubts and fears for just a few more hours, a few more days, the genuine euphoria so many people felt watching Frightened Rabbit on stage, that I only hope he felt too.  It is impossible, and miraculously possible.  A gift, just like their music remains.  With it, perhaps we can all get at least the chance to stop this Christmas, even if it’s a jagged wish, even if joy sometimes feels too much like mere escape.  To continue making those tiny little changes to earth, remembering our capacity to do so was bolstered by the changes he made, that he’s still making, protecting us with his music.  To mourn, and celebrate, and care, as deeply as we possibly can.  These songs have always been attempts to claw out of the abyss, to reach out even with clammy and trembling hands, bashful and earnest embraces wrested from the clutches of decay, clinging on and aching not for death, but life.  They are a reminder of the harbours we can create for one another.


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