Book Bloc protester, London 2010
Reading David Harvey’s Rebel Cities this summer I was saddened. The book was written towards the end of last year, published in April 2012. Unfortunately the time lag between writing and publication gives it a tragic dimension. Much of it is deeply evocative. What ignites every page is the potent hybrid of sheer indignation and energy; combining in the breathless belief in the possibility of creating an alternative to what has been presented as the inevitable reality by a political and economic elite.
Last year, the feeling that is expressed so well in Rebel Cities was electric and ubiquitous. Former neutrals were becoming politicised, united by the total attack mounted by neoliberal forces on services, rights and liberties across the globe. People began to wake up and act up.
Each spark of activity or awareness felt connected in a world-wide movement. The change felt almost tangible. Harvey wrote that whilst the uncertainty of the means to change still stands: "What we do know is that the time is now". There is a strange sense of disconnect reading those words because that moment seems to have passed; Occupy, the London riots, the passionate student protests are fast fading into collective memories rather than active movements. What saddened me reading Rebel Cities was a feeling of nostalgia, dirtied by the narrow straits of time passed and the vast gulf of feelings dulled; the deflation in a collective energy that seemed ready to burst all bounds.
Not one of the issues that initially lit that flame has gone away. The top-down attack has only intensified, and with no iota of evidence to support the vicious policies that are in all appearances leading to economic suicide. The IMF now forecasts growth at just - 0.4% for the next year, and has advised against austerity measures. It has now become common opinion that there is no economic justification for this war that is being waged against the most vulnerable. It’s almost as if we’ve started to get blasé about the eye watering changes that are being pushed through because of their speed, scale and brutality. The monstrous scope of austerity seems to be too much to take in. Yet when I witness what these cuts and ‘reforms’ concretely translate as I am filled with horror and shame.
Given that the situation which originally caused such a surge of anger and creativity has not been resolved, it is bizarre that many (especially the student movement), have simply gone ‘back to business’ and seem to be fairly inactive.
This is ethically unacceptable. Harvey wrote: "The construction of an alternative … is both an opportunity and an inescapable obligation that none us can or would even want to avoid." The sense that it is a challenge and a duty for all of us to oppose such changes and to begin thinking of alternatives is why the 20th of October is a very important date. The TUC march in London is an opportunity that we cannot afford to miss. Yet it seems that this opportunity may be lost in a fog of confusion and defeatism. There are some reasonable objections that people have raised to attending the march. For example, that they do not agree with the present organisation or operation of the unions. Or that a grand march detracts from the concrete work to be done locally by creating a false feeling of satisfaction. Or that whether it’s a march or an occupation, whatever we do is ineffective. But when something is of this vital importance how could we possibly give up so easily?
A march plays a significant symbolic role, it is a show of solidarity. Not only with those who are there, but also with those people who are voiceless and cannot physically be there, those people who are bearing the brunt of austerity.
This march can also play a significant practical role. By virtue of gathering that many people together along the same route, it is one of the easiest ways to generate a sense of political energy again. Any student movement, for example, must be linked in a dynamic and direct way to Trade Unions. The 20th of October must be viewed as a preliminary step. It is a chance to create a spark, which is far easier with hundreds of thousands of people rather than ten in a pub or in a job center.
This spark can mutate and take many forms, whether that is direct participation and grassroots activism, or through nationally organised institutions. Any national or international resistance must be coupled with laterally organised smaller community groups. For those who deem marches or unions ineffective, why not use the 20th as a chance to creatively critique? An experience of Its shortcomings may generate ideas and debate as to other possibilities for more effective forms of resistance.
Deleuze wrote: "It’s not a question of worrying or of hoping for the best, but of finding new weapons." Nothing could be truer of the present. The best weapons so far have been people’s creativity and wit. Weapons that are so precious when many of the institutions that once nurtured these qualities are being viciously cut and stripped beyond recognition. UK Uncut have provided fantastic examples that are striking and effective, utilising humour to reveal the absurdity of austerity in the face of staggering tax evasion. The Book Bloc, in which foam riot shields were painted as books whose titles were pertinent to the situation, materialised in London during the student protests after its initial birth in Rome. Its brilliance lay in using wit and creativity to highlight police brutality, acting as a literal display of literary resistance to the Fee Rises which are symptomatic of the increasing marginalisation of critical thought. The Cuts Cafe in London gives us another example: an open communal space hosting talks and workshops, hoping to nurture further creativity and ideas.
What the current crisis offers us is an opportunity to create new forms of collective participation. Nietzsche’s aphorism "Only as creators can we destroy" seems a pertinent dictum for the present moment, for destruction, critique and resistance without simultaneous creativity can be easily co-opted or burn out. Golden Dawn’s ascendency in Greece may serve as a potent reminder that if not filled with active forms of political creativity, the void left by a failed government may soon resound with the echoes of history. We must seize the moment of the 20th to begin to create new political spaces and practices. The stakes are high.