This blog was created as an outlet for some of my written work. I have also used it to record a few of my other activities. Hopefully people will find it interesting or useful. I was going to call it – democracy, peace and love – because that’s what I’m most interested in. However, I decided on revolts now in memory of my first zine, revolt now, produced during my high school years. At that time I thought of revolution as an event, but now I think of it as a historical process, a long series of varied events in the past, present and future. The name revolt now had already been taken but revolts now was available. So here it is.
“I didn’t want to talk to my friends about how afraid and sad I was because none of them were doing well either and maybe if I told them what I was thinking then I would make them feel worse. That basically meant that I was never actually telling anyone what I was thinking; I just felt full of feelings that would be better not expressed . . . as if my relationships were becoming yet another casualty of [the crises].” (Sarah Miller, 2021)
It was quite difficult writing a post about grief while feeling overwhelmed by it. However, I usually find it helpful to blog about the things troubling me and hope that it may be useful to others. During the past year, I’ve been wondering about grief as a form of love, about relentless and anticipatory griefs, about how we can heal our hearts, and how we can support each other while we do so. At the same time, ten weeks into a Covid-19 lockdown, I remain nervous about focusing on and exploring my own grief and potentially adding to other people’s fears, anxieties, and distress. Even so, I continue to be hopeful.
In the first six months of this year, I helped to care for three people as they died. For months on end this involved dealing with my loved one’s and my own emotional roller coasters, illness, hospitals, doctors, nurses, aged care centres, lawyers, bureaucrats, funeral services, and cemeteries. Since all of this has occurred in the midst of mass death and sickness, extended lockdowns, and other restrictions, my micro griefs have been entangled with the macro griefs of this period. As a result, I’ve found myself exploring a wide range of griefs, the impacts of grief over time, reconsidering some of my assumptions about them, and how the grieving process is much more complex than generally understood or anticipated.
There’s a common expectation that when mourning occurs there’s a period of intense grief which will then lessen over time. However, as discussed in a previous post on Grief, Love and Rage, we are having to manage multiple forms of long-term grief including ecological grief, democracy grief, economic grief, employment grief, and the end of so-called ‘normality’. Because people are grieving all around us and suffering from collective pain, while having to be physically distant from each other, it makes our griefs feel more profound.
My own griefs have gone on for much longer and have been much deeper than I expected. While lots of people are experiencing the grief of losing their health, job, income, or losing contact with others, or with various activities and experiences, we also face a deluge of grief triggering news about climate change, environmental crisis, Afghanistan, refugees, the anniversary of 9/11, the ‘War on/of Terror’, and much more. These are triggering because the griefs associated with them are continuous and underlie our more immediate or overt griefs. As I have opened-up about my own grief, friends have shared their thoughts on how they mourn for friendships that have ended, when they’ve lost a community, or certainties they once had, when they feel lost, lose traditions they love, or when they grieve for all they didn’t receive, or for what didn’t happen, spurring me to think more about my own lost plans, hopes, and dreams.
The experience of caring for my aged mother-in-law, who suffered from dementia and lived with my partner and I, involved losing her and grieving that loss a long-time before she died. This complicated the grieving process and highlighted, for me, the prevalence of anticipatory grief – the feelings we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain, when we sense there’s an impending dangerous situation, that what is going to happen will involve significant loss. For example, I’ve been recalling the anticipatory grief I experienced while watching the second plane fly into the World Trade Centre live on TV, or when they announced the election of Donald Trump. Today, with the pandemic further undermining our sense of safety, we are collectively experiencing a variety of anticipatory griefs in unprecedented ways, some of which seem relentless.
Recently, when I visited the Lakeside Memorial Park to pick-up another family member’s ashes, I was given a pamphlet on ‘Coping with Grief’. It stated: “Grief is not well understood in our society and some people try to deny it, postpone it, or avoid it. There will be big and small adjustments which have to be made in your life. You will change. Your routine will change. Your moods will change. All of this is called ‘grief’. It is really about adapting to the changes in your life, your thoughts, your hopes, your beliefs, and your future.” This focus on how grief impacts the individual prompted me to consider both the contradictions and complexities of how grief is commonly understood and how grief is collective, social, and relational. The pamphlet went on to provide a list of things that may help someone deal with grief and face the changes it brings. For example; ‘It is best not to put a time frame on the whole experience’ but ‘Stay positive in your thoughts – You will get over this.’ I wondered if this was true, especially when elsewhere the pamphlet warned; ‘Be aware of advice givers – Don’t allow people to entice you into replacing or avoiding your grief . . . accept loss as a part of life.’
Over the past few years, it has become increasingly clear, to me, that grief is relentless, intricate, can be hard to recognise, and is an overarching and underlying condition of our lives. Even when we try to ignore grief, the weight of on-going griefs of the past, the immediate impacts of today’s griefs, and the threatening griefs of the future remain with us. When I was younger, I often felt that if I started crying, I may never stop. Thankfully those who have helped me to navigate my grief have stressed the importance of acknowledging what we are going through, the importance of crying, of accepting that our grief is real and reasonable, that we can continue to grieve, while appreciating that the past and the present is not only grim, and the future remains open to much more than sadness and suffering.
None-the-less, feeling overwhelmed, vulnerable, and wanting to withdraw is increasingly common. Especially when it is difficult to know what we can do in the current circumstances. A little while ago, a friend of mine in Melbourne who was at the time coming out of lockdown found that they were having trouble accessing happiness and just wanted to hibernate. They wondered whether this was because of ‘the accumulation of lockdown fatigue and post trauma of a kind, the sense of unease that this could occur again . . . the sense of collective trauma and grief around the country and abroad.’ Responding to their unease, I suggested this ‘sense of collective trauma and grief’ could also be due to having more time, slowing down, thinking about, and being more engaged with the general state of the world and the many sorrows of those who are suffering from a range of crises.
Dealing with constant grief can be exhausting. Especially if we continue to pretend that everything is alright. Along with and as part of widespread grieving, we are also confronted by individual and collective fatigue. This is widely recognised among those on the caring front lines of the pandemic and those of us who have been in lockdown for weeks-on-end. Directly, Covid-19 produces extreme tiredness and fatigue in those who contract it and it appears around one in five of them suffer from long-Covid. Covid-19 also renders more visible the pathological symptoms that already existed before the pandemic. One of these symptoms is tiredness. Most of us feel very tired.
Before the pandemic, millions of people were already tired of capitalism, tired of alienation, tired of environmental destruction, tired of the contradiction, the clash, between what we desire or sense is possible, and the ‘normality’ of what we are made to endure. Many people are living in poverty, are deeply in debt, working more hours and more jobs for less pay and less security, struggling with psychological and physical precariousness. While we’re expected to work harder, the more we do, the more efficient we become, the worse our jobs tend to be, with lower pay, worse benefits, less job security.
During the past two years, I have found working from home to be more wearing than going to work, especially when this increases my solitude. Zoom meetings and perpetually looking at yourself on the screen is tiring. We must focus on ourselves, consider ourselves, while interacting with others compelled to do the same. This is a poor substitute for the in-person social interactions we’re missing. Our social distance alienates us from each other and erodes our communal life. It makes us lonelier than we were. It drains us. And it’s even more tiring trying to act ‘normal’ if you’re unhappy and anxious.
In his book Pandemic! Covid-19 Shakes the World, Slavoj Žižek dedicates a whole chapter to the question “Why are we tired all the time?” Here he explores three modes of being tired and overworked. First, that of ‘self-employed and self-exploited’ workers engaged in intense creativity and those who undertake entrepreneurial functions on behalf of management or owners. Secondly, assembly line work which is “debilitating in its repetitiveness”. Lastly, human-care work where what makes you so weary is that it involves empathy, showing affection, and constantly “being nice”. Zizek also distinguishes between those whose exhaustive work is meaningful, such as the people dealing with the effects of the pandemic, and the “stupid effort of trying to succeed in the market.” As he argues; “When a medical worker gets deadly tired from working overtime, when a caregiver is exhausted by a demanding charge, they are tired in a way that is different from the exhaustion of those driven by obsessive career moves. Their tiredness is worthwhile.” None-the-less, those doing most of the caring work also run the risk of ‘compassion fatigue’. Interacting with traumatised people, especially if you’re also traumatised, can lead to you becoming less able to connect or empathise, it can burn you out.
The growing crises of capitalism and its state forms increases our care burden, the work of maintaining people’s health and of reproducing the positive social relations on which we all depend. This labour is not adequately recognised or valued, and the pandemic has both made this neglect clearer while adding to our caring responsibilities. Around the world people have been addressing this lack and burden by challenging the definition of ‘essential’ work and making their own decisions about what to do and whether to do it. At the same time, many of my friends are struggling with home-schooling or looking after small children, while the demands of their jobs never stop. ‘If anything, they seem to go up. Work wants us to be more productive it seems. Meanwhile, our children are somehow expected to continue at the same pace with their schoolwork as they did when they were in school. By the end of each day our sanity often feels like it’s in shreds but somehow, we get up and do it all over again.’
“It looks heroic. But that’s not what it is. It’s sweaty and hard and chaotic and bloody. And it’s hard to live in this every day and then go home and live a normal life. I think we already broke.” (Mississippi nurse, August 2021)
‘Parents aren’t even at a breaking point anymore. We’re broken. And yet we’ll go on because that’s what we do: We sweep up all our pieces and put them back together as best we can. We carry on chipped and leaking and broken because we have no other choice.’ (Dan Sinker, August 2021)
Recently, I have been wondering whether I’m exhausted, like the Amazon rainforest, no longer able to capture carbon but instead producing carbon? Or whether I’m burned out, like the Canadian town of Leeton, the U.S. town of Greenville, or the fire in the Gulf of Mexico? And I wonder are these questions just examples of exhaustion – since the answers should be obvious? Perhaps I’m more like the fires sweeping the northern hemisphere and California? Or the funeral pyres of India? Exhausted, burned-out, but still going.
Burnout is different to exhaustion. Exhaustion means going to the point where you can’t go any further; burnout means reaching that point and pushing yourself to keep going, whether for days or weeks or years. According to Josh Cohen, a psychoanalyst specialising in burnout; “You feel burnout when you’ve exhausted all your internal resources yet cannot free yourself of the nervous compulsion to go on regardless.” But what if we need to go on regardless? When ‘the only way for us to survive, day to day, is to normalise the events, the threats, the barrage of information, the costs, the expectations of us.’ When burnout isn’t a place to visit and come back from; but our permanent residence, not an affliction experienced by relatively few but, increasingly, a contemporary condition?
Remembering It’s Time for a Change
At my mother-in-law Elsie’s funeral, one of the key things my partner Sharon highlighted in her speech was the amount of time her mother spent caring for her and how grateful she was to be able to reciprocate this towards the end of her mum’s life. When considering our current griefs, time is a crucial concern. The clashes between the time needed to maintain our caring connections and commitments, the time needed to grieve, and the temporal demands of the world we live in, can make us feel powerless, apathetic, or focused on forms of activity and wealth that are less valuable than the time we spend doing what we want to, doing what we love.
Many of our griefs are experienced as a loss of time, our own time and the time lost with and by others. For some, these lost moments add to a more general sense that the time of our lives is being stolen. During the pandemic and lockdowns, changes to how we experience time and how our memories operate is further complicating such griefs. Seemingly having more time can remind us of the past, when we could savour the moments and be more present. At other times, it seems that the days, weeks, and months are melting away. As our sense of time dissolves, memories are scrambled, and the days blur, with each moment becoming more like the others. This ‘Groundhog Day’ experience of time, as explored in the film, can provoke a range of responses, both positive and negative. Still, because we measure the passing of time in relation to the transformations going on around us, we also understand that the world has changed a great deal and is continuing to change so rapidly we cannot keep-up.
Exploring the climate crisis, Rebecca Solnit explains; “Human beings crave clarity, immediacy, landmark events. We seek turning points, because our minds are good at recognising the specific – this time, this place, this sudden event, this tangible change.” Yet, the major crises we’re facing are relentless landscapes, constantly overturning stabilities, and changing everything.
As we grieve, we struggle with questions about what needs to be done, what we want to do, what we should be doing, what we can do, what is helpful work and what is ‘make work’. It is widely argued that the current pandemic and extinction crises are turning points, with many people seeking to fundamentally transform the way they live. Significant social changes being driven by the pandemic and climate change include what is called the ‘great refusal’, with millions of people in China and the United States, among other places, refusing work in a variety of ways. In part, this refusal reflects the widespread grieving of lost time, lost privileges, and lost relationships. It also includes those care workers who have resigned in their thousands, worn down by the stress, suffering, and preventable deaths that have overwhelmed them. For many, this refusal is an adaptation to and preparation for a more precarious life.
Precarious Life: Who, What, and How Do We Mourn?
Every day, our so-called leaders and bosses are demanding we get used to living with illness, injury and death. However, recognising the importance of adjusting to and getting ready for more precarious lives doesn’t have to mean resigning ourselves to the impacts of crises, but instead understanding and addressing the long-running and widespread disasters of capitalist society. In their book Precarious Life, Judith Butler is concerned with ‘our vulnerability to loss and the task of mourning that follows, and with finding a basis for community in these conditions.’ They explain that ‘successful mourning’ involves accepting that via their losses people are changed, possibly forever, and entails submitting to a transformation the full result of which cannot be known in advance. When we fear grieving, our fears can give rise to the impulse to resolve grief quickly, “to banish it in the name of an action invested with the power to restore the loss or return the world to a former order, or to reinvigorate a fantasy that the world formerly was orderly.” Butler asks: “If we stay with the sense of loss, are we left with the sense of loss, are we left feeling only passive and powerless, as some may fear? Or are we, rather, returned to a sense of human vulnerability, to our collective responsibility for the physical lives of one another?”
Butler also highlights the power of social norms in relation to who we grieve and who we don’t, how we value the lives of others. We all have our own as well as more social or dominant hierarchies of injury and death, disproportionate amounts of attention paid to various harmful incidents around the world. So, on September 11 we are more likely to think about those who died in New York than Santiago and one local celebrity death receives more media attention than thousands of deaths in Africa. As Butler explains; ‘The prohibition of public grieving’ means that ‘certain images do not appear in the media’ certain names of the dead are not utterable, certain losses are not avowed as loses.’ Importantly, in recent years, we have seen this hierarchy of injury and death powerfully countered by the Black Lives Matter movement, with its focus on ‘saying their name’ and the highlighting of those whose normally nameless and faceless deaths tend to form the melancholic background of our lives. These movement practices are part of a more general questioning of ‘the conditions under which a grievable life is established and maintained’ and ‘the cultural barriers against which we struggle when we try to find out about the losses that we’re asked not to mourn.’ These questions are now at the heart of intensifying struggles to address the pandemic and the widespread refusals to sacrifice our health and our lives.
Hope is Other People – Becoming Different Together
As I said at the start of this post, I want to be able to talk about grief without creating or adding to people’s fears and anxieties. I have written elsewhere about the importance of hope and how when we gaze into the future our optimism can be based on the reality that what we want has already and does already exist. Every day, around the world, there are wonderful things happening and this should give us confidence that when we try to create a better world it is possible to succeed. I have also written about the common care responses to the current crises, the ability of people to continually produce and organise loving social relations. So, I find hope in the ways we take care of each other that challenge and counter loneliness, powerlessness, and despair. Our struggles are relentless, and hope remains because it arises from the initiative, courage, determination, and mutual solidarity we regenerate for each other.
“Radical hope is a psychological practice as well as a political position. It requires us to accept the past is gone, and that the political and cultural assumptions that once shaped our world no longer hold true. It demands we learn to live with uncertainty and grief, and to face up to the reality of loss.” (James Bradley, 2020)
Radical hope also requires the fostering of new possibilities, even in the face of catastrophe.
Grief is experienced as a loss of connection but is more accurately the continuation of loving connections with who/what is absent. Our experiences of losing relationships, encounters, abilities, places, and times, and how we and our activity change when the object of our love is taken away, with no hope of return, can be the most painful kind of love. Grief is also a confusing and frustrating form of love because it is unclear how to love what is gone. It can seem that our love has been destroyed, has ended, or has no place to go.
Judith Butler explains that; ‘Many people think that grief is privatising, that it returns us to a solitary position’. However, grief can furnish a complex sense of political community, and it does this by bringing to the fore our relational ties, dependencies, and ethical responsibilities, showing us that our links to other people ‘constitute what we are’ and are ‘bonds that compose us.’ So, ‘When we lose some of these ties by which we are constituted, we do not know who we are or what we do.’ When we lose others, we go missing as well.
This sense of ‘losing ourselves’ and the intensified vulnerabilities which accompany it are common experiences when we love powerfully. Deep affection involves moving beyond fixed identities, as we develop our interconnections and the boundaries between ourselves and others becomes more diffused and indistinct. Grief often includes the mourning of an imagined self which we believe has been lost, but was and is more accurately a multitude of different subjectivities in continual transformation. My griefs are different today than they were yesterday and they will be different again tomorrow, because I’m a different person today than I was yesterday, and I’ll be different again tomorrow. There is no stable society or stable self, because our social connections produce continuous practices of becoming altered.
‘No answer is in itself an answer’
When I wrote, in Care is the Cure, about how the caring activities of most people have changed the world during the pandemic, I quoted Tim Costello who early on discussed the communal sharing of grief as an act of solidarity that ensures no one needs to grieve alone, despite our physical distance. In more recent discussions with friends, I have suggested that when we grieve together, our pain is validated by others and when we support each other as we grieve, we can both demonstrate our love and know that we are loved. Although I have found myself withdrawing from certain practices due to my grief, I have chosen to stay connected with the people I care for, who care for me, and who care for others. As our heads spin, as past ‘certainties’ crumble and as disorientation starts to feel normal, we continue to grapple with questions such as – How can we hold onto each other, remain deeply connected, and maintain our loving relationships when we are forced apart?
While struggling to write this post, I received plenty of encouragement to keep going from friends who shared their hopes, fears and pain, who made their struggles more visible, and let me know that we are not alone. They again reminded me that supporting each other is the most common reaction to life’s crises, and that we can only be as open and present with others as we are with ourselves. Learning to be vulnerable can be a real strength and love is the greatest social power we have to change our lives, the lives of others, and the world around us. Since I don’t expect to recover from my griefs, I will try not to hide or suppress them, or deny they exist. As I look forward to more hugs, smiles and laughs, I will share my griefs with others, and they will share theirs with me. Together we can face the risks of opening our hearts and embracing the best aspects and the greatest potentials of becoming different together. As we care for each other by staying apart, we can stand together. We are here for you. Thank you, for being there for us.
Over summer, I read a recently published book The Communism of Love: An Inquiry into the Poverty of Exchange Value by Richard Gilman-Opalsky. Richard’s book is a philosophical work critiquing, exploring, and synthesising the work of other love theorists, following the struggles of love in different contexts, and showing how the aspiration for love is as close as we may get to a universal communist aspiration. My own inquiry into the relationship between love and communism was crystalised in A Multitude of Possibilities where I explore and critically engage with the strategic vision of political philosophers Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. Similarly, Richard explains that The Communism of Love is “a dedicated effort to account for the weakness that Hardt and Negri identify but do not themselves address” in relation to the politics of love.
As a Professor at the University of Illinois, Richard says he was afraid to write a book about love because he is trained in political theory and philosophy and “within those milieus it is not something that is considered hard enough . . . it is considered soft.” Hardt and Negri also acknowledge that love is a subject largely regarded as too soft for politics. Yet they insist “love is an essential concept for philosophy and politics, and the failure to interrogate and develop it is one of the central causes of the weakness of contemporary thought.”
As indicated above, I have previously taken-up Hardt and Negri’s challenge to examine love, including a piece in the recently published Love: Art, Ideas, Music, Politics book looking at the question What is Love? Here I consider how love can be both positive and constructive or negative and destructive and how what people love and how they love has a multitude of potentials. In The Communism of Love Richard explains that love is not a hunger to be satisfied, it is a process of human transformation. Exploring how love, as a practice, participates in others becoming something that they are not, he uses the example of children and how their development is understood as a process where their care givers want to help young people become what they could be and desire to be.
Richard explains that – “Love only deserves its name as long as it exists outside of or against the logic of capitalist exchange” and love ceases to be love when it becomes a commodity. In a society dominated by property relations, where exchange values have so much power over our lives, many of our conflicts and divisions occur around forms of possessiveness. As Richard suggests, people generally doubt that love can be based on payment for affection and in healthy relationships love is not performed in exchange for something. When we measure our relationships by using the competitive accounting of who does what for what reward, this tends to reproduce the exchange values of capitalism. Better than a tally of exchanges are communist relationships that motivate each person to do what they can do and need to do in order to re/produce and extend small or large communes (communism).
For both Richard and I, communism is “no political state in history, no form of government; it refers instead to forms of life, forms of being-in-the-world with others”, where “love tends toward communist forms of life, and communist forms of life tend toward love.”
“The only way not to see the communism of love is not to think about love.”
“Long before the word communism existed, love was understood as an unruly practice, as a subversive power . . . as a thing that could organise or reorganise one’s entire life.”
“The destruction and replacement of our healthiest forms of relationality with a system of exchange relations has been fatally damaging to human life and to the planet’s ecology, and the system of exchange must be resisted and ultimately abolished, if not by some form of communism, then by love – or by the communism of love. What is love without communism?”
In The Communism of Love Richard challenges how the ideas and practices of communism are widely understood, making use of Mary Gabriel’s book Love and Capital to argue that the communist philosophy of Karl Marx was produced from a love relation, with the material and living love of Jenny and Karl Marx generating to a large extent ‘Marxist’ ideas about communism and revolution. Here he details Jenny Marx’s active involvement as a a ‘ghostwriter’ for Karl’s work, by creating the conditions for its existence and shaping its form and content as an intellectual equal, so that Karl’s work is Jenny’s work and vice versa. Interestingly, when Jenny and Karl became engaged their initial creative inclination was to produce books of poetry titled The Book of Love (in two volumes).
Richard doesn’t explore the Marx family to romanticise it (far from it) but “to recognise the role that the love relation plays in the development of both thinking and being-in-the-world, and in the becoming of individual persons.” The family is often seen as a bourgeois institution and a base for conservatism which limits our love to a small group, yet families (biological and socially constructed) can also be ‘solidarity teams’, or what Richard describes as ‘little communes’, where we can share the work of love and re/produce communism. While “we can often see in the family or the couple a love that can shrink our feeling for others” it can “instead grow our feeling for others.” Being part of a couple can serve as a “connective tissue that moves us to feelings of solidarity with others outside of the biological family unit”, with many couples providing evidence that we can feel a great or even greater connection to a former stranger, from another family, from another place in the world, etc. The couple, the family, and their love are widely celebrated and commended, but they are “only healthy within the context of the development of many and varied bonds of love and friendship among people”, where an individual’s caring endeavours and achievements rely on the web of loving relationships which sustains them.
When thinking about the relationships that matter most to people, Richard argues that love is a near universal aspiration and that if there is a necessary communism of love (as dignity and human freedom) this suggests there is a near universal ambition that is communist. However, people often think about love as the private property of a romantic and sexual relation. The communism of love is a creative power that changes us in deep and meaningful ways, a transformative development of collective revolution that powerfully affects our lived experiences. The complexity of this love reflects our own multiple subjectivities which interact with other people’s multiple subjectivities. Rather than basing communist politics on fixed identities and the property struggles they revolve around, Hardt and Negri recognise that subjectivities arise from social cooperation and that communal subjectivities “are grounded not in possessions but in their interactions with and openness to others. Where subjectivity is defined not by having but being-with, acting with, creating-with.”
Still, many of those interested in communist politics are motivated by the hatred of ‘class enemies’ and are wary or dismissive of love, which appears to connect people rather than separate them into clearly defined friends or foes. The promotion of love suggests bringing people together and can seemingly cover-up or neglect social differences, conflicts, and inequalities. However, love (as a struggle to create, maintain, and extend caring relationships) must address class distinctions, conflicts, and disparities, but in ways that undermine the hatred of other people, even ‘class enemies’. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hate what some people do. But, we should recognise that capitalism re/produces hateful, competitive, regimented, authoritarian and violent subjectivities within us all. Understanding that subjectivities can and do change can help people to reject a range of harmful activity including their own re/production of capitalism, oppression, alienation, etc., while avoiding a destructive self-loathing. In this way we are able to move beyond a hatred of people, instead hating capitalist ideas, values, and behaviours. This type of hatred can help us to identify the different ways people perpetuate systemic domination. A deeper appreciation of how hateful ideas and practices are socially constructed and learned, and how difficult they can be to challenge and change, requires less arrogance and more careful judgement of others and ourselves.
Still, as Richard explores in The Communism of Love, hatred is not absent from love. For example, those we love can be both the cause and respite from hatred and it is possible for someone to love you even when they declare that they hate you. So, Richard asks; “How can we know that a cruelty, disappointment, anger, or even hatred is part of a love that we want to keep and not an indication of an abuse we should abolish?” He acknowledges that this is a difficult question to answer and he isn’t confident in providing one. The experience of love can be awful, painful, and involve failure, and abuses that should be avoided and opposed are widespread. None-the-less; “People can and do feel despair and loneliness while in love, and we must understand that these feelings may not be absences of love but part of it.” So, “we should imbue all romantic conceptions of love with real insights about its difficulty, chaos, and pain.” Love changes the way we see other people, so that even in anger we can continue to perceive in those we love the reasons why we love them, our hopes, and a variety of optimistic possibilities.
While grappling with the many ways we are isolated and alienated from each other, another question raised in the book is – does human relationality need the proximity and presence of human bodies? As people’s physical separation has intensified over the past year, this question has become a key concern. During the pandemic, some commentators have described social isolation/physical distancing as an act of love – a demonstration of people’s care for others – a civic minded stance for the common good. At the same time, the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted a widespread desire to be social and the recognition that we need to be social if we are to survive. Many people have been experiencing the feeling of ‘alienation and solidarity at once’ and our interconnections with a ‘society of strangers’, all of whom depend on one another to live. While social media and zoom get-togethers may connect us, not being able to see friends or loved ones in-person, to touch and share space, is a pain we have become familiar with. In response to this pain, a deep-seated craving for love is nurturing intensifying struggles around the importance of caring – because love and care are the basis on which we struggle, on which we construct forms of life worth living, and without which we cannot build a better world.
“To be precarious is to have no confident future to count on, and human relationships that are intended to diminish precarity are themselves increasingly precarious.”
The Communism of Love examines how capitalism is increasingly uprooting us and normalising precarious relationships. Our loving relations do not always succeed but they do attempt to “counteract human estrangement and to move beyond the interests that capitalism both generates and feeds on.” When we are alienated, atomised, and isolated from each other we are usually more vulnerable. To counter these separations, we need to powerfully connect with others and remind ourselves that we are not alone. This is especially important when, along with the pandemic, we are confronted with the existential dilemmas associated with the climate, environmental, and extinction crises. Richard explores similar concerns in relation to patriarchy, white supremacy, and racist violence. Here he argues that; “Certain forms of insecurity are too severe to provide footing for a political orientation. If I am a communist who is hit by a car, my communism will not be called on while I lay in a hospital bed in critical condition . . . My being-communist will be restored only once I am well enough to turn my attention away from immediate concerns of life and death.” And “Impoverished humanity living on the edge of life may speak of love and may seek to realise its powers too, but perhaps not right now, not in the ambulance. Simply put, life itself is more pressing than forms of life.”
However, Richard also says – “love is most needed in precisely those places where people are most vulnerable, where people live the most insecure lives.” The relationship between love and vulnerability is something I have previously discussed and have been reflecting on again recently due to the death of a dear friend and comrade, John Rainford. A self-described “socialist revolutionary”, John’s last published words explained that – “it is the love of living humanity that will be decisive in the struggles ahead.” True to his word, John beautifully displayed this understanding during his final struggles with terminal illness, in the way he continued to respect, support, and inspire those around him. John’s communism of love was reciprocated by those who supported him (his family, friends, the palliative health care team, etc.) to help foster a dignified end to his life and to our existing relationships with him. Despite a great deal of pain and suffering, John’s final messages to me were not about himself or his condition, but about his care and concern for our mutual friends. During this difficult time, John demonstrated through his strength and kindness that a person’s communism can be called on while they lie in a hospital bed in critical condition and that forms of life remain important in our most pressing moments.
Being vulnerable doesn’t have to cancel communism or result in weakness. Powerful forms of love include vulnerability. Loving relationships where people open-up to others, to the world, where they take the risk of being in-touch with their own pain and the pain of others, tend to be stronger. Similarly, vulnerable communities often appreciate the power of love in the face of constant attacks. In the Communism of Love Richard describes last year’s Black Lives Matter revolt as “a love asserted against the racist violence of police, capital, and law.” Explaining that: “It is precisely because one both loves and wants to love one’s self and community that one may join the uprising.” Looking at the results of the revolt he says – “In the face of every uprising, liberals and conservatives only want to know how policies and political institutions have been changed. We have to resist such quantitative assessments and look instead for an insurgent love, not only for what it accomplishes in politics and policy but because it counteracts alienation and passivity.”
This is an understanding that is common within marginalised and vulnerable populations who have learned to love each other, evidenced, for example, in women’s movements, queer movements, refugee movements, and black power movements. These movements have demonstrated their strength in addressing suffering and oppression while taking risks and putting their bodies on the line. Poor communities and poor people’s movements also demonstrate that vulnerability and power are not necessarily counter-posed. Those in poverty tend to rely on each other’s reciprocal generosity to survive and get-by. When struggling with the daily personal and collective disasters of capitalism, there is a tendency for the economically vulnerable to organise forms of day-to-day communism, while displaying a deep understanding of the importance of love. Facing, as we do, a series of life-threatening catastrophes, it is important to recognise that despite growing vulnerabilities we can still care for each other and powerfully transform society in revolutionary ways.
As Richard states in The Communism of Love, today our attention “has become the pathological concern of highly competitive capitalist interests.” So, we need to be careful what we give our attention to, so that we avoid enlarging the power of things we despise, and to help give our energy to love. As Richard explains – “People with no space and time to think, reflect, wonder, and explore are incapacitated from loving.” If “we do not have the emotional resources, psychological space, and social environment conducive to learn such an attentive practice (as love)”, we need to imagine how we can love and recognise what is possible. We need to pay more attention to other people, to other living things, to what is important in life. We need to build our confidence in love, by practicing love, and by making its power more visible, as we struggle to radically transform our own lives and the lives of others.
In many ways the pandemic has focused greater attention on how to deal with disasters, including the short and long-term catastrophes of capitalism. When considering current and future crises, two terms have become popular with a number of left-wing writers – disaster communism and War Communism. The different uses of these terms pose a range of concerns regarding what communism means and crucial questions about how we should confront disasters.
Over the past decade, I have been writing about disaster communism. While doing so, I have wondered how useful it is to use the term communism, since it is deployed to suggest many different things, with some people forgetting or ignoring the history and horrors that are often associated with it. Last year, I wrote about the bushfire crisis and how the concept of disaster communism has been taken-up by various people around the world, such as the authors who write under the collective name Out of the Woods. The Out of the Woods collective have produced a three-part series of articles on disaster communism and identified two different meanings of the term – “The first meaning is collective, self-organised responses to disaster situations. The second concerns the prospects for an ecological society based on human needs in the face of climate chaos.” They call the first sense ‘disaster communities’, and the second ‘disaster communisation’. For Out of the Woods, “disaster communities are self-organised, non-market, non-statist social reproduction under adverse conditions. However, they suffer some shortcomings. First and foremost, they are typically short-lived, even if the experience changes the participants for life.” Whereas, disaster communisation involves ‘a qualitative shift within the dynamic of class struggle’ . . . “when the self-organised social reproduction of disaster communities [comes] into conflict with existing property relations, the state, and so on, and overcomes these limits.”
I prefer not to divide disaster communism in this way, as it downplays the extent and continuity of capitalist disasters and the enduring existence of communist alternatives. Capitalism is a continuously disastrous system and ‘disaster communism’ can be both large and small scale, with communist practices organised to deal with individual, community, and more widespread disasters on a daily basis. Today, individual and collective catastrophes are proliferating, ‘disaster communities’ are widespread, and everyday communist practices are essential to many people’s survival.
Last year, Out of the Woods published their book Hope Against Hope with the final chapter titled ‘Disaster Communism’. Here they explain – “Disaster communism is not a brand-new type of politics divorced from existing struggles. Rather, it is a revolutionary process of developing our collective capacity to endure and flourish that emerges from these struggles. Disaster communism is a movement within, against, and beyond ongoing capitalist disaster.”
While Out of the Woods’ understanding of disaster communism and my own share much in common, other writers have changed the meaning of disaster communism from a libertarian communist one to a more authoritarian and statist one. For example, in his 2017 book Extreme Cities Ashley Dawson has a chapter on disaster communism and offers a similar critique of ‘disaster communities’ as Out of the Woods, arguing that “Disaster communism – on a purely local scale – does not actually constitute an inherent threat to the capitalist social order.” Alarmingly, Dawson then goes on to propose a form of “War Communism” with “warlike state management of all industries” and “centralised decisions on who can consume what goods in what amounts”. So, as we apparently head into a ‘new Cold War’ with communism remaining widely associated with authoritarian states, the differentiation of War Communism from disaster communism (as an expression of freedom, democracy, peace, and love) is important.
Channel Seven TV News declares New South Wales a – “Covid 19 – Police State”. (27 / 3 / 20)
Recently, a number of other authors have considered disaster communism and joined Dawson in advocating ‘War Communism’. Given the contemporary reinvigoration of Leninist & Stalinist ideas by such authors, it appears that if you wish to engage with mainstream ‘leftist’ theory, then the repetition of debates about the Russian Revolution cannot be avoided. So, here’s my brief outline of the history of War Communism. The term originates from the economic and political system enforced in Soviet Russia during the Russian Civil War from 1918 to 1921. Following the Russian Revolution in 1917, after promising peace and demobilising the Russian Army, the effects of invasion and civil war led the Bolshevik government to adopt what Lenin termed “state capitalism”. In 1918, Soviet Russia was invaded by seventeen armies from fourteen countries. Isolated and encircled, the Bolsheviks recognised the principle of “defence of the fatherland”, creating a new standing army, the Red Army, under the leadership of Leon Trotsky and dominated by the Bolsheviks and officers of the old Russian Army (1 & 2). Thus began the period known as War Communism and with it came a system of military despotism exercised by a small group within the Bolshevik Party who successfully defended ‘the fatherland’ while creating a ‘command economy’, smashing workers’ self-organisation, intensifying the exploitation of labour, and entrenching a new political and military elite. What followed was a tragedy played out in the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world. None-the-less, tens of millions of Soviet people lived and died for ‘the Revolution’, trying to act according to the best of communist traditions, seeking to build a world without war, where no-one would be abused or exploited.
Today, those like Ashley Dawson, Slajov Zizek, Andreas Malm, Jodi Dean, and Kai Heron, frame their calls for War Communism as a response to the wars of disaster capitalism. But rather than challenging the rhetoric or violence of warfare, they instead seek to mobilise them for a ‘different’ purpose. Last summer, some on the ‘left’ similarly issued war cries in support of armed force responses to the bush fire crisis. These calls dovetail with authoritarian state plans to respond to the climate, environmental, and extinction crises militarily, with climate change management increasingly absorbed into defence budgets and national security considerations.
Local Labor Party MP, Ryan Park, supported the New South Wales government’s pandemic law changes by explaining – “The new rules are part of the new world order” which he described as “martial law”. (26 / 3 / 20)
In his recent book Pandemic, Slavoj Žižek explains that his notion of communism is centred on the state and is “simply a name for what is already going on . . . measures which are already being considered and even partially enforced” by governments to address the corona virus. For him, this means the state “should assume a much more active role”. “It’s not a vision of a bright future but more one of ‘disaster communism’ as an antidote to disaster capitalism.” When Žižek uses the term Communism he is talking about a “global organisation that can control and regulate the economy as well as limit the sovereignty of nation states when needed”, a coordinated shift away from the power of the “market” with state’s issuing “strict commands” to avoid close contact with others. While proposing “local mobilisation of people outside state control” he also advocates cooperation between states – “As in a military campaign, information should be shared and plans fully coordinated. This is all I mean by the ‘Communism’ needed today” . . . “a Communism imposed by the necessities of bare survival. It is unfortunately a version of what, in the Soviet Union in 1918, was called ‘War Communism’.”
Meanwhile, Andreas Malm, in his book Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century, explores the dangers of continuing to replicate the virus of capital and how Covid-19 is a product of the ecological and mass extinction crises. He correctly argues that addressing the climate crisis and preventing zoonotic spill-over requires emergency action that goes against the vested interests of powerful factions of the ruling class and facilitates the rapid transformation of economies. But, sadly, his bleak vision of the future envisages the collapse of capitalism brought about by environmental ruin, arguing that “organised anti-capitalism was mostly a spent historical force” when the chronic emergency of this millennium set in.
As explained on the book’s sleeve – “Malm demands that we adopt the state of emergency imposed to combat the virus and apply it on a permanent basis to the front lines of the climate crisis.” According to Malm, this is a moment where we can say to governments – “If you were able to intervene to protect us from the virus, you can intervene to protect us from the climate crisis as well.” Here Malm fantasises about northern states who have “committed themselves to reason”, while ridiculing the impact of grass roots mutual aid. He also compares and conflates anti-capitalist critics of state power with hyper-neoliberal fascists like Bolsanaro, to argue that “we need a state”.
Looking at the legacies of the Russian Revolution, Malm asserts that because today there are no “actual Leninist formations capable of seizing power”, no “revolutionary leadership”, the essential Leninist elements required are “a predisposition for emergency action and an openness to some degree of hard power from the state.” Despite acknowledging that an increase in state power brings with it the danger of authoritarianism, he calls for the “reprioritisation of repressive state apparatuses around the world.” His ‘ecological Leninism’ is a call to work with the capitalist state, which as he admits “would clearly be a departure from the classical programme of demolishing the state and building another”.
For Malm, “War Communism provides an example of a rapid, state-driven transformation of production and the organisation of the economy in the face of massive opposition from the dominant classes”, while acknowledging that Soviet War Communism involved a series of compromises “giving up on the ideals of communes and much else” and that “the journey from War Communism to tyranny was short to non-existent.” However, the threat of his call for ‘emergency action and hard power’ being taken-up by authoritarian and ‘proto-fascist’ states, we are told, will be addressed in his future work.
Last year, Jodi Dean and Kai Heron also wrote about ‘ecological Leninism’ in Revolution or Ruin to support the building of a Leninist party and seizing control of the state for a top-down centralised response to climate change. Not surprisingly, they are highly critical of disaster communism as it is understood by those like Out of the Woods and myself. They misrepresent our views on the realities and potentials of disaster communism, claiming that “confronted with the choice between ruin or revolution, disaster communism opts for ruin as the path to revolution”. Misleading their readers, they also assert that; “In lieu of the revolutionary subject emphasised in the Marxist tradition, disaster communism turns to climate breakdown as the agent of history.” Ignoring the arguments we make about the power of people’s self-organisation, they downplay the role of mutual aid and disfigure what they claim is a “so-far-nonexistent social movement that struggles to resolve the crisis in a way that is simultaneously anti-capitalist and anti-sovereign.” Instead, Dean and Heron point to the importance of “orders from the state” which were given to employers during the pandemic, championing the state as “a ready-made apparatus for responding to the climate crisis” which “is backed by a standing army.” It is here that they see the potential for positive action “when the state is seized by a revolutionary party”.
Meanwhile, in his article ‘Disaster Communism’ published last year in Thesis Eleven, Steve Matthewman celebrates “the warm embrace of the state intervening on our behalf”, while also quoting a prominent right-wing commentator who welcomed pandemic state intervention by exclaiming “if you’re wanting to win a war, the system you’re looking for is effectively communism.” This quote is similar to one from Macquarie Bank’s wealth analysts, who warned in March that “conventional capitalism is dying” and the world is headed for “something that will be closer to a version of communism”. This pro-capitalist support for ‘communism’ also reminds me of when Channel Seven’s TV News senior reporter, Chris Reason, explained to viewers in March that when dealing with the Covid-19 emergency – “China has the advantage of being a one-party dictatorship.”
Despite a range of ongoing criticisms, the Chinese state’s response to the coronavirus has been widely heralded as an effective model to address the Covid-19 disaster. State authoritarianism has become a common feature of current crises, along with ongoing protests against authoritarianism and repression (e.g. BLM actions – including the movement’s struggles to demilitarise the health emergency). In China, during the pandemic, there has been widespread resistance to the subordination of life to the rationale of state capitalism, with many of the positive achievements of the ‘Chinese model’ produced due to the self-organised initiatives and ongoing struggles of millions of people. These initiatives and struggles also manifested beyond national borders and have ‘come close to setting a benchmark in the management of the crisis’. Across the globe large numbers of people have instigated positive action, stopped working, refused to comply with unsafe policies and practices, and demanded more support and safety.
Chinese state forms, like other state forms, are arenas of struggle, where resistance continues within, against, and beyond capitalism. At the same time, with the growth of authoritarian parties, political leaders, and state formations, many people are warning that climate and pandemic ‘states of emergency’ are being used to extend repression and to prepare us for war. In this climate, the promotion of War Communism marks a shift to a dangerous and violent pessimism expressing illusions about the nature and history of state capitalism and who is likely to be targeted by repressive forces calling themselves Communist.
“It is easy to warn that state power is using the epidemic as an excuse to impose a permanent state of emergency, but what alternative arrangements do those that sound such warnings propose?” (Zizek, Pandemic, 2020)
Radical and progressive social movements have proposed and demonstrated a range of alternative arrangements, as covered in various Revolts Now posts. Many of these arrangements are forms of disaster communism. It is the multitudinous environmental movements, the widespread self-organised mobilisation of grassroots resistance, mutual aid, and struggles for peace, democracy, justice, love and freedom, that provide alternatives to disaster capitalism. These alternatives can also defend us from War Communism.
In his 2016 book Disaster Citizenship: Survivors, Solidarity, and Power in the Progressive Era, Jacob Remes investigates how disasters reshape politics and people’s relationships with state forms. During and after disasters, obligations and relationships among people and between them and institutions are actively renegotiated. These are times in which ideas about state’s roles in taking care of people changes. Remes explains that during disasters people demand aid from state forms but also want to protect their autonomy. Recipients of state support get material or financial resources in exchange for granting state forms power over their lives. This is not a free choice, given many people’s needs and vulnerabilities, and often involves taking relief in exchange for the loss of autonomy and privacy. In response many imagine rebuilding their lives and communities with new rules or perhaps without rules.
State relief is often organised to help limit government liability or responsibility. Yet people frequently demand more state assistance on their own terms, while at the same time seeking to maintain practices of informal solidarity. At the centre of the conflict between the two styles of aid – “professional and lay, hierarchical and reciprocal, formal and informal” – are questions of labour and who controls it, as battles over the organisation of re/productive labour are at the centre of contestations over governance.
Remes explores social networks and social participation and the protection they provide from the effects of disasters – what neoliberalism terms ‘social capital’ and others prefer to call everyday forms of horizontal reciprocal care, solidarity, love, etc. He looks at how ‘pre-disaster’ connections are used in disaster’s aftermath and how people deal with disasters by not only re-enacting everyday patterns of solidarity, but also by establishing new expectations. As Remes explains, families, neighbours, friends, and co-workers have patterns and traditions of self-help, informal organisation, and solidarity that they develop before disasters hit and these traditions are put to unusual purposes and extreme stress when they happen. During and after disasters, these organisational forms are also challenged by ‘agents of the state’ who are given extraordinary powers in disaster’s wake. Those who most directly experience disasters understand them and their situations differently than professional relief authorities. Survivors and ‘relievers’ also differ in their experience of order and disorder. Institutional relief managers tend to value the knowledge of ‘experts’, officials, and professionals. They fail to see or understand the self-organised ‘order’ that survivors and relief workers construct. This ‘organisation without organisations’ is based on connections, networks, and the practices of daily solidarities that existed before disasters strike.
Former Australian Science Minister, Barry Jones, declares: “The postponement of parliament puts more power – total power – in the hands of the executive – and nobody questions it, least of all the Opposition. It is in fact a coup.” (27 / 3 / 20)
Faced with continuing and escalating disasters, many people look to ‘the state’, while failing to appreciate the communism which already exists, neglecting the social movements that produce alternative ways of organising, or seeing these as too weak to effect powerful change. Instilled with fear and a lack of trust in people, they seek to mobilise the state’s power to organise and command. Those advocating War Communism emphasise aggression, coercion, imposed discipline, violence and force, the worse aspects of current emergencies. Yet, despite what capitalist propaganda and authoritarian ideologies would have us believe, it is care that has been at the heart of the most positive state and non-state responses to the enviro/climate/pandemic crises.
‘Who is the State?’
State forms are more complex and diffuse than generally understood. Capitalist states re/produce capitalist social relations and are also the product of widespread and continuous struggles against capital. These struggles can increase people’s power both within capitalist state forms and outside of them. The helpful features of state institutions are products of struggle, reflecting our power to transform states, because state forms include us, at times as collaborators and at our best as subversives. When capitalist norms are internalised, they become part of people’s ‘common sense’, with state mentalities becoming our mentalities, and when we act as the subjects of state power we help to perpetuate our own domination. Yet, while the ruling class aims to create the best organisational forms to further its collective interests, to subdue and incorporate us, our struggles for freedom provoke modifications to the techniques of state power, new conditions, new forms of resistance, new struggles.
Encouraging militarisation and armed combat is incredibly dangerous and given the history of Communism the motivations of those advocating War Communism should be, and will be, widely mistrusted. To support War Communism is to forget the disasters of ‘Communist states’ and ‘Communist Parties’. The errors and defeats of these experiments and the capitalist forms calling themselves Communist continue to weigh heavily on contemporary anti-capitalist movements, making it difficult to speak of communism without ‘corpses in our mouths’. Reclaiming and speaking of communism in a positive sense recognises the genuine communist heritage, which opposes authoritarianism, repression, war and terror, and illuminates praxes of freedom, democracy, peace and love. Communism has been the enemy common to many neoliberal, social democratic, fascist, and socialist regimes and those identified as communists have been targeted and murdered in their millions during the global class war to break proletarian power. Today these communist victims and the victims of ‘Communism’ ‘haunt the world’. But communism is not a ghost, it is a movement of movements, and is very much alive.
During the pandemic, there have been a wide-range of state reactions to the disaster, from increasing welfare and healthcare provision to extending the colonisation of our lives by security states and surveillance capitalism, all centred on the profitability of continuing, deepening, and expanding exploitation and extraction. At the same time, the grass roots organisation of disaster communism continues to be ignored, hidden, downplayed, and suppressed, in order to promote state-focused solutions, coercive authority, and elitist leadership roles. The promotion of war, force, and state discipline is a serious danger to the kindness, care, love, solidarity, and mutual aid of disaster communism. So, let’s think carefully about our relationships with states/capitalism and how we can best defend ourselves by continuing to organise our own living alternatives.
(1) Lenin, V., 1936, ‘Left Wing Childishness and the Petty Bourgeois Mentality’, Lenin Selected Works,Volume 7, Lawrence and Wishart, London, pp. 351-378.
(2) Minz, I., 1942, The Army of the Soviet Union, Foreign Language Publishing House, Moscow.
‘Our bodies, our music, being together.’
On December 7, dancing in bars, clubs, and restaurants was allowed again in New South Wales after being banned for months. But, did we really want to dance, given the year we’ve had?
Twelve months before, in the lead-up to a local climate and bushfire crisis protest, the same question was being asked about the inclusion of music and dancing. Did we really want to celebrate when we should be mourning, be joyful in the face of widespread grief, have fun when we should be angry, and be positive when we should be more militant or serious?
In January of this year, in response to these concerns, I was asked to put together a short presentation on the protest music of 2019 for the Honk! Street Music Festival. Sadly, due to time constraints it didn’t end-up happening. In the presentation I discussed how some people say that including music at protests is for hippies, white people, the middle class, those who are privileged, etc. Among those critiquing protest music there’s a tendency to see it as something which undermines the power and impact of militant activity. Fortunately, a wide range of contemporary social movements have demonstrated that protest music is incredibly powerful and can have significant positive effects.
Throughout 2019, large-scale protests unleashed popular revolt on a global scale—from Paris and Prague to Port-au-Prince, Beirut to Bogota and Berlin, Catalonia to Cairo, and in Hong Kong, Harare, Santiago, Seoul, Quito, Jakarta, Tehran, Algiers, Baghdad, Budapest, New Delhi, and Manila. Taken together, these protest movements reflected unprecedented political mobilisation with tens of millions deploying their collective power in more countries than at any time in recorded history – a profound shift in the global landscape of dissent.
In many places the sparks that ignited revolts were different. But there was much these movements had in common. Virtually all protests quickly escalated and began issuing ultimatums for governments to embrace sweeping changes – or to move aside. The issue of power – who has it, how is it used, and how people can have a say in the decisions that affect their lives were central concerns. In my Honk! presentation I included just a few examples to illustrate protest music’s continuing importance and how widespread it was during the 2019 rise of global revolt.
In the first half of the year, the Sudanese Revolution brought down the country’s military dictatorship following a massive wave of courageous defiance by a broad-based peace, justice, and democracy movement. Here’s a few of the songs that fueled and accompanied the uprising.
In June, protests began in Hong Kong against the local and mainland governments. Millions of people took part in the demonstrations and widespread civil disobedience. In this video protesters are singing ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’ from the musical Les Miserables.
Here in Wollongong, in a year that saw an upsurge of climate change activism, the major action occurred during the September 20 Climate Strike when we occupied the city streets with our bodies and the music of the Rising Tide Street Band, Les Femmes Fatales, and The Lurkers, among others, and the beats of the Radical Drum Corps, helping to make the event a resounding success.
Later in the year, as much of Australia burned, the Illawarra Climate Justice Alliance debated whether to organise a dance occupation of a key city intersection during the November Climate Strike and decided to include this ‘civil discobedience’ –
In October, a series of on-going mass protests erupted in Lebanon, initially triggered by the government’s negligent response to bush fires and planned tax rises on petrol and the use of WhatsApp. This expanded into a country-wide condemnation of corrupt sectarian rule, economic crisis, and unemployment. As part of the movement’s large and continuous mass actions people from all walks of life were soon ‘dancing for their freedom’.
In November and December, millions of people went on strike against austerity in Colombia, revolting against neoliberalism with dancing, singing and joy, despite having a corrupt government that uses violent repression, terrorises communities, and regularly murders activists.
2019 was a year of massive strikes in various parts of the world and again music played an important part in many of them. For example, here’s a video from November of a teacher’s strike in Indiana USA – over low pay.
Some of 2019’s most amazing protest music came from Chile – where a rebellion against public transport price rises, growing inequality and privatisation saw a violently imposed curfew enforced in 16 cities. After the Chilean President announced that the Government was “at war” with protesters, at least 30 people were killed, hundreds of people were wounded, including over 400 protesters shot in the face, resulting in large numbers of them losing an eye. The response of the Chilean people has been angry, defiant, joyful, and musical. In this video guitarists, singers, and thousands of protesters perform “El derecho de vivir en paz” (“The right to live in peace”) by Victor Jara.
The struggles in Chile continue and have lead to the creation of a new constitution. In this video from last year’s action, a full orchestra performs the well-known “El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido” (The people united will never be defeated).
Even at the height of police attacks, the music plays on –
A Chilean protest song and dance routine about rape culture and victim shaming, Un Violador en Tu Camino – ‘A Rapist in Your Path’, first performed during last year’s uprising, has also become an anthem for feminists around the world.
‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’
During the pandemic, widespread social care and mutual aid has also included the use of music by those in ‘iso’ to communicate, show solidarity, and keep-up morale. For example, this video of people dancing in Italy during their early ‘lockdown’ is reminiscent of the Wollongong November climate strike and some of the debates about music and dancing we had at the time.
The discussions about whether music/songs/dancing were appropriate during the local bush fire disaster and the calls to be more sombre are obviously relevant to the Covid-19 crisis. And, as the anger and grief around the pandemic grew overseas, there was less music and a move to more ‘pot banging’ sound protests. None-the-less, the video below of hospital workers singing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone” to their colleagues working in intensive care, through the worst of the crisis, is one of the most moving I have seen during the pandemic.
In May, Kerman Calvo and Ester Bejarano wrote about the use of music in Spain during ‘lockdown’ – “to commemorate nurses or doctors dead in the fight against the virus, to live up to a challenge, to entertain kids living nearby” and “the powerful effect of music to create new bonds among strangers, and also to help circulate a sense of interconnectedness. Professional musicians saw this as their ‘duty’ as ‘artists’; in other cases, performers simply wanted to do something for other people. Community making is embedded in emphatic appeals to help. A running theme has been the presentation of music as a stress reliever, a way to cope with anxiety, loneliness of the pain associated with not being able to meet your loved ones. A good number of musicians started playing . . . as a way to express love and affection.”
‘Music Hittin’ the Heart’
Of course many of the powerful social movements that transformed the world last year have been disrupted (but not ended) by the Covid-19 crisis. However, despite the impacts of the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd by police saw militant protests erupt from Minneapolis to Wollongong in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. At least 200 cities in the U.S. imposed curfews, more than 30 states deployed over 62,000 National Guards. In the space of a few weeks, over 14,000 people had been arrested and more than 26 people were killed during the protests. Support for the uprising and how radicalised American society has become was indicated by mainstream polling which showed the level of support for the American Presidential candidates was lower than the number of Americans who thought burning down Minneapolis Police Precinct was justified after the killing of George Floyd.
Not surprisingly, rap music became the main soundtrack to the BLM protests. In the streets outside the White House the sound of Public Enemy’s 1989 song ‘Fight the Power’ blared as protesters broke into spontaneous renditions of the electric slide dance. A remake of the song, released to support the movement, was soon available with guest verses from contemporary artists.
Demonstrators in other parts of the U.S. similarly used hip-hop as a form of sonic protest. In New York, demonstrators chanted the hook to Ludacris’s 2001 song “Move Bitch” as they were penned in on the Manhattan Bridge by police. While ‘hip hop supergroup’ Run the Jewels released their long-awaited album, RTJ4, at the height of the protests, with it soon becoming another soundtrack to the movement. The album was released for ‘free for anyone who wants some music’, with the group calling on fans to donate to BLM protester’s legal support. Here’s my favourite song/clip from the album – JU$T
Throughout 2020, there have been many dance experiences, actions, and tributes to the BLM uprising, from mainstream TV shows to individual street level. But I have chosen to include this 2016 dance callout, featuring the names of prominent black people killed by police in the United States, to once again highlight the way music and dance play powerful ongoing roles in resistance.
At the start of the pandemic, I had a discussion with a friend of mine, a prominent socialist organiser, about the importance of love. They argued that love and care were not what was required during the Covid crisis. They were keen to stress the weakness of love and how hatred was the emotion that revolutionary movements required. According to them, and many others, love is “impotent” and pacificistic – a form of surrender in the face of a vicious class enemy. Among those critiquing protest music there’s a similar tendency to associate it with emotional weakness or passivity. So, I took some delight when a number of my friend’s socialist comrades began posting the video below from a BLM demonstration in Adelaide, posing the question ‘Where is the Love?’ (Click on ‘Watch on Facebook’ to view)
During 2020, countering hate also became a focus of K-Pop fans from across the globe. Supporters of South Korea’s pop music scene have been coordinating sophisticated worldwide social media interventions supporting BLM and targeting the far-right. This has included raising millions of dollars for BLM organisations and spamming a request from the Dallas Police Department for “video of illegal activity from (BLM) protests”, forcing the Dallas PD to shut down its ‘iWatch Dallas’ app soon after. The K-pop fans have also subverted ‘#WhiteLivesMatter’, ‘#BlueLivesMatter’, and various QAnon hashtags. In June, K-pop fans famously joined with young TikTok users to disrupt Donald Trump’s Tulsa re-election rally.
‘Music makes us want to live.’
‘It is a language we all understand.’
Music and dancing are crucial to a long history of social struggles and today’s movements for change are adding to this chorus. When people confront pain and suffering, and are drawn together to take collective action for progressive change, rebellious music and dancing can combine grief and hope, anger and joy. All great protest movements include music and dancing in their composition and if we wait for a time when no-one is being injured or killed, losing their life, their homes, or their livelihoods, then we will never celebrate our continuing power to make a better world. So, seriously, let’s make music, and if we’re able to dance, and we want to dance, let’s dance; while we mourn, when we are angry and militant; so we can create joy and have fun, so we can connect with each other, build our community, and defy those who want to sadden, silence and suppress us; so that together we can create good times, share pleasure, and feel alive.
“You really shouldn’t say ‘I love you’ unless you mean it. But if you mean it, you should say it a lot. People forget.” – Jessica, aged 8
“To all the carers: I see you. Your struggle is our struggle. Your love is the cure.” – Nick, aged 57
The coronavirus crisis has presented many of us with both more time and more responsibility to care for each other. It has become obvious that our actions matter; that our lives are powerfully interconnected with others all over the world; that the question – ‘do we care?’ is a life or death one.
The crisis has also put a spotlight on community engagement and, in particular, on the personal risks workers, most obviously nurses and doctors, have taken to care for their communities. The pandemic illustrates that we are dependent on a web of care work that spans the globe. So, it has been wonderful to see widespread appreciation of the many different forms of this work – healing, cleaning, tending, serving, creating, teaching, nurturing, learning, organising, and counseling, particularly care work concerned with the most vulnerable – the aged, those suffering from illnesses, the homeless, imprisoned, the unwaged/poor, and indigenous communities, along with increased recognition of the important skills of caring – trust, vulnerability, generosity, humour, flexibility, openness, understanding, and selective resignation. The people doing so-called ‘hidden work’ and ‘emotion work’, and what they do, has become more visible. We have seen how the often unnoticed work of carers – food producers, preparers, and distributors, teachers, parents, and others – is essential. Low paid workers, such as cleaners, rubbish collectors, supermarket staff, and delivery drivers, have been celebrated as heroes for the contributions they make. The need to value care work (both paid and unpaid) in new or different ways is now getting more attention..
Waged caring work tends to be poorly paid and we have recently seen nurses, aged care and childcare workers demanding action on staffing ratios and for decent wages. Care workers are under pressure due to constant cuts, erosion of working conditions, casualisation and the continual re-organisation of their work, which erodes the social relations between those who care/are cared for. Just this week, the NSW government rewarded the contribution of health care workers during the pandemic by freezing their wages. This spit in the face reflects a more general pattern where caring relationships and our ability to care are under attack.
I see you – I hear you
Each day, a multitude of generous acts, acts of love, care and solidarity, go largely unseen, invisible to most of us. We remain unaware of the microscopic everyday forms of caring organisation – the countless neighbours, family members, friends, work colleagues, and strangers arranging ways to support each other. In my own home, it is the work of caring for those within our place of refuge, whilst also trying to care for as many other people as possible, which has been the crucial feature of this crisis. Our own network, or concentric circles, of caring connections have been at the heart of every moment – helping us to navigate the difficulties of this time and to share the opportunities and potentials which the crisis has presented.
During ‘iso’ we have faced a range of difficulties. But when we are able to create more time to care for each other; to slow-down, appreciate the importance of empathy and affection, and construct some respite from the daily hardships of capitalism, we may hear the voices of those who have been in isolation for many years. Those like Mostafa Azimitabar, who was imprisoned on Manus Island for six-and-a-half years and has been detained in a hotel room in Melbourne since December, for twenty-three hours a day, with no end to his isolation in sight. During the height of the crisis, what did Moz have to say to those who would listen?
As many of those in positions of power express a clear willingness to sacrifice us for the benefit of a privileged few, to let us die without a care, how do we measure our worth? The importance of our care work is indicated by other people when they acknowledge its value. Many people are using the COVID-19 crisis to think more deeply about what gives our lives and our actions meaning. We are struggling with what is demanded of us and profoundly considering our own needs and desires. On a recent episode of Four Corners about COVID-19, one of the medical personnel being interviewed talked about their dread of having to “ration care” – being forced to decide who would receive treatment and who wouldn’t. Yet this is something that occurs every day. What this crisis has helped to expose is along which lines this rationing occurs. As the Governor of New York asked recently – “How much is a human life worth? That’s the real discussion that no one is admitting openly or freely.” Of course, the usual answer to this question is – it depends on whose life it is.
You are not alone
A number of commentators have described social isolation/physical distancing as an act of love – a demonstration of people’s care for others – a civic minded stance for the common good. During the crisis, most people have engaged in a collective commitment to do the best they can to look after each other. We have demonstrated that we’re willing and able to extend our care over a long period of time and to a large number of people. There has been a growing recognition of our mutual dependence and the fact that we’re prepared to sacrifice our own desires in order to keep one another healthy. Many people took the initiative to stop doing a range of things, most importantly not going to work or shopping, or sending their kids to school, before government restrictions were announced. This involved shared decision making to reorganise our own behaviour, in order to be more careful, regardless of what we were told to do.
Research in the United States has shown that it is the poor and low paid who are most likely to suffer from quarantine/isolation measures, but they are also the people who tend to support physical/social distancing actions. Those who make less money are more likely to remain physically ‘on the job’ as ‘essential’ workers and are also more likely to have been hit financially by ‘lockdowns’. Yet, they are also generally more willing to make sacrifices for the health of others than those who are better off. This is probably because low-income workers often have jobs that put them at higher risk of getting sick, as they work closely with many other people. The poor also pay a heavier price for being sick and therefore value their own health and the health of others more. As well, many workers don’t want to go back to work, especially when welfare payments are currently more generous than the wage they were receiving when they were ‘on the job’, and they don’t have to risk their health by clocking-on. The poor are also more likely to understand that fighting a ‘war’ against the virus, through sacrificing people to restart the economy, will see the poor and vulnerable suffer the most; that the pressure to return to work – to sacrifice workers to get the economy (profits) going again – is a form of capitalist violence.
Those who care about/for others are also more likely to be suffering from mental health issues. In my recent post on Grief, Love and Rage, I discussed how we are having to deal with long-term and multiple forms of grief – ecological grief, democracy grief, economic grief, employment grief and the end of so-called ‘normality’. Over the past months, we have had to be physically distant while suffering from collective pain. Early on in the crisis, Tim Costello asked; “How do we prepare for the sadness that will be thrust upon us? We must prepare to rediscover the art of lament. Lament is one of those words that seems to have lost its meaning. Lament is not a label to put on a person or a situation – it’s the communal sharing of this grief, an act of solidarity that ensures no one needs to grieve alone, despite our physical distance. If we are going to find a way to lament through the coming months, we need to start now by actively participating in our shared sense of exile . . . even in quarantine we need to find meaning in our lives, to know we are seen, that our pain is validated by others and to know we are loved.”
Your struggle is our struggle
The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted a widespread desire to be social and the recognition that we need to be social if we are to survive. Many people have experienced the feeling of ‘alienation and solidarity at once’ and our interconnections with ‘a society of strangers, all of whom depend on one another to survive’. While ‘iso’ has had deadly and devastating impacts on many people, it has also meant that some people are less isolated as family, friends, neighbours and strangers reach-out to care for each other. While there are those who are unable, or unwilling, to care for others, around us much of the community has sprung into solidarity activity. Across the country mutual aid groups have been quickly established. In other parts of the world mutual aid networks have gone viral – ‘COVID-19 Mutual Aid UK’ for example has over 3,000 groups registered on a central site, and these are just the larger area coordination groups, most of which have split down to a ward and then street level.
Over the first few weeks of isolation, I tried to take note of the mutual aid/care networks which were emerging. However, it soon became clear that there was so much love, care and solidarity being organised, and in so many different ways, that it was better to concentrate on joining in. Still, some examples that have grabbed my attention give some sense of the commonality of caring reactions. A few examples of the caring activity in my own community, that I have some knowledge of, helps to illustrate the depth and breadth of these responses.
Here in the Illawarra, the local Gong Mutual Aid Gang Facebook page has played an important part in creating a framework for people to self-organise care, to circulate advice and information, to put people in contact with each other, to organise the distribution of supplies, providing an outlet for those producing and sharing food and other resources, including home-grown and home-made goods. As explained on the group’s page – “In this group we can share practical resources, information, make plans, build networks of care and organisation. We can help each other organise to meet our needs, to practice care and safety, and to navigate the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on our well-being, mental health, our work, employment and housing security. We aim to prioritise those most vulnerable at this time.”
“Mutual aid is the re-purposing and provisioning of resources like care, skills, food, other things and so on for everyone’s common benefit. Recently, mutual aid has played a significant part in getting communities through the bushfire crisis. In the present crisis of COVID-19, we are again seeing its importance. The power of mutual aid comes from all our existing networks and deepening and expanding them. It can help us through crisis, and beyond.” It is “about all of us getting together and practically just trying to meet each other’s needs and solve immediate problems together, in a very grassroots, bottom-up way, instead of a top-down way.”
An important initiative of the group is the Illawarra Mutual Aid Fund which has been established for when money is needed. You can find out more about the fund and how to receive assistance here and how to donate to the fund here.
The concept of mutual aid centres around the idea of a group of people mutually supporting each other, not of some ‘doing good works’ for others. It’s the idea that everyone has something to contribute and we flourish when we support each other. The popularisation of mutual aid, of caring for each other, can both promote and demonstrate that alternatives exist, that they can be reliable, and that they can transform our lives and the world. Mutual aid practices are always widespread, but during and after crises and disasters they tend to expand and flourish, as more people rely on decommodified reciprocal caring relationships. Although many mutual aid initiatives are conducted by ‘formal’ mutual aid groups, many more activities are undertaken by ‘informal’ groups and most mutual aid remains invisible. Yet it is a flourishing global movement, a complex network of caring relationships which we rely on to survive and prosper.
In the early ‘iso days’, I also joined the ‘Kindness Pandemic’ established by Dr Catherine Barrett to support anyone whose life was impacted by COVID-19. The group grew to 500,000+ members in two weeks. The Kindness Pandemic is “underpinned by principles of intersectional kindness, or how we look out for people who were marginalised before COVID-19 and those who have become marginalised or experiencing new hardships because of COVID-19.” Among a range of initiatives the group launched a ‘Love Stories’ campaign. Young people were invited to share a story about an older person they love and why they love the older person – the older person was then invited to respond. The campaign aimed to help reduce the anxiety, isolation and loneliness that older people may be experiencing, as well as engaging young people and forging inter-generational bonds. As the group explained “this campaign aims to enrich and bring greater meaning to our lives.” Responding to the massive and overwhelming support for their initiative the Kindness Pandemic group was soon asking involved communities to establish localised pages to promote acts of kindness in their own backyard. This resulted in the Illawarra Kindness Pandemic, which over a thousand people joined to help promote ‘random acts of kindness in the Illawarra’.
A wonderful example of local care has been the organisation of food for those in need. In our suburb, Fairy Meadow, two eateries have been providing free meals for those unable to pay – unemployed, international students & people in need. As well, the servo on the corner of our street has been a distribution point for free food supplies going to hundreds of international students. Nearby, more free meals have been made available at Wollongong University by a range of groups. In other parts of the city food has been donated to neighbourhood centres for distribution and in the city centre ‘Good Will Only’ is feeding 800 people a week via pay-what-you-want, with no obligation to pay. These vegan meals are being delivered to the Wollongong Homeless Hub, Bellambi Neighbourhood Centre and Age Matters. Another local initiative has seen the provision of hundreds of ‘pay-it-forward’ meals for health care workers.
To the Ruby Princess – ‘with love from Wollongong’
Support for international students, stuck here without government assistance, is an example of how local caring networks can reach beyond the places where they’re based. The most famous example of local virus crisis mutual aid began when the Ruby Princess cruise ship docked at Port Kembla. At least 850 passengers and crew from the ship have contracted COVID-19 and 26 of them are dead. The scandal over the passengers disembarking in Sydney has led to a homicide investigation, a coronial inquiry and a NSW Government Special Commission of Inquiry. While some people, many of whom should have known better, were calling to ‘stop the boat’ landing anywhere in Australia, when the ship arrived in Wollongong it was met by an outpouring of concern for the crew. As the NSW and Federal authorities surrounded the ship with police and heavily armed troops, the local union movement and the International Transport Federation were soon on the scene to support the people on-board. As criminally negligent state and money-making interests set about creating a deeper disaster, the local community rapidly swung into action to make contact with the crew and offer them assistance, despite attempts to stop this happening.
Within days of arriving, solidarity was flooding-in. Attention was also turned on the authorities’ mistreatment of the crew, the secretive and dangerous role of for-profit ‘health provider’ Aspen Care and their close connections to the Federal Government were exposed, and pressure was exerted through a concerted campaign to have the crew receive adequate support. At the same time, the local Mission to Seafarers organised community donations of food and supplies. This initiative soon resulted in 1200 care packages from the local community being delivered to the crew. In response the ship’s crew members established a Go Fund Me page to donate money back to the local community, raising thousands of dollars for local emergency housing.
‘1200 care packages delivered to Ruby Princess, with love from Wollongong’ (Illawarra Mercury)
‘Ruby Princess crew says thank you to Wollongong with gift of their own’ (Illawarra Mercury)
As a crew member explained to the Illawarra Mercury – “Since our arrival at Port Kembla, we, crew members, aboard the Ruby Princess have been shown great compassion, love and support by The Mission to Seafarers and Wollongong community. Their thoughtfulness and generosity have lifted our spirits in this tough time as we all look forward to seeing home and reuniting with loved ones in the near future. That is why we decided to start a Go Fund Me for Wollongong Emergency Family Housing. Some around the world are restricted to their homes, some are waiting to return home and some have no home at all. We would love to help a family feel safe and sheltered in a place to call home.”
With the Australian Border Force attempting to make the Ruby Princess head back out to sea, regardless of how many were infected or sick, a growing number of people and organisations campaigned for every crew member to be tested, for those who were sick to get proper medical care, and for any crew member who wished to disembark to be safely repatriated. This powerful solidarity resulted in all of the crew being tested, all of those who were sick leaving the ship to receive decent health care, and enabled hundreds of crew members to fly home. When the Ruby Princess sailed out of Port Kembla, many locals lined the shore-line, the ship was given a ceremonial water cannon salute, a maritime symbol of respect, honour and gratitude, and on the ship’s stern a massive banner declared
The story of the Ruby Princess’s time in Wollongong is now part of this city’s proud history of love, care and global solidarity.
Around the world we have seen a multitude of similar responses. Millions of people have volunteered to undertake essential services, offered crisis counselling, emotional support, doing people’s shopping, and running errands. They have self-organised aid packages and survival packs for the most vulnerable. There have been countless offers of free food and accommodation for healthcare workers and others in need. Volunteer drivers have created ‘community fleets’ to transport health care, essential workers, and others providing care and support. Free supplies of home-made masks, wash-stands, hand sanitiser, and much more, have been distributed on a massive scale. Computer programmers have organised hackathons to design face shields that can be produced with a 3D printer. Doctors, technicians and others have designed cheap ventilators. Open source software and technologies have been produced to address a range of virus impacts and issues, as have information sheets, handbooks, videos, websites and blogs. Morale boosting events have flourished – such as balcony music and singing, protests, pot-banging expressions of support for health services and heath care workers.
It is impossible to know how collective experiences of working together cooperatively in order to produce free stuff that we share with each other, choosing what we work on, how we work, and why we work, of ‘finding meaning, purpose and satisfaction by working together to enhance the lives of all’, will change us over the long-term. I have been struck by the number of people refusing to return to ‘normal’ – instead seeking to transform what they do with the time of their lives – seeking to live as if their existence matters and their actions count. We know that major changes are coming. We have seen that we’re capable of radically transforming society and changing things for the better. But can we slow down, create time for what is most important, permanently transform our lifestyles and work patterns, prioritise health, safety and the sharing of wealth and resources?
Time to really care
During the virus crisis, a lot of people have commented on the alteration of time and how the ways in which it is measured and experienced have become abnormal. For some the present is experienced as a portal between the past we have lost and an uncertain future, where ‘everything that is solid melts into air’. As we grapple with what we do with our lives – how the social construction of months, days, hours and minutes and the way we experience their passing is connected to how we value and spend them – the crisis poses more starkly than usual the value and meaning of how we spend our time; what we are devoting our lives to. Many people’s desires for a better life are expressed in a recognition that waged work is undermining social relationships, in concerns about the ‘quality of life’, and struggles over ‘family, leisure and work time’. The uneven distribution of paid work means that while large numbers of people are unemployed or ‘underemployed’ and casualisation is increasing, a significant proportion of waged workers want less work, even if this involves a loss of income. Dismantling destructive forms of labour and winning shorter work hours could mean that technological advancements go towards creating richer lives while reducing ecological impacts, giving us more time for what’s most valuable – our relationships, environments, and communities.
Recent surveys have indicated that people’s sense of solidarity is increasing, their awareness of interconnectedness and their support for each other, that the coronavirus experience has changed what we believe we owe ourselves and each other. This crisis has also exposed a widespread lack of care. It has become clearer that capitalism is a violent social relation, a death machine which treats most of us as expendable. Those who benefit most from this social relation have inflicted numerous horrors, clearly demonstrating that we are not all in this together – that only some of us are trying to avoid mass death. So, we will have to fight for a redistribution of time, wealth, resources and power – for health care, aged care, child care, disability care, and earth care.
In my previous post Burning Dilemmas I spoke of how the scale and longevity of the bushfire crisis fostered “a grim, creeping dread. A fear that it won’t be over soon, or ever.” And how “most of us still seek to maintain as much ‘normalcy’ as possible, despite the growing dissonance between heightened emergencies and the mundane tasks of every-day life; even though attempting this ‘new normal’ is absurd and distressing.” We now have to face growing environmental and extinction crises, the rise of authoritarianism/fascism, economic crisis, mass unemployment, increased poverty, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, the desire for a return to ‘normal’ remains – even though it’s impossible.
Not being able to see friends or loved ones in person, to touch and share space, to grieve and celebrate, is a pain we’ve now become familiar with. A deep-seated craving for love is nurturing intensifying struggles around the importance of caring – because love and solidarity are the basis on which we struggle, without which we cannot build a better world. The creation of alternative futures relies on collective care – in tending to our social connections – our relationships with friends, family, neighbours, colleagues, communities, and all of those struggling for a more just, equitable and sustainable world.
The coronavirus crisis has given people across the globe time to think about the state of the world and many of us have become angrier with those in power. The world is changing fast and we’re not happy about the way things are heading. So, an intensification of struggles and growing outrage over what we care about is likely. We can expect to see more people demanding governments and employers address these concerns. We will also see more people taking action for themselves. Yet, much of our crucial and powerful caring activity will remain invisible. Late last year, I argued that more anger was probable, as well as wide-ranging debates about the uses of this anger, as a surge of enraged movements of resistance confronted neoliberalism, authoritarianism, and fascism. However, this rising anger doesn’t mean that our projects aren’t ones of care, of love, and joy. We may be motivated by anger, but it is love for each other, for the world, for life, which produces living alternatives to suffering, grief, and despair; “that sustains and nurtures the will to act, and to carry on when our bodies, communities and families are under constant siege.”
We are heading into a period of economic and social disruption, radical upheaval and change. Rising unemployment, poverty and intensifying austerity crises will require that we organise more care, mutual aid, and longer lasting networks of support for each other. The climate, environmental and extinction crises have already popularised a ‘just transition’ to a more caring society and the bushfire crisis demonstrated the power and potentials of caring communities. Efforts to replace the punitive ‘welfare’ system with assistance that guarantees the poor a decent life and the demolition of dead end jobs requires recognition of the caring responsibilities that we all have. As we’re currently seeing in the United States, when angry poor people get together they can be incredibly powerful. The current insurrection in American cities is happening because black lives matter and when those in power don’t care, we must show them, and ourselves, that we do. It’s time to change how we organise our lives, it’s time to care.
The bushfire crisis has ignited important questions about everything – how to survive climate change – the impacts of social inequality and the negligent madness of the elite – the legitimacy of the ruling order and how we can replace it. Some look to the usual suspects seeking ‘strong leadership’, craving order and security in the face of destruction, fear, and chaos. Meanwhile, the most important story of the fires is written by the people who live in the affected areas and those who’ve rallied to support them.
In 2011, I wrote about the Queensland floods and responded to what I saw as the limitations of Naomi Klein’s analysis of ‘disaster capitalism’, coining the term disaster communism to describe the alternative social relations which arise during and after devastating events. Disaster capitalism is an extreme, or more fascistic, form of capitalism which takes advantage of disasters to ‘make a killing out of catastrophe’. Whereas, disaster communism is the altruism, resourcefulness, generosity, joy, and love that arise amid disaster’s grief and disruption, revealing widespread yearnings for community and purposefulness. Clearly communism is a problematic word to deploy, since many think of it as a party or state and consider all communism a disaster. Whereas, unlike previous or existing ‘communist states’ and ‘communist parties’, I see disaster communism as a continuation of the genuine communist heritage which opposes authoritarianism, repression, war and terror, and struggles for freedom, democracy, peace and love.
As I have written elsewhere, disaster communism includes network forms of organising which replace the usual state forms and are shown not just to be more inclusive and democratic, but more efficient and more productive. Disasters expose the existing social solidarities, the ‘moral’ and ‘gift’ economies of community service, fellowship, the sharing of work, money, goods, emotional and psychological support provided by the on-going organisation of non-capitalist exchanges. A range of counter-disaster activities produce new relationships, networks, shared experiences, understandings, and goals, where the lived experience of alternative society transforms norms, values and beliefs, from those of self-interest into those of human interest. Skills or attributes that are often under-valued; healing, caring, flexibility, self-sufficiency, counseling, local knowledge and community connections are suddenly understood as crucial. As people come closer to each other they are better able to share resources, knowledges, ways of doing and experiences, enriching lives and communities, opening-up new horizons for creativity, and further deepening interactions.
The concept of disaster communism has been taken-up by other people around the world, such as the authors who write under the collective name Out of the Woods. They responded with a three-part series of articles and identified two different meanings of disaster communism – “The first meaning is collective, self-organised responses to disaster situations. The second concerns the prospects for an ecological society based on human needs in the face of climate chaos.” They call the first sense ‘disaster communities’, and the second ‘disaster communisation’. For Out of the Woods “disaster communities are self-organised, non-market, non-statist social reproduction under adverse conditions. However, they suffer some shortcomings. First and foremost, they are typically short-lived, even if the experience changes the participants for life.” Whereas, disaster communisation involves ‘a qualitative shift within the dynamic of class struggle’ . . . “when the self-organised social reproduction of disaster communities [comes] into conflict with existing property relations, the state, and so on, and overcomes these limits.”
I prefer not to divide disaster communism in this way, as it downplays the extent and continuity of capitalist disasters and the enduring existence of communist alternatives. Capitalism is a continuously disastrous system and ‘disaster communism’ can be both large and small scale, with communist practices organised to deal with individual, community, and more widespread disasters on a daily basis. Today, individual and collective catastrophes are proliferating, ‘disaster communities’ are widespread, and everyday communist practices are essential to many people’s survival. Importantly, communist revolution is ongoing, not just a future moment or event. Communism is and always will be unfinished and emergent and can only be realised in multiple, ongoing and incomplete ways, as people struggle to create and recreate it every day.
Recently, Ashley Dawson, in his book Extreme Cities, includes a chapter on disaster communism and offers a similar critique of ‘disaster communities’ as Out of the Woods, arguing that “Disaster communism – on a purely local scale – does not actually constitute an inherent threat to the capitalist social order.” Alarmingly, Dawson goes on to advocate a form of “war communism” with “warlike state management of all industries” and “centralised decisions on who can consume what goods in what amounts”. Here he demonstrates, once again, how the term ‘communism’ can be deployed to suggest very different things, forgetting or ignoring the history and horrors of the 20th century.
Community Spirit, Self-organisation, Solidarity
Late last year, I wrote about the grief, love & rage sparked by the bushfire crisis, arguing that the response of concerned people, dedicated volunteers, community associations, and social networks offers the most reliable and resilient support to those impacted. Since then, there’s been growing recognition and appreciation of the ‘community spirit’, or solidarity, which has brought people together to help care for each other. Many thousands of people individually and collectively confronted the fire disaster, working alone and together to protect homes, salvage communities, minimise injury and save lives. We have been inundated with stories of heroic fire-fighters, neighbours protecting each other, strangers coming to the rescue, providing relief, and aiding recovery.
Since the fires began, an invaluable knowledge base has been built-up by volunteers using online networks and decentralised communications channels. For example, when the ‘Fires Near Me’ app became unreliable, local social media groups sprang up, with people sharing information about the path of the fires. Networks of legal aids, medics, translators, skilled tradespeople, counselors, community groups and volunteers have also leapt into action. Droves of independent relief groups, organised almost entirely through word of mouth and social media, have seen people open their wallets and their hearts, as countless benefit gigs, fund-raisers, and campaigns have organised money, resources, accommodation, support, advice and information, sharing grief, anger and action.
At the same time, debates have ensued about whether being publicly ‘political’ and being focused on relief work is compatible, and whether political protests should be held during such a crisis. Yet many people have viewed their response as part of something bigger. Often making the links between climate change, political processes, economic and social inequality, and the impacts of the fires.
‘Tell the Prime Minister to go and get fucked’
During the fire crisis, these concerns have had an incendiary impact across society, including much of the mainstream media. In early January, as the fire’s devastation turned much of the south east into a funeral pyre, exhausted and traumatised fire-fighters exploded onto our TV screens, saying loud and clear what hundreds of thousands of people were thinking.
As this message rang-out across the world, a rumour that the RFS volunteer in the video, Paul Parker, was being removed from his position saw tens of thousands sign an online petition in support of him in just a few hours. Money has also poured into Paul’s local hotel to ensure he won’t have to pay for a beer for a very long time. Sadly, it turns out Paul is a One Nation supporter. Whereas, his colleague, Robynne Murphy, who also features in the now infamous TV news report calling for the Prime Minister to “Stand down now!” is a socialist and a former Port Kembla steelworker. She has joined calls for concerted action on the climate crisis; including a focus on community input, an end to coal mining, transformation of the steel industry, a switch to renewable energy, and “massive mobilisations around the country” to demand change.
A week after Robynne and Paul’s outcry, thousands took to the streets to help amplify the growing fury over Scott Morrison’s negligent and dismissive reaction to the bushfires, his family holiday in Hawaii during the disaster, and the weak and uncaring government responses. Soon after returning from overseas, Morrison was forced to abandon a ‘meet-and-greet’ in the fire-ravaged town of Cobargo after he was confronted by angry residents. This tight-knit community had soon established their own independent relief centre, not administered by the government or the Red Cross, but by locals. “It is fuelled entirely by donated supplies, administered by community members organised into unofficial working groups to do things like manage first aid, sewerage, food and water for hundreds of evacuees. Everything from nappies to hay for horses was donated, trucked in, distributed and organised by ordinary people doing what needed to be done to sustain their communities.” As Alfredo La Caprara, one of the folks working in the Cobargo Relief Centre, explained to a journalist: “This is Cobargo pulling together. There’s no official titles or bureaucracy. It’s just a community looking after its own.” (From – all we’ve got is each other, and that is plenty, a zine about mutual aid).
In Balmoral, another nearby community devastated by the fires, Brendon O’Connor, the local RFS captain described the situation soon after – “We’ve not seen anybody – nobody has been to our station to ask how our welfare is or anything. We’re basically running autonomous at this point. If it wasn’t for our residents and the community bringing food into us, to feed not only our firefighters but our community, it’d be pretty hard for us to get through.” In Balmoral locals have repeatedly made clear that they feel they’ve been abandoned by the federal and NSW state governments before, during, and after the fire.
Many community run mutual aid projects are seen as a form of political participation, where people take responsibility to care for one another and attempt to change political conditions, not just through symbolic acts, or by putting pressure on governments, but by actually building new social relations that are more survivable. For some this poses the question
Yet, local, grassroots, informal, and decentralised organisational formations have demonstrated their capacity to rapidly and effectively react. Being loosely organised may involve some obstacles and inefficiencies, but can also facilitate rapid and flexible responses. These adaptable forms of organising can help to weave complex networks that help people to help themselves and others and to deal with or bypass inefficient, negligent, incompetent, corrupt, or paralysed forms of government. Such response, relief, and recovery practices demonstrate that the absence of powerful organisations does not mean the absence of powerful organisation.
Those volunteering their time and energy have proven themselves far more capable than governments, both of responding to the dangers and of seizing the positive opportunities created by the fires. Often, a different set of values is being elaborated, embodied and put into practice via people’s ability to design and implement their own relief, repair, and recovery projects, and to provide care (personal, medical, psychological, etc.). Over and over you hear those impacted exclaiming that ‘possessions are not important’; life is important, we are important, our relationships and communities are important. Yet, despite the wide range of successful community initiatives, the response needed is vast and beyond the capacities available to all of those who need help. Therefore, along with facilitating and coordinating the circulation of community assistance, resources, skills, and knowledges, grass roots organising has directed its efforts towards gaining access to state ‘recovery and reconstruction aid’.
States of Disaster
Although there’s rising public distrust of government institutions, some continue to decry the ‘anarchy’ of self-organised measures and are keen to see the centralisation and coordination of a strong state – ignoring the bureaucracy, incompetence, inefficiencies, corruption and dangers of many state reactions. Calls for more state intervention tend to see hope attached to government responses, even though few really believe that state institutions can adequately address people’s needs.
Amazingly, during the worst of the fires, the Government announced that no extra support was needed for fire-fighters and affected communities. This was despite the desperate necessity for a whole range of assistance. The lack of state preparation, the ignoring of expert advice, large scale cuts to essential, fire and emergency services, disaster relief, welfare agencies, aid organisations, national park staff, environmental protection, lack of basic equipment, such as masks for firefighters, and complacency during the fires, has been the focus of much criticism. While the level of incompetence was indicated by some noteworthy failures even in the heart of Australia’s state bureaucracy – e.g. for 48 hours, smoke in Canberra shut down the government’s Emergency Management Agency, the ACT Government’s Emergency Services Agency suffered a website outage during a rapidly escalating bushfire, and the military started a fire which ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr called the most serious bushfire threat to Canberra since 2003.
In the wake of the fires, there have been widespread outcries about the slow, complicated and inadequate systems of disaster aid and the restoration of essential services. Many people who’ve applied for ‘recovery assistance’ haven’t received any, or are finding it impossible to navigate the bureaucratic labyrinths of governments, banks, and insurance companies. The stupidity and cruelty of Centrelink was clear from the early days of the fires and the anger over inadequate support for those in need has continued to grow, as the degradation of state and business processes retraumatises impacted people and communities. Anger has also been turned on NGO relief agencies. While donations have poured in, they’ve often been poorly distributed, and many agencies have been forced to defend how and when they’re spending relief money.
Concerns over the organisation and use of disaster relief are widespread. International disaster relief is often part of state ‘foreign aid’ and despite massive cuts to this ‘aid’ the Australian military is sometimes deployed overseas in the wake of catastrophe. However, the provision of ‘disaster aid’ often becomes another disaster. As detailed by researchers, such as Naomi Klein and Anthony Lowenstein, ‘disaster capitalism’ builds on the long-running neo-colonial transfer of resources and wealth from poor people to the rich and focuses on the interests of big business and transnational corporations. While camouflaged as humanitarian operations, these disaster interventions are used to help maintain ‘order’, protecting and extending exploitative capitalist social relations and breaking resistance to capitalist state policies and practices. ‘Disaster aid’ is also used for military purposes and to promote ‘national security’ objectives. It is largely done in cooperation with the private sector, with much of Australia’s overseas aid tied to investments in oil, gas, and mining. As well, corporations are cashing in on what remains of the ‘foreign aid’ budget, securing billions of dollars to do what the Government used to do.
There are also widespread concerns about communities filling the gaps left by government negligence or cutbacks. Some argue that because self-organised disaster communities are more effective than state agencies and market forces at responding to disasters, governments can “sit back and let people suffer, then reassert itself when the community dissipates as normality returns. This is the state’s interest in ‘resilience’, exposing people to disaster, abandoning them to survive by their own efforts, and then moving in with the ‘disaster capitalism’ of reconstruction and gentrification once the moment of disaster has passed.” This is a reasonable concern, however governments tend to respond in more complex and contradictory ways.
State institutions still tend to have the most money, personnel and resources to react to major disasters and during and after disasters, some government intervention can be useful. There are a variety of capitalist state forms, some of which are worse than others. For example, state funding for fire and emergency services, welfare and health support, etc. can be helpful. Yet governments seek to contain, restrain and exploit people. Grassroots initiatives can be considered both hindrances and assets to different state institutions, as they have various interests in interacting with popular activity. Many state disaster planners are aware of the limitations and mistakes of traditional hierarchical organisations and seek to combine grassroots efforts with those of government agencies. This approach aims to manage the complexity of communities, create resource and information sharing networks and coordinate relief efforts, often dominating the way people relate to and work with each other, and without genuinely shifting power from state agencies into the hands of communities.
Contemporary governments are grappling with increased management of eco-systems, looking for ways to address the climate crisis while continuing to support ‘economic growth’. State crisis management ‘attempts to combine mechanisms that individualise, isolate and create competition, with controllable forms of cooperation and community’, aiming to socialise the costs of disasters while providing ‘business growth opportunities’ for the private sector. Yet, despite mounting evidence that governments oppose the radical action required for climate justice, and will continue to defend capitalism to the death, calls for a stronger and more interventionist capitalist state remain the common focus of much campaigning.
While the ability of people to powerfully self-organise helps to shape, transform and limit the impact of state power, calls for government ‘leadership’ and demands for powerful state reactions during the fire crisis have helped to shift the focus in a direction the government likes – towards a more authoritarian state. For example, Jeff Sparrow explains how right-wing forces have highlighted the limited amount of arson, transforming “an ecological crisis into a law and order problem, paving the way for new legislation and fresh penalties”. While in 2019, politicians spent more time discussing how best to punish environmental protesters than they did addressing the climate crisis. With Peter Dutton, for instance, calling for activists to be shamed, jailed and cut off welfare, declaring; “These people are anarchists and fringe-dwellers and they should face the full force of the law.” Similarly, in Queensland, the ALP premier Annastacia Palaszczuk rushed through draconian laws to jail Extinction Rebellion supporters.
‘Force May be Used’
In late October, during the early weeks of the bushfire crisis, we saw a powerful state response to defend the International Mining and Resources Conference (IMARC) from climate protesters. As people blockaded the Melbourne event, police horses were dangerously ridden through the crowd, rendering at least one person seriously injured. Dozens more were assaulted by police, including some who were choked and several who were beaten with batons. Alarming amounts of pepper spray was also used to hurt many others. The police violence was clearly premeditated and political. Snatch squads arrested people considered to be protest organisers, targeted those with megaphones, and the police tried to stop media coverage of their violence. Regardless, the corporate media suggested it was protesters who were violent, despite all of the images confirming the police as the aggressors.
A few weeks later, demonstrators set up tents outside Kirribilli House and demanded that the Prime Minister return from his holiday to take action on the fires and the climate crisis. The tent occupation in a cul-de-sac was peaceful and wasn’t blocking traffic. A 13-year-old school student, Izzy Raj-Seppings, was sitting quietly among the protestors, who were singing Christmas carols, performing spoken word and dancing, as the riot squad marched through the smoke haze towards them, and began arresting people. When the cops approached Izzy they made their intentions clear, if she refused to leave the area they would be arresting her, and if she didn’t comply – “force may be used”.
Gladly, at the end of a year when young people led a radical transformation of the climate justice movement, the police treatment of Izzy was widely condemned, she received extensive support, and her refusal to be intimidated was broadly hailed as an inspiration, even from the mainstream media. However, it’s important to note that although ‘force may be used’ is true in specific circumstances, in general this is a lie – force is being used. The rule of capital is an unending war, a social relation of constant violence, while the appearance of peace is dependent on the continual threat of more violence. This is why governments regularly deploy the weapons at their disposal and why they let us know that more violence can be unleashed whenever they want.
‘Send in the Army’ – It’s War!
Naomi Klein has previously talked about how wildfires act like an ‘invading army’ and it didn’t take long before the language and metaphors used to describe the local fire crisis were similarly those of war.
“But this wasn’t just a fire, it wasn’t just a bushfire….it was a war zone. We feel like refugees in our own country.” (Illawarra Mercury, 10 / 1/ 20)
“It was like an atom bomb. Plants and animals here have been vapourised.” (Illawarra Mercury 7 / 1 / 20)
“This is our bushfire Gallipoli.” (David Bowman, Professor of environmental change biology)
The largest peacetime evacuations in Australia’s history were seen by some as an echo of the Gallipoli retreat, when thousands had to be rescued from beaches by Australian armed forces. Even though most people on the South Coast were rescued by each other, rather than the military, including by a ‘people’s armada’ of small boats and tinnies. Other commentators deployed jingoistic and reactionary war-time politics to stir people into action – illustrated by these posters from the Climate-Action Canberra Facebook page.
At the same time, Federal ALP MP, Mike Kelly, called for a ‘war-like national mobilisation effort’ to deal with the threat of climate change, suggesting the federal government establish a civil defence corps (CDC) that could operate as a national disaster response reserve. Kelly, a former soldier and currently the shadow Assistant Minister for Defence Industry and Support, argued the CDC should be modelled on the Australian defence force reserves and if the CDC was unable to attract sufficient personnel, the government should establish a compulsory national service scheme. “This would require all high school graduates to be absorbed into the CDC on leaving school for perhaps a one-year period, after which they would be required to render service as required,” he said.
Joining the call to arms, Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) Secretary Sally McManus also demanded – “A war time mobilisation to overcome this national disaster and to fight to stop and defend against the ones that may come.” South Coast Labour Council (SCLC) Secretary, Arthur Rorris, agreed and declared – “this is the greatest threat to our National Security since World War II” – arguing that; “In World War II in the battle against Nazi Germany and international fascism we relied heavily on our steel industry and particularly the Port Kembla Steelworks on the South Coast to make the ‘bullets and the bombs’ for the war effort. Today we again rely on our Steel Industry to fight the battle, only the ‘bullets and the bombs’ we desperately need are the massive turbines, solar arrays and other renewable energy systems which are all steel based.”
At the same time, some of those promoting the expansion of military industries also began comparing the impacts of climate change in Australia to a foreign invasion, denouncing ‘appeasement towards the planet’s third superpower’, and calling for increased military spending to fight the ‘climate war’.
While a surprising number of people on the ‘left’ echoed calls to ‘send in the army’ and ‘fight a war’, retired major general Peter Dunn, who has been in military combat operations and now lives in the fire devastated area of Lake Conjola, explained that what his community faced on New Year’s Eve and in the weeks following was completely different to warfare and when it became obvious the community was on its own, they organised themselves, supported each other, and established a community-led relief centre which has been operating ever since.
Of course, when much of the landscape looks like a ‘scorched earth’ battlefield, with ‘water bombers’ flying overhead, the shock, awe, level of destruction and the amount of trauma involved can make us feel like we’re living in a war zone. And when we think of the armed forces personnel and resources, all cashed-up and with nothing to do, calls to ‘send in the army’ are understandable. Yet the amplification of war cries helps to conjure up the ideological armoury of colonial, corporate, and fascistic violence.
Importantly, associating world war with social and national unity against a common enemy neglects the ‘war efforts’ that don’t fit this romanticised narrative. Glorifying such conflicts ignores the war crimes of the victors and the dominant tendency of warfare towards brutality and dictatorship. Calls for war-like mobilisations also disregard the fascistic tendencies of today’s states and their militaries. In World War One, more than twenty million people died to defend the power and privileges of the ruling class. While the sanitised version of World War Two rests on illusions of a noble victory against fascism, where we forget about the fascistic practices of the victorious allies, the firestorms unleashed on the civilian populations of Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the environmentally destructive ‘Atomic Age’ and ‘Cold War’ forms of development ushered in by the war’s destructive impetus, which has helped to bring us to our current precipice. Let’s stop and think about why many of today’s calls to action are reminiscent of previous appeals to send our young people into the flames, and why veteran firefighters have described how RFS volunteers feel like “cannon fodder”.
For people seeking safety and security – the Government has attempted to weaponise vulnerability, fear, and uncertainty. When they eventually took concerted action following the New Year fire surge and the spreading anger against them, it was predominantly a military response – seeking to demonstrate concern, strength, and menace. This belated reaction was the largest military operation in Australia since World War Two. A few weeks later, Scott Morrison was at the National Press Club announcing he would be examining how to allow the Government to more easily declare a state of emergency and deploy the military. Now we have a Royal Commission on the fires, led by a retired air chief marshal, looking at what ways the armed forces should be used to respond to disaster emergencies.
Eco-fascism & Climate Barbarism
As we face the dangers and anxieties of climate, environmental, and extinction crises, these concerns are added to the other insecurities of contemporary capitalist society. Among them, worries about how the forces of capitalist states are being deployed. As Naomi Klein has argued, the ruling class is implementing measures of climate change adaptation on their terms – building border walls, unleashing white supremacist ideology, and creating the intellectual rationale for allowing millions of people to die. As the rising influence of the far-right seeks to mobilise grief, despair, trauma and anger, turning people against each other and the environment, millions of people are already dying to protect the interests of the ruling class and the system which keeps them rich and powerful.
Authoritarianism is embedded into contemporary government and the Australian economy is tied to expanding militarism. As governments cut social aid and welfare support, they increase spending on police, military, and security forces, while introducing more repressive laws governing protests, strikes, behaviour, speech, movement, use of public space, and other civil rights. So, it’s no coincidence that state emergency planning is often in the hands of the most fascistic/militaristic sections of the government, or that someone like Peter Dutton is the senior minister responsible for Emergency Management Australia (EMA), helping to explain the lack of a humanitarian response. As evidenced by the bushfire crisis, EMA is not really a ‘disaster preparedness agency’, instead its chief concerns are ‘law and order’, the protection of private property, and national security. Those calling for a strong leader, or military intervention, should be aware that the ‘climate war’ is becoming very profitable for military, security, aid, relief, and other ‘disaster capitalism’ enterprises. The chief architects of contemporary disaster management are among the most vicious defenders of the capitalist system – who have long prepared for battles to defend capital and its state forms during crises – planning for ‘continuity of government’ via dismantling existing forms and replacing them with fascistic ‘emergency measures’. So, we should be aware that so-called ‘Civil Defence’ can easily become a military/police/security operation, with authoritarian ‘disaster management’ potentially rolled-out indefinitely.
The ability of people to resist disaster capitalism and to construct communist alternatives is due to the history of struggles prior to disasters and the ways in which disasters cause a breakdown in both the administrative capacities and the authority of governments. In disasters the hierarchies and institutions, the social structures, tend to fall apart and the rise of disaster communism can become very threatening to elites, which is one reason they often react to disasters with military/police power. Large scale mobilisations are required to help defend the environment and living things and although the military can potentially do some of this, their dominant tendency is the defence of colonialism, capitalism, and the ruling class. Helpful resources and efforts, as well as the way we think about and articulate them, must be demilitarised.
We’re not ‘all in this together’
Social inequality means that when facing the climate crisis we are not ‘all in this together’. Disasters, like the fires, exacerbate existing and long-term vulnerabilities, poverty, precarity, access to power and resources. The poor and marginalised bear the brunt and struggle to survive/adapt/take action. If the climate crisis is a war, it is part of class war, colonial war, and the war against nature. To end such a war we must end class and colonialism and make peace with the earth. So, it’s crucial to challenge the thinking and practices which reproduce violence and destruction. Rather than enlisting an army to conquer the earth, we need to nurture ecosystems of care, protecting ourselves and other living things with democratic defence systems which are self-organised and non-hierarchical; which build solidarity, link egalitarian social movements, and prepare for future disasters.
Governments are signalling a new stage of climate change politics – a sinister shift to so-called ‘practical measures of adaptation’. This is doomsday prepping writ large, expanding on survival and disaster-preparedness strategies from a right-wing perspective, influenced by fascistic ideas of defending ‘your turf’ from disaster victims, with ‘masses of desperate people at your door’ who are ‘trying to take what you have’, amidst a ‘breakdown in law and order’. And we can see how envisaging the popular dystopias of capitalist culture, prepping for Armageddon, or dreaming of a world better off without humanity, can become self-fulfilling prophecies. These types of preparations already involve the construction of bunkers, gated communities, travel restrictions, border fences, roundups, deportations, detention camps, and the hoarding of supplies.
During the fire crisis, we have seen how attention can be turned away from acknowledging people’s care and generosity, or from state and corporate environmental crimes, in order to focus on ‘arsonists’, small scale ‘scammers’, and ‘looters’, and how concern for wildlife and eco-systems can be diverted into the need to protect property and businesses from the ‘hazards’ of bushland, eco-systems and habitats. Here the need to ‘adapt’ is used to justify reducing national parks, increased forestry and land clearing, building more dams, expanding fossil fuel and other destructive projects, the construction of warlike defences, and continuation of the ‘war on nature’.
As Mark Gawne and I outlined previously, communal opposition to these adaptations from above – adaptation from below or solidarity adaptation – involves the organisation of resources and relationships which meet the existing material needs of those on the frontlines of the climate crisis, those living through or displaced by drought, sea level rises, floods, fires and so on. As well as the organisation of resources for the extension of collective control and decision making in the hands of those affected. These forms of adaptation require appreciation of the other worlds that already exist and a growing commitment to struggle for radical alternatives.
Caring for Country and Nurturing Loving Relationships
Today, humanity’s survival hinges on the preservation and extension of loving relationships that nurture the biosphere, people, flora, fauna, land, water, air, life. One of the most positive things emerging from the fire crisis is the growing embrace of Indigenous cultural burning. Aboriginal land management practices need to be front and centre of the way we deal with the risks associated with climate crisis, environmental destruction and the regularity and intensification of fires. As Lauren Tynan, a Director of Koori Country Firesticks, outlined at the Wollongong bushfire climate protest in early January, cultural burning is a tried and tested methodology that uses a whole of system approach. “This way of burning is more than land management and hazard reduction- it’s living together as mob, with our children and allowing them to learn from fire themselves, allowing them to have a relationship with Country that is healing and revitalising.” And “Climate action is also about relationships, communities and families. Decolonising ecology means restoring Indigenous stewardship to stolen lands [and] colonial governments must cede control over land management and make space for Indigenous people to bring ceremony and healing to their lands and bodies.”
Illawarra Local Aboriginal Land Council Chairman, Jade Kennedy, explains that Country is “intimate, interconnected relationships” involving various roles, obligations and connectedness based on respect, responsibility, and reciprocity. Caring for Country involves learning how to work with and for Country so that we can nurture and sustain life. Relationships of care are crucial to the creation of healthier environments, focused equally on humans and the nonhuman world in a dynamic of interdependence and love, devoting more time, energy, and resources to what’s most valuable – our relationships, environments, and communities. Although Indigenous people only have custodianship of around a quarter of the world’s land, they currently protect eighty per cent of the world’s biodiversity. For over two hundred years Aboriginal peoples have fought the destructive path of colonialism and capitalism. They have been on the frontline of resistance and their care for Country stretches back tens of thousands of years. We must listen and learn.
Communing with Nature
The fire crisis has unleashed on a massive scale something which occurs every day – people offering others a helping hand. These acts of care make a lie out of the idea that people are selfish, self-absorbed, and apathetic. Instead people are often generous, loving, and communally minded. When disasters hit, people responding in caring ways reach out and get to know each, take action, re-configure spaces and relationships, and develop more egalitarian social processes. During the bushfire crisis, many have learned that the best way to cope with grief, trauma, and feelings of helplessness is by helping and being part of a communal recovery. Resiliency is a product of social connectedness, community cooperation, and collaboration. What tens of thousands of traumatised people need now is more care, compassion, safety, comfort, and support.
Having no answers to prevent a rising tide of anger, political ‘fossil fools’ continue to scurry for cover from enflamed communities who want to know why they haven’t acted. But, of course, they have acted – they have acted for the rich, for the corporations, and for themselves. Fantasies of a benign state are incredibly dangerous when so many state forms are becoming more repressive. In the face of disaster, many people see that they cannot rely on corporations, governments and bureaucrats, and in response they turn to each other for support. And these are the alternative social relations that we can rely on, in the face of future disasters, by nurturing communal reliance rather than state-reliance or corporate reliance.
Here on the South Coast, we are now positioned as an important location in the global climate, environmental, and extinction crises – due to the impact of the fires and our responses, the struggles over the future of coal mining, the growth and radicalisation of the climate justice movement, and the development of alternative ways of living and creating. In response to the dangers of annihilation and the adaptations of disaster capitalism, we can construct our own futures and assist revolutionary global transformations, while hoping that time is on our side. We have the power to create radical social change – but we need to organise the best ways to use it – so that we can be the hope we’re looking for.
After a busy year, and having gone without a proper summer break for a very long-time, this December I looked forward to a relaxing holiday. In my face mask, during a state of emergency, surrounded by unprecedented bushfires, mourning the dead, I’ve had time to ponder the recent failed U.N. Climate Change Conference held in Madrid after it was moved from Chile, because that country, one of many, was ablaze with popular insurrection. Christmas 2019 is on fire.
I usually like Christmas, but this year I’ve been struck by the number of people ‘giving it up’ or significantly downsizing their celebrations. In the lead-up to the festive season, friends have posted George Monbiot’s article from seven years ago – The Gift of Death – about how Christmas has become the pinnacle event of pathological consumption and a normalised destructive madness. Those posting the article often highlighted the last sentence of George’s piece – “Bake them a cake, write them a poem, give them a kiss, tell them a joke, but for god’s sake stop trashing the planet to tell someone you care. All it shows is that you don’t.” Other recent Facebook posts have promoted the practice of gifting time instead of stuff. Meanwhile, my thoughts are concentrated on the large scale waste of time and the mass destruction of life.
The death of capitalism
As I’ve stated before; “I do not wish to dwell over the grave of capitalism, the yawning abyss into which it’s drawn out death seeks to drag us. This is not because I am unconcerned about, or underestimate, the threat to life that capital poses and it’s not because capital’s obituary has been written many times before. I am very keen to help fill capital’s grave and bury it forever. But I refrain from becoming fixated on its tomb and refuse to become transfixed on the nightmare scenarios of the system’s death throes. Instead I wish to highlight and concentrate on the other side of our spilt time; the future that is already living.” However, this is hard to do when you can constantly see, hear, taste and smell the collapse of capitalist society; when you’re breathing-in the ashes of trees, plants, animals, and eco-systems; when you’re constantly confronted by the death of things that you love.
Walter Benjamin explains that “the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the state of emergency in which we live is not the exception but the rule.” Crisis and disaster are constant features of capitalist society and as the climate crisis intensifies, recent debates within the environmental movement have often critiqued the privileged for neglecting the long-term suffering of others. While this argument can be divisive and overstated, a recent article by Charlotte Wood spoke of how local people’s moods have changed in the face of the recent bushfires, “from disbelief to hypervigilant fear to a kind of WTF petulance. It’s still happening?” Then; “After our petulance comes a stoic, patient reasoning. It’s good for us to get this wake-up call. And it’ll be over soon. But that was weeks ago, and the patience has been replaced by a grim, creeping dread. A fear that it won’t be over soon, or ever.”
“The existential horror of what all this really means . . . also brings shame, at how we city dwellers have managed to ignore what people in the regions have endured for years now. Even as we’ve written the letters, donated the money and attended the protests about the towns without water, the massive fish kills, the dust storms, the extinctions. Even if we’ve attended to all this in our minds, there’s nothing like going to sleep with the taste of ash in your throat to give you an actual, physiological understanding of real fear.” Yet, most of us still seek to maintain as much ‘normalcy’ as possible, despite the growing dissonance between heightened emergencies and the mundane tasks of every-day life; even though attempting this ‘new normal’ is absurd and distressing.
For many people, our mounting fears are combined with long-term ecological grief. Eco-awareness has become eco-anxiety or climate depression and those who pay close attention to environmental calamity frequently describe their feelings of sadness, rage and perpetual loss. Many people are also experiencing ‘democracy grief’ – despair over the rise of authoritarianism or fascism – and apparently there’s a growing number of people seeking counseling for ‘politically induced misery’. This spreading wave of gloom has prompted some therapists to rethink how they practice, because they have no clinical distance from the concerns upsetting their patients.
Famously, the stages of grief are meant to be – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. As I struggled to write this post, I became aware of how I was cycling through these stages over and over again, often very quickly. For me, this reflects different subjectivities – the impact of death and the power of life producing a complex, dynamic process of continual transformation. This is not an individual process but a social one – involving personal changes and the alterations of the world around me – and as I wheel through different stages of grief, I know I’m not alone. Other people are grieving all around me. So, when inundated with sorrow, deploying denial is supposed to ‘help pace your feelings of grief . . . letting in only as much as you can handle.’ Yet, I can’t deny that I feel overwhelmed.
During the recently completed session of university, I taught a cohort of students in Sydney and Melbourne (via video conferencing). At one point, I asked the combined class, who were mainly aged in their early twenties, how optimistic they were about the future. I’m increasingly concerned about student anxiety and depression and I like to pose difficult questions, which they sometimes find hard to answer. This one was met with an attentive but silent response. So I let the question hang, allowing the uncomfortable quietness to continue. Eventually, one of the Melbourne students called-out – “we’re fucked!” The other students greeted this with a relieved wave of laughter and affirmation. There was no disagreement from any of them.
‘We’re fucked’ is now such a common refrain that I hear it almost every day – when I’m online, or out with friends, when I chat to strangers, when I’m home with my family – and I’ve begun to accept it. Yet the acceptance of eco-grief, democracy grief, or ‘politically induced misery’ doesn’t help me move on from them. Instead this acceptance feels like a part of me has died. While I accept that things will never be the same again, I remain alert to the dangers of resignation and continue to promote a range of optimistic alternatives; despite my own sadness, in the face of incredulous and emphatic dismissals of hope, the withering looks, and stunned silences.
We are all very anxious
We Are Plan C argue that anxiety is the dominant affect of contemporary society – “Today’s public secret is that everyone is anxious . . . All forms of intensity, self-expression, emotional connection, immediacy, and enjoyment are now laced with anxiety. It has become the linchpin of subordination.” Anxiety and stress tend to be “understood as individual psychological problems, often blamed on faulty thought patterns or poor adaptation. Indeed, the dominant public narrative suggests that we need more stress, so as to keep us ‘safe’ (through securitisation) and ‘competitive’ (through performance management).” They conclude that; “People are paralysed by unnameable emotions, and a general sense of feeling like shit. These emotions need to be transformed into a sense of injustice, a type of anger which is less resentful and more focused, a move towards self-expression, and a reactivation of resistance.”
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine mentioned how common it was to hear or read the term ‘existential’ in relation to the climate crisis. We briefly discussed how this is because we’re seeing so many things ceasing to exist, or rapidly facing the same fate. We also talked about existentialism and how existentialists view anxiety in a different way from most psychiatrists and psychologists. Rather than perceiving anxiety to be a problem that should be resolved, they view it as an inevitable part of life that everyone will experience, and which can teach us important lessons about life. Albert Camus argued that the ability to have passion for what could otherwise be considered a meaningless life reflects an appreciation for life itself. If your life becomes about living more fully, then life is understood as meaningful. Existentialism stresses that, despite a range of social constraints, people have freedom to choose and therefor the responsibility to act. It also embraces the destabilisation of dominant systems of meaning and appreciates that these can change dramatically and rapidly. Existentialist angst can help people to reject repression, take action, and create what we lack/more valuable lives. The most progressive existentialists argue that we need to do this collectively.
Earlier in the year, I posted this ‘therapist meme’ on Facebook. From there it was shared almost two and a half thousand times. I have never had anywhere near that level of response to anything I have posted. It seems there’s a widespread desire to move beyond individual therapy and dismantle the system. In the past, I used to see a lot of counselors and some of them were very helpful. Today, I concentrate more on building therapeutic relationships in my ‘solidarity teams’. But, here I find there’s a problem with creating enough time for reflection, faced, as we are, with the need for increasingly rapid action. None-the-less, during the past year, my friends and I have tried to create processes of struggle which are slower, more contemplative and more people-centred; which ‘offer a respite from daily struggle, and perhaps a quieter style of interacting and listening which relieves attentive pressure’, where we can speak with a self-expressive voice, listen, and analyse. This has helped to reinvigorate my capacity to engage in more traditional forms of organising. Yet, the pressure to remain hyper-active is ever-present.
Rage fatigue and anger as an energy
As with many other people, I’m tired of being so sad and angry. They’re becoming too overwhelming to renew each day. Although I’m used to being sad, having previously been diagnosed with persistent mild depression/sadness, I refuse to be miserable, and prefer my rage. According to standard psychology, anger comes from sadness and fear. Here fear includes things like anxiety and worry, and sadness comes from the experience of loss, disappointment, or discouragement. Since fear and sadness are painful and involve vulnerability, people tend to avoid them. ‘Anger is a defensive maneuver, a reaction to feeling wounded.’ However, it’s okay to be sad, there’s a lot to be sad about, and the social pressure to present yourself as happy, when you aren’t, should be resisted. Sharing sadness is a healthy human behaviour and communicating our pain to those who care about us can build stronger social connections.
In contrast to fear and sadness, anger can provide a surge of energy and make us feel more in charge, rather than vulnerable or helpless. Yet, we often fear that the intense emotions associated with anger will overwhelm us and make us lose control, lash out, and/or hurt someone. So we may seek to protect ourselves from the power of our own anger by suppressing it. At the same time, neoliberal society promotes the fake smiles and the countless charades of relentless positivity – where we ‘ignore conflict, deny injustice and oppression, and pretend we’re not angry’. When we’re not supposed to be angry, we tend to internalise it. But regardless of how individualised and isolated we may be, the social power of our anger continues to flare-up and as it becomes a more serious management issue, the system seeks to harness and direct our anger in ways which reproduce its causes.
Let fury have the hour, anger can be power
Do you know that you can use it?
(Clampdown, The Clash, 1979)
So, it can be helpful to think about why we’re angry, what has caused our immediate anger, why we experience long-term anger, what impact our anger has on our relationships, and spend time working through that anger. Failing to acknowledge that anger involves effort or intention, that it’s about losing control, suggests that we have no agency, no power to shape the world as we recreate it. Eco-anxiety and climate rage are not pathologies, they are reasonable and healthy responses to existential threats. Grief and anger indicate a receptivity to what’s taking place; a refusal to numb ourselves to the horrors of our time. Given our genuine sadness, reasonable fears, and real vulnerabilities we have a lot to be angry about. The energy of anger can be clarifying, it can help us to speak the truth, inspire us to change, put us in touch with others who are angry about common concerns, and help us to struggle together for positive change. Greater understanding of our situation can relieve psychological pressures and make it easier to respond with productive anger instead of despair.
Anger can help us to say ‘No!’ to a whole range of shit. But ‘No!’ is not enough. A few years ago, my father said that what he liked most about me was my equanimity; that I was the calmest person he had ever met, and he had never known me to be angry. I found this surprising and once again wondered how well my dad really knew me, since I consider myself to be very angry. But I also thought about how my parents had taught me to express my anger in constructive ways (often by modelling the opposite); ways that seek to control, harness, and direct anger. I’m increasingly angry with mainstream political parties, politicians, corporations, and about the growing violence and destruction wreaked by colonialism, capitalism, fascism, patriarchy, etc. Throughout the year, this type of anger has erupted across the globe, during rebellions in Algeria, Chile, Ecuador, Hong Kong, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Sudan, and elsewhere. 2019 has also been a year of increasingly militant and enraged global climate activism. As I write, Australian politicians are having to avoid any public appearances because they’re likely to be confronted by people’s rage over environmental inaction. Yet important questions remain about what this anger can, or will, create.
In recent years, there’s been much discussion about the anger propelling the rise of the ‘alt-right’ and I’ve been thinking about some of the different ways contemporary anger manifests politically and how politicised anger reflects feelings of powerlessness, power struggles, and different forms of power (the power to do things and the power over people). Contemporary anger indicates the exhaustion of people’s caring capacities, as well as the fact that they continue to care. Generally what people want is more power over their lives. Unless our movements can better organise the collective strength to achieve positive social change, we will mostly operate within the systemic hierarchies built on exerting power over those who have less of it, trapped in a ruthless spiral of economic, political, and social competition, ‘alone in our own suffering and fighting among each other’s suffering’.
The expression of anger is not always the most appropriate or effective action, but it can be. It can be a source of strength, fearlessness, and solidarity. It is an energy that has inspired great movements for freedom and social justice. It can drive positive individual and social change. Given the state of the world, we’re likely to see much more anger as well as wide-ranging debates about the uses of this anger, as a surge of enraged movements of resistance confront neoliberalism, authoritarianism, and fascism. But this doesn’t mean that our projects aren’t ones of care, of love, and joy. We are motivated by anger, but it is love for each other, for the world, for life, which produces living alternatives to suffering, grief, and despair.
Humanity’s survival hinges on the preservation and extension of loving relationships that nurture the biosphere, people, flora, fauna, land, water, air, life. I began this year with an exploration of love – writing and then presenting a paper at a conference on ‘Love as Politics’ in Tokyo. Here I outlined how, following many years of involvement in progressive social movements and political projects, I tended to find people concentrated on the horrors of capitalism, their opposition to existing society, and macro forms of political organising. What was often neglected were interpersonal relations and more caring ways of collectively organising the present. Over time, it became apparent that what I wanted more of in my personal relationships – love – was the same thing I wanted more of in politics. So, I have attempted to escape from my own sadness and what has been termed ‘sad militancy’ – being overly rigid and ruthlessly critical of people in their efforts to organise better ways of living, the striving for an unobtainable purity or perfection, setting goals that cannot be achieved, where the outcome is always out of reach, always projected into the future, so we continuously feel defeated.
‘Struggles are the best teachers’ and ‘friendship is the richest lesson’
To create and maintain caring relationships requires time and space dedicated to working with and on each other and our situations. This might entail supporting each other to deal with anxiety, despair, fear, grief, or anger. What Naomi Klein calls ‘ferocious love’ comes from and feeds back into the web of relationships and affections in which we’re immersed. As Sara Motta explains – our rage is a legitimate response to systemic violence; “But new worlds cannot be built on rage alone . . . we need to rethink the ways in which our emotions, practices and knowledges are limited by the violence of the dehumanising system we are in. We need to think about rebuilding the wisdoms and power that can emerge from connection, solidarity and care and which support us to become free. To rebuild other worlds – to decolonise our lives, bodies and spirits – we need to recreate, recognise and centre in our politics ways of coexisting and supporting each other, and recognising each other as people with complex emotional strategies of survival and flourishing, and with deep wisdoms which come from our experiences of multiple traumas.” Here – “Love . . . is the key ingredient that helps us to resist . . . that sustains and nurtures the will to act, and to carry on when our bodies, communities and families are under constant siege.”
Within loving relationships anger can erupt when dealing with important matters, or what may appear to be trivial things. Sometimes, we’re disappointed with those we love and need to communicate this disappointment. At other times, we might be angry about something else, perhaps something we’re unclear about, and are expressing our anger to someone we believe cares. Loving relationships should be able to accommodate anger and we shouldn’t be surprised when this is conveyed in ways reserved for those we love/who love us; when we speak to each other in ways we wouldn’t speak to anyone else; more openly and sincerely expressing our anger than we might do with other people. These expressions of anger can be forms of love. Of course, I’m not talking here of patriarchal culture or twisted ideas of romance which posit abuse and violence as acceptable demonstrations of affection.
Anger can help us to protect ourselves. It can be channeled into creative and nurturing acts, as manifestations of love. But love can be both positive and constructive or negative and destructive and what people love and how they love has a multitude of potentials. Building caring relationships involves the capacity to block, dissolve and sever those connections which are harmful. We can’t always have ‘good relationships’ with everyone. Friendships can become coercive, manipulative, and exploitative. Challenging and refusing oppressive relationships can help to create more love. In the face of violence and abuse it’s perfectly legitimate to get angry, to be defiant, and to fight-back with individual and collective rage; rage that isn’t filled with hate, although we hate oppression; rage that isn’t just about our pain and suffering, but is also an expression and a celebration of our power to resist and our capacity to keep on loving.
What we care about and our ability to be compassionate are under attack. We can feel our vulnerability growing and we’re worried about the future. Sustained distressed uncertainty is grinding us down and as we prepare for the ‘silly season’ a clear 2020 vision is impossible through the fires, smoke and ash. Our time is split “between a present that is already dead and a future that is already living”. So, this Christmas, rather than gifting each other the system’s shit, let’s offer our presence, provide comfort, and share some special moments. It’s time to express our fears and our grief and to be really fucking angry. It’s time to take care of each other and to better organise the collective power of our love. While much has already been lost, and more is being destroyed, communal practices of sharing and caring can repair damaged habitats, eco-systems, psyches, relationships, and communities. As the fires spread, it’s the response of concerned people, dedicated volunteers, community associations, and social networks that offers the most reliable and resilient support. A new year is coming. A new world is coming. Governments and their corporate bosses are not going to save us. It’s up to us. With love and rage we can rise from the ashes and nurture better futures together.
1982 was the height of militant class struggle in Wollongong against mass sackings and rising unemployment. During October of that year, a series of general work stoppages and mass meetings brought together coal miners and steel workers in collective action. At the same time, thirty-one Kemira miners occupied the pit in a stay-in strike to protest their looming retrenchment, staying underground for sixteen days. While the Kemira occupation continued, a series of large demonstrations filled the city’s streets, and workers packed the Wollongong Showground to vote overwhelmingly for strikes in the steelworks and the mines. A meeting of over 20,000 workers passed a resolution to demonstrate at Parliament House in Canberra, leading to the infamous storming of Federal Parliament. Soon after, thousands of steel workers held another mass meeting at the Showground, to discuss the continuing struggle over jobs. Here Peter Cockcroft, formerly the local Communist Party organiser and now Federated Ironworkers Association (FIA) delegate, moved a motion to organise a march from Wollongong to Sydney to protest government inaction. The motion was passed by acclimation and an organising committee was quickly established.
The ‘Right to Work March Committee’ was predominantly made-up of the steel and mining union representatives. The Committee decided that the ‘Right to Work March’ would depart on November 30 and complete the ninety-kilometre trek over four days. This would require a major logistical effort. A route would have to be determined, places to eat and sleep would have to be arranged, provisions, support people and vehicles needed to be organised. Preparations also began for a mass reception rally and march in Sydney with the assistance of unions and supporters from the big smoke. A colourful Redback Graphix poster was rapidly produced to help promote the march and hundreds of them were soon pasted-up and distributed across the city.
As arrangements for the march gained pace, members of local graffiti group Young and Pissed Off (YAPO) commissioned Gregor Cullen, from Redback Graphix, to produce a banner for the front of the march. The large mainly yellow and black banner would declare ‘Demand action – Create Jobs not Unemployment’. Gregor agreed to do the work for cost price. So, a local political activist was approached for a donation from his marijuana crop, in order to raise the required funds. The money was soon available and the materials were purchased. However, these were stolen from the Redback studios. Since the materials had to be repurchased, the banner’s production was delayed. This meant it wasn’t available for the beginning of the march. Instead it arrived on the morning of the final leg, leading the march from Mascot to State Parliament.
On November 30, a group of about forty marchers set off from the Trade Union centre in Lowden Square. They were mainly young and mostly unemployed, including young unemployed steelworkers who had lost their jobs in the mass sackings (due to the ‘last on, first off’ rule), members of YAPO, the local Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM), the Sydney Unemployed People’s Union, union delegates and organisers, and other employed and unemployed workers. Before we departed Railway Square, just after noon, we were addressed by the Secretary of the South Coast Labour Council (SCLC), Merv Nixon, who said he was proud to stand before us. The marchers were upholding a long tradition of the South Coast working class of bringing their concerns onto the streets, he said, and we carried with us the full support of the fifty-nine unions affiliated to the SCLC. Officials from a number of unions attended the send-off, but local workers had been asked to wait until the march arrived in Sydney before coming out in support. However, a contingent of retired miners and another from the Miners Women’s Auxiliary joined in the march for the first leg through Wollongong.
We left Lowden Square brandishing the Right to Work march posters and home-made placards, marching under a banner which read ‘Steelworkers Unite & Fight’, chanting ‘We want jobs!’ and ‘Sack Fraser not workers’. As we marched through the city and then through the northern suburbs of Wollongong, drivers beeped their horns and called-out in support. At various points people came out of shops, their homes, or gardens to clap and wave as we went past. Some people brought out food or drink for us. At Thirroul, the march received a welcome of steamers from well-wishers, who had waited since the morning for the march to arrive. Around 4pm, we reached Coledale Beach where we would be camping that night, eighteen kilometres down the road from where we began. We sank onto the grass for a rest, a BBQ dinner was prepared, some people braved the surf, while a few began contemplating the mountain range which would have to be crossed the next day.
The second day was the longest and hardest slog, over forty kilometres – up the winding, hilly coast road, up the steep incline of Bald Hill to Stanwell Tops, further up the long road to Helensburgh, and then along the highway to Gymea. At breakfast the state organiser for the Australian Workers Union, Digby Young, brought greetings from workers on State Rail’s Illawarra electrification project. Young told us the workers on the project had met the day before and decided to stop work in support of the march. Half an hour after leaving Coledale, at Scarborough, one of the marchers, Kevin Cafferty, was given a pleasant surprise when a woman raced across the street and thrust a cheque for $100 into his hand.
It was a hot sunny day and we had to stop for regular drink breaks. At Stanwell Tops, we were met by a delegation of local retired miners. They brought us a bagful of Aeroguard, as the bush flies were heavy in the air and every marcher had a blanket of them on their back. At the Helensburgh Workers Club, we were given a warm welcome and the dress rules were waived to allow our sweating, T-shirted, group into the dining area for a free lunch and a few drinks. Here pensioners made donations to the march fund and the president of the Helensburgh Retired Miners, Jim Duffy, told the marchers: “Your cause is my cause” as he spoke about the unemployment and hunger marches in the 1930s and how “the spirit has never died . . . The system’s got to be changed altogether,”
The thirty kilometre walk from Helensburgh to Sutherland was the most arduous section of the whole route. This was the first time I can recall going through my pain barrier and that day it happened a few times. Andy Gillespie, an FIA organiser and key motivator for the marchers, spent several hours convincing us that our destination was ‘just around the corner’. While this was annoying, it did help to keep us going. For much of the day we were filmed by Tom Zubricki’s camera crew, who were making a movie about the Kemira Stay-in Strike. At Waterfall, the march was greeted by Water Board workers, who pledged their support. All along the highway, through Heathcote and Engadine, cars tooted and trucks issued their unmistakable, long blare to the marchers. Again, people called out support from their homes and gardens as we passed by.
Finally, at Gymea the march received a rousing welcome from a crowd of people waiting to cheer our arrival. A campsite had already been established at a sports oval (Miranda Park) just down the road from the Sutherland District Trade Union Club and among those greeting us were practitioners from the Workers Health Centre, who tended to the sores on our feet and gave us foot massages. Meanwhile, one of the commercial Sydney TV stations had set-up a mobile transmitter to cover our story for that night’s news. After regaining enough strength to walk-up to the Club, we found our muscles had tightened-up and it took us ages to shuffle the short distance to get there. We were all in pain and laughing away at how silly we looked. At the Worker’s Club we were given a dinner and a reception where speakers from the local trade union movement congratulated us, and plans were laid out for the Sydney section of the march. We returned to our campsite worn out, blistered and sore, but with a renewed sense of pride and determination.
On the third day, we marched from Gymea through Sans Souci, where we were given a warm welcome and morning tea, served by the local Watkins family, then through Dolls Point, Kingsford and on to Mascot. Along the way workers on job sites cheered us, waved and wished us good luck. We camped overnight at Mascot Park and had a meeting to discuss the last leg into central Sydney and what was planned for the city. We already knew that thousands of Sydney workers had voted to stop work for the day in support of the march and rally, so we were very excited, despite being exhausted.
Preparing to enter central Sydney the next day, we finally got to unfurl the ‘Demand Action – Create Jobs not Unemployment’ banner. The plan was to march to Belmore Park for a rally before making our way through the city to State Parliament. More people from the Gong had joined us at Mascot and the march was one hundred and fifty strong when it reached the Metal Workers Union (AMWSU) offices near Central Station, an hour before the rally was scheduled to begin. Meanwhile, busloads of workers from Wollongong and Newcastle, including members of twenty-seven unions supporting the demonstration, were arriving to greet us.
When we arrived at Belmore Park, the crowd was a few thousand people and we again received a rousing welcome. As speakers addressed the crowd, including Pat Geraghty from the Seamans union, Bob Parkinson from the AMWSU and Yusuf Yusuf, a Port Kembla steelworker and one of the Right to Work marchers, many more people joined the gathering. The ranks of the march swelled again as we headed up George Street, turning into Hunter Street past the BHP offices, to Parliament House. With the, by now, almost lame Wollongong marchers at the front of the procession it took two hours to make its way through central Sydney, bringing the city to a standstill. When the first marchers arrived at Parliament, others were still in George Street, four city blocks away. Workers from 25 construction sites had walked off the job to join the march, others left metal and engineering shops, and mail workers stopped work. Workers at Cockatoo and Garden Island dockyards and a range of other work sites also marched to the Parliament House rally. After a week on the road – the Right to Work march had culminated in a demonstration of over 20,000 people.
As the Sydney Morning Herald reported the following day: “The marcher’s hostility was directed mainly against the Federal Government and its policies but some larger corporations (such as BHP) also were abused and the State Government received angry, if muted, comment.” Yet, as the Illawarra Mercury explained in the final march day’s edition: “There is no likelihood of any repetition in Sydney today of the storming of Parliament House in Canberra during the South Coast mineworkers’ protest. The State Government has been far more realistic than the Fraser Government in its approach to the marchers. It knows they are coming and it has made it known in advance that it will greet them. There will be no locked doors in Macquarie Street today.” And so it was, with the NSW Labor Government Minister for Industrial Relations, Mr Hills, welcoming the marchers to Parliament House. As the media reported the next day, he “spoke briefly to the rally and said his Government supported the union movement. But he was met by constant heckling and abuse” with “most of what he said drowned out by jeers”.
A range of speakers addressed the crowd outside Parliament from the back of a ute. Nando Lelli, secretary of the FIA South Coast branch, declared the march a “tremendous success” because it projected the most important issue of the time – unemployment – and was politically successful. “We believe that not only have we the right to work, but the right to struggle for that right”, he said. AMWSU South Coast organiser Ken Williams, who played an active role in the march organising committee, explained how heartened he was by the response from bystanders as the marchers passed through different suburbs. Jim Roach, a Miner’s Federation delegate and one of the mineworkers who had occupied the Kemira pit during the ‘stay-in strike’ generously exclaimed; “Sixteen days underground was easy compared with what they did.”
The best received speech was made by Kae Barnes, a recently retrenched Wollongong worker and wife of one of the sacked Kemira miners. Kae marched all the way from Wollongong and with both of her feet in bandages she made an impassioned plea for solidarity and action against unemployment. As she explained; “The reason we did this was to publicise the critical unemployment in our area. It was one of the most gruelling things I have undertaken, but if this is what we have to do I would do it again.”
Then Joe Owens from the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) moved a resolution rejecting the Federal Government’s policies and the current wage freeze. The motion also called on the Government to inject more money into education, public health and unemployment benefits. The rally also expressed widespread discontent with the Wran Government’s handling of unemployment and its constant cutbacks in public services and social services.
Some of the Wollongong marchers had composed a song as they made their way to Sydney. They sang it twice for the Sydney crowds, once at Belmore Park and again outside Parliament. Singers Cathy Carey, Lynda Voltz, Roslyn Smidt, Andrew Whiley, Yusuf Yusuf and others gave it a hearty rendition to the tune of ‘Click go the Shears’. The first verse went:
Down in the Gong we’re all on the dole,
Looking for a job’s like climbing a greasy pole,
The bosses in Mercedes they tell us times are slack,
But they keep making profits and we just get the sack!
Sadly, despite the tremendous fightback by the people of Wollongong and elsewhere, this remains true for many workers. None-the-less, the struggles of this period, including the Right to Work march, changed many people’s lives for the better. The determination, camaraderie, and solidarity of the time is indicated by the fact that everyone who began the Right to Work march finished it. We marched the whole way on the streets and while we kept our minds and bodies going, the cops escorting us went through about six cars due to burnt out clutches. All along the way people joined-in, including those who couldn’t be there from the start, or who were inspired to take part as momentum grew and news spread. Most of those who participated would continue to campaign against unemployment and for decent work during the years ahead. In 2010, the South Coast Labour Council held a special awards ceremony at their annual dinner to honour the Right to Work marchers, presenting some of us with a memento and giving thanks for the contribution we made to the worker’s movement during a crucial period of struggle. Despite the challenges of a very different world today, those struggles continue.
For those interested in my considerations of the ‘right to work’ as a demand, you can find them included in –
Or my complete Honours Thesis – ‘Working for the class: The praxis of the Wollongong Out of Workers’ Union’.
By Mark Gawne & Nick Southall (with contributions from Sharon Pusell & Rascal Rowe)
The Wollongong Global Climate Strike on September 20 was the largest protest in the city since the 2003 anti-war demonstration. The Climate Strike fits into a recent series of protests in the region, specifically coming off the back of the earlier school climate strike in March, and the climate action demonstration in May, with some other smaller protests taking place over the year as well. Of these actions, the Wollongong Global Climate Strike was by far the largest and drew together a vast array of groups and individuals. It was organised by open meetings composed of people from several organisations and groups, as well as individuals, all working together. The largest meeting had over 50 people participate, and there was a consistent number of at least 25-30 people attend each meeting. The Strike itself expresses the latest moment in a process of radicalisation in the region’s climate movement and provides a basis for ongoing struggle in and around Wollongong, most clearly demonstrated in the newly formed Illawarra Climate Justice Alliance (ICJA). We offer here some reflections on why the Strike should be understood as an important growth of struggle in the Illawarra, on the ecology of the strike in Wollongong, and the politics of the Strike, as we look forward to the next steps in the movement.
Stirrings of the Strike
In the face of growing environmental, climate and extinction crises, there has been a process of radicalisation in the Illawarra over the past year. This process has arisen from conditions specific to Wollongong, but it is also inseparable from the global context. On the one hand, the Wollongong Global Climate Strike has drawn inspiration and taken its cue from the student led school strikes for climate. Extinction Rebellion both overseas and in Australia has also had some influence on the movement in Wollongong. This reflects one aspect of the global context into which the movement in Wollongong fits. On the other hand, and at the same time, there have recently been several regionally based struggles developing around Wollongong. For example, a campaign has been building against various tourist developments on Mt Keira. The Illawarra Escarpment Alliance (ESCAR), involving a range of organisations and individuals from over 15 environmental organisations and the Illawarra Local Aboriginal Lands Council formed early in 2019 to campaign against destructive development on the escarpment. Early in 2019, Protect Our Water Alliance (POWA) held an open forum on the effects of long wall mining under the water catchment attended by over 200 people, and there have been other events and a growing campaign built by this group. Actions on the university campus and the occupation of GHD’s local office, as part of the stop Adani campaign, have also characterised growing radicalisation in the lead up to the Strike.
Learning to move together: debates, decision-making, democracy
The Climate Strike, and the organising processes that led up to it, have established a firm basis for ongoing collective activity which involves a strong cross section of groups and individuals and has demonstrated the importance of open democratic meetings and decision-making processes. This basis, now realised in the formation of ICJA, grew out of the months of organising the Climate Strike. The student demonstrations were probably most significant in terms of generating the basis for the open organising meetings that built the Strike. After the first school strike in March, high school and university students formed the Youth Environmental Alliance (YEA), in part to maintain a politics of protest and movement building, as one pole in a spectrum of active youth organisations in the Illawarra. YEA was pivotal, both in terms of maintaining a space for the burgeoning militant politics of the movement, as well as in terms of generating the basis for the open organising meetings. It was YEA who organised a large protest on May 25th that led to blockading the main intersection of Wollongong city, and it was from YEA that the call for the first Wollongong Global Climate Strike open organising meeting came.
The first Strike open meeting, held on June 28th at Wollongong city library, was attended by about 40 people, with many more giving apologies due to the city being blocked by a major traffic incident preventing their attendance. While not as well attended as it otherwise would have been, the first meeting captured what was to become the character of all subsequent meetings. There was a wide cross section of individuals, groups and organisations present, including community activists and organisations, high school and university students, workers, Greens members and an ALP councillor. There was a wide array of political perspectives in the room during the first meeting, and this remained the case over the subsequent months. But from the first meeting on, a practice of open and comradely debate was established. For example, there was immediate agreement on organising together to build the Climate Strike in Wollongong. The meeting debated and then decided that the Strike should be organised around five demands – Stop Adani, 100% Renewables, Sustainable Jobs, No New Coal or Gas Projects, and No Mining in the Illawarra Water Catchment. Even on more contentious tactical issues, strong debate led to decisions reflecting and building commonality.
For example, the decision to hold and blockade an intersection during the Climate Strike was one such contentious issue. Contention about this drew from the experience of the climate protest held earlier in May, which decided to hold and blockade the intersection of three major roads of the city, and to do so without notifying the police in the march’s permit request. Overall, this was a successful action. Many left the action energised and more confident and this contributed a great deal to the process of radicalisation mentioned earlier. However, at one point a car attempted to drive (not speedily, but dangerously) through one of the blockades. This created tension and conflict between protestors and the car driver, police and protestors, and between some protestors, as we decided on the fly what to do. After the demonstration, a variety of views on how to address this type of danger were expressed. Criticism from sections of the movement and pressure from the media and conservative forces made an impact on these discussions. So, when organising meetings for the Global Climate Strike turned to the issue of a street blockade, a variety of different views on the safety, effectiveness, and purpose of the blockade were debated. This was the most contentious issue raised at the Strike organising meetings and resulted in two fairly lengthy debates. Both ended with the organising group endorsing a blockade, with no voiced dissent.
Another example was some tension and discussions about the leading position of young people and the fact that the organisation of the Strike could involve everyone. This issue was considered and clarified via open deliberation, where everyone’s perspective could be heard, and the crucial role of young people was acknowledged and respected. While a reasonably strong practice of debate and democratic decision making characterised the organising meetings, apart from some of the discussion around blockading an intersection and open participation, there was a lack of political debate. On one hand, this reflected the interests of the organising group to mainly put aside areas of disagreement, instead concentrating on our commonalities, and focusing on the functional tasks required to organise a large demonstration. On the other hand, it will be important that as the movement develops it generates more space for broader debates concerning the politics of the movement, its composition, different actions, strategies, tactics and experimentation with a variety of approaches to dealing with the climate crisis.
Open meetings were held fortnightly from late July through to the September 20 Strike. Many different things were done to build the strike during this period, including producing posters and going on paste-ups, individual and group leafleting at multiple sites and events, social media posts, working bees, and making videos. Some tactics recently taken-up by Extinction Rebellion in other places inspired formations here, such as the Red Rebels and a die-in on Crown Street mall attended by over 50 people. Banner drops, local-market stalls, postering various outer suburbs and train stations all built toward the Strike. School groups formed and organised contingents, and some trade unions supported the strike. At UOW, students organised in their classes to pledge to attend the strike, while community organisations came out in support, different organising contingents were publicised by the open meetings, speak outs were organised, adverts placed in local newspapers, along with successful efforts to push local media to cover various angles and topics related to the climate crisis and community action.
Another component of the organising meetings was the formation of working groups. These groups were organised as the following: fun, promo, speakers, schools, media, and one to organise smaller decentralised actions earlier on the day of the Strike before the rally and march. The later group resulted in the organisation of a rally at UOW, a chalk-up and speak out in the Mall, and the picketing of coal company South32’s offices. In general, the organising group encouraged and supported individual and decentralised initiative. Having a range of actions helped to encourage diversity in tactics/strategy, the development of autonomous organising and a focus on the interconnections between local and global concerns. Rather than creating conflict and competition between those wishing to do different things, there was a flourishing of diversity and a breadth of activity, fostering empowerment, encouraging solidarity, and accommodating differences.
Climate strikes, social strikes: disrupting business as usual
Strikes usually involve the collective withdrawal of labour in order to disrupt businesses and exercise class power. However, the word strike is also applied to other forms of disruption that don’t involve the withdrawal of labour, e.g. ‘Rent Strikes’ or ‘Debt Strikes’. Strikes can include a range of work stoppages, walkouts, marches, pickets, and blockades. A ‘Social Strike’ is a strike that takes place across the whole society, not just the workplace. From Tunis to Buenos Aires, from London to Khartoum, from Hong Kong to Paris, we have seen that this type of Strike develops various forms of action, helping to promote alternative ways of organising things and different ways of relating to each other and the world around us. Social strikes allow us to find each other and to work around common concerns, bringing us together in collective action and shared territory at the same time as we disrupt capitalist normality. As a strategy, the social strike reflects the fact that capital depends on our leisure time, our domestic activity, and our social spaces, not only to circulate goods and services, but also to create relationships suitable for capitalism to continue to exist. In the space of the social strike, we can make ourselves available for each other, we can disrupt the ordinary flow of things, we can craft our own forms of organisation, and foster structures of care.
As well as the commonly understood global concerns around the environmental, climate and extinction crises – here in the Gong we’re living alongside the infrastructure that’s digging out the coal, that’s pumping the gas, that’s draining the water catchment, causing climate change and destroying Country. This means that an important aspect of a society-wide strike around climate concerns must involve the enactment and demonstration of our collective power. A social strike helps us to investigate and understand our strengths and weaknesses, our concrete conditions and struggles, commonalities and differences, existing resources, bases of support, and helps to expose those opposing us.
Ecology of the Strike
Of the thousands of people who took part in the Wollongong Global Climate strike the majority were young people – school kids, both high school and primary school, as well as groups of friends, uni students, workers, as well as family groups, and so on. The rally and march were a colourful assembly festooned with home-made banners, placards, t-shirts and props, which began and ended with musical performances. The Radical Drum Corps, Rising Tide Street Band and other musicians added to the joyous and defiant celebration of resistance and hope. During the occupation of the Kembla and Crown Street intersection, local ‘hillbilly punk’ group The Lurkers led the strikers in a rousing rendition of ‘We Shall Not be Moved’. The Red Rebels also performed their special brand of silent street theatre throughout the day.
The composition of the Strike reflected decades of local environment activism, including the hugely successful campaign to ‘Stop Coal Seam Gas’, protect the local water catchment, and defend regional eco-systems. It also included a deep ecology framing, evident, for example, in 8 year old Lilly Callaghan’s popular speech, when she declared “I believe the earth is worth more than money!” and called on us to be the strength, reach and resolve of a tree. We also saw this expressed in the many home-made placards voicing the material interdependence of human life and ecology.
Many of those who attended were part of a local sustainability ecosystem; a network of environmentally concerned people, community groups, ecological and counter-culture initiatives. This web of activity includes environmental movements opposing fossil fuel production, and/or seeking to protect the local air, water, land, and sea, as well as a growing network of alternative production, distribution, and exchange experiments. Many social movements are now concerned with the creation of healthier environments, focused equally on humans and the nonhuman world in a dynamic of interdependence and love. They are fighting for progressive political, economic, and community transformations and self-organising the growth of sustainable living experiments, reducing ecological impacts, and devoting more time, energy, and resources to what’s most valuable – our relationships, environments, and communities.
The importance of Aboriginal struggles for self-determination and stewardship in these times of crisis was expressed by many who spoke at the rally. The powerful welcome to country given by Jade Kennedy highlighted that for over two hundred years Aboriginal peoples have fought the destructive path of colonialism and capitalism. Several other speakers spoke about traditional knowledge of Country and the need for non-Aboriginal folks to learn from and centre local knowledge in the fight for a liveable future. Yet, while there’s a growing attention to a decolonial politics, there’s a lack of concrete strategies about what this might mean in practice being articulated within the movement in the Illawarra. This presents us with the challenge to demolish climate apartheid and to implement practical measures of decolonisation. This will involve continuing to build relationships of solidarity and orienting to the everyday, as well as key moments of struggle led by Aboriginal communities. It also involves reflecting on and complicating the emphasis on youth leadership of the climate movement, which should not stop us from learning from Elders, and from hundreds of years of resistance and struggle that Aboriginal and other Indigenous peoples have waged against a system that forces almost everyone to rely on wages, seeks to disconnect us from everything that sustains us, and pits us against each other.
There is also space for a more attentive ear that listens to what Torres Strait and Pacific Islander communities living in the ‘Gong’ are saying and doing, as their ancestral lands are particularly affected by the escalating climate crisis. Even though Indigenous people have custodianship over just 25 per cent of the world’s land, they protect 80 per cent of the world’s biodiversity. Indigenous land management practices both mitigate climate change and protect environments from its impacts. Indigenous people have been on the frontline of resistance to fossil fuel projects and their care for Country stretches back tens of thousands of years.
In keeping with Wollongong’s recent history as a place where people from all over the world have come and settled, Wollongong has an active pro-refugee movement and networks which organise protests, campaigns, and coordinate everyday support for newly arrived refugees. Climate-related displacement and migration is set to be one of the greatest challenges of our era. It is widely estimated that, by 2050, between 150 to 300 million people risk being forced to leave their homes as a result of desertification, rising sea levels, and extreme weather conditions. After the Strike, many people have been drawing links between climate change and the forced displacement of people. Another positive development has been the organisation of an ICJA contingent for the latest Wollongong Rally for Refugees.
Many unionists participated in the Strike. However, only a few unions publicly supported it, such as the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) and Australian Services Union (ASU) who had visible contingents on the march. The support of the NTEU, in helping to organise the Strike, was especially important. The local NTEU branch was pivotal in providing resources, developing relationships within the Strike and participating in the open organising meetings, providing a good example of how other unions could participate in future. However, the absence of other unions in support of the Strike signals some weaknesses in both the event’s organisation and the local labour movement. None-the-less, although a union presence was generally lacking, it’s important to note that this doesn’t mean workers didn’t take part in the Strike. Workers were participating from a range of industries, but they were doing so in a broadly self-organised way. This raises a few questions concerning the composition of the Strike and where to go from here, in terms of deepening the significance of a social strike, building self-organisation, and also addressing the general lack of union presence in the movement so far.
After the Strike
The Strike was a wonderful achievement and the success of the Wollongong Global Climate Strike open meetings encouraged those involved to maintain and build this organising space. So, during the Strike, leaflets were distributed, and announcements were made encouraging participants to attend the next public organising meeting. The perspectives of those in the organising group and those striking were varied – these included calling for politicians to do ‘something’, a rejection of politics as usual, calls to continue building our own power, etc. and the future direction of local climate action remains largely undecided and varied. The debates about what comes next include a vast array of proposals, viewpoints, strategies, and new forces getting involved.
The inclusion of a demand for ‘No Mining in the Illawarra Water Catchment’ in the Strike’s publicity material, along with the targeting of South32, and criticism of Bluescope’s massive carbon emissions, introduced an important local dimension to the Strike. It also challenged the proposed expansion of the local coal industry and the impact of the steel industry. After decades of defending the jobs, wages and conditions of local miners and steelworkers, progressive movements in the Gong must now face-up to the dangers of a rapid deindustrialisation process dominated by the power of multinational corporations. For example, South32 has been arguing that without the expansion of mining under the water catchment, the steelworks may have to close. At the same time, the Illawarra Local Aboriginal Land Council has opposed the Dendrobium mine expansion, clearly outlining many of the social, economic and cultural heritage issues of coal mining in this region.
Ten days after the Strike, the South Coast Labour Council (SCLC) launched “a campaign to put their workers at the forefront of climate action.” The unions involved are demanding “that the Morrison Government take immediate action on climate policy to ensure our workers are not denied the opportunity to build the multi-billion-dollar renewable technologies and systems required to transform Australia’s energy landscape,” such as the steelworks building “wind turbines made from the coal mined from the Illawarra.”
So far, the response to the ‘Green Jobs’ launch has been mainly positive. However, there has also been concerns expressed about mining in the water catchment and a defence of the coal industry. So far, those involved in the ‘Green Jobs Plan’ have not allayed these concerns and it seems they may try to avoid the water catchment issue – ‘because it is not about climate change’. There are some key differences in the various media reports regarding the ‘Green Jobs’ push and the local coal industry. For example, the Illawarra Mercury article (link above) reports SCLC Secretary Arthur Rorris saying: “ramping up production of coal mining and steel products was not incompatible with the growing pressure on governments to set carbon emissions targets and become carbon neutral.”
This intervention by local unions/SCLC, directs the climate action agenda away from criticism of the coal and steel industries towards a defence of the local coal industry, coal related jobs, and steel production. Rather than supporting a ‘just transition’ away from coal, it poses “the big question” as “whether Australian workers will have the chance to forge this change in production, or will it fly out overseas like other manufacturing jobs?”
In the past, Wollongong has been hit hard when coal mines have been closed-down and manufacturing jobs have gone offshore in search of cheap labour and more favourable conditions for capital. The deepening of this process is a legitimate concern and the union campaign is a challenging intervention that has to be engaged by the local climate justice movement. Meanwhile, the Australian Workers Union (the main union for those employed at the Port Kembla steelworks) is now supporting the Morrison Government’s emissions reduction targets. According to the Union’s national secretary, Daniel Watson; “The reality is, for the steelmakers of the world . . . they are focused on keeping their high-paid manufacturing job and I don’t think they were ready for the journey to talk about a transition.”
While unions like the AWU and their political allies in the ALP move further to right, in order to defend their fossil fuel and corporate pay masters, we should seek to clarify the current social divisions over climate action. It’s also important to note that Daniel Watson is dishonestly portraying the views of steelworkers, since, in fact, many are concerned about emissions, climate justice, a ‘just transition’, and some of them supported the Wollongong Global Climate Strike. When even a fairly conservative body like the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has made it clear that we must now rapidly and radically transform development, work, the economy, and life in general, it should be clear to those seeking climate justice – there can be no support for coal expansion, coal mining is a dying industry, emissions must be rapidly cut, in the near future the local steel industry may shut down, and we need to focus on a just transition. These concerns have led to the formation of a Just Transition working group by the Illawarra Climate Justice Alliance.
A Just Transition
The perpetual growth of capitalist accumulation is a death machine heading towards extinction and the development of a viable ‘just transition’ requires an understanding of the breadth and depth of the challenges we face. This is not just another issue, where we can roll-out the usual progressive transformative agenda with a green emphasis. In order to defend life, we must completely restructure, retool, and decarbonise production, exchange, and consumption. The environmental, climate, and extinction crises is so immense that it will be a fundamental dimension of struggle for the rest of our lives. Tackling this issue will require sharing ideas, building movements for change, educating ourselves and others, popularising and promoting sustainable alternatives, and building climate justice.
Many of those concerned about the environment have sought to accommodate the capitalist system’s need for perpetual growth by embracing a view of sustainable development which reforms rather than challenges the economic and political status quo. A danger here is that power is left in the hands of the corporations responsible for environmental destruction, while measures that might reduce rates of production and consumption are avoided.
Another way of looking at sustainable development is by considering a production level which can be borne by the earth’s ecosystem over the long-term. What is emphasised here is the sustainability of the ecosystem rather than capitalist development. This version of sustainable development looks at development from the perspective of life on the planet, rather than continual growth. An important related concept is just sustainability. Just sustainability is concerned with addressing the ‘equity deficit’ of environmental sustainability. It stresses the need to ensure a better quality of life for all, now and into the future, in a just and equitable manner, whilst living within the limits of the earth’s ecosystems.
A genuinely just transition will require us to fight for a rapid redistribution of wealth and power, moving away from industries in their death throes, away from damaging and ‘bullshit jobs’, towards socially useful work that sustains life. With the phasing out of coal and other fossil fuels, these sectors and their jobs will disappear completely, whereas industry will have a key role in a just transition. A just transition of industry will need to be embedded in broader efforts to transform society – production, exchange and consumption. This will entail developing new ways of doing, new skills, new types of work, new technologies, converting how and why things are produced. Decarbonising industry will require massive investments of time, energy and wealth. Steel plants have long lifespans, so change needs to start now. This change should be informed by the need to lower demand and to reuse, replace, and recycle. This should include research into potential alternatives to steel, as well as potential alternative forms of steel production. There is no sustainable alternative to a radical transformation of the steel industry.
Bluescope’s Port Kembla steelworks is the biggest of its kind in Australia and is a major emitter of CO2. Up to nine percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the steel industry. The steel sector is failing to reduce emissions at the rate required to keep global warming below 2°C. In fact, last year emissions from Australian steel production rose by 10 per cent. Bluescope has previously stated it could save one million tons of greenhouse gases a year through power generation from waste gases at Port Kembla via ‘cogeneration’. Currently, the decarbonisation potential of the Port Kembla steel making process is limited due to the integral role of coal in this process, which can only be partially replaced by lower carbon fuel sources. Yet, rather than taking-up this challenge, Bluescope is investing in its North Star plant in the United States. In 2015, Bluescope delivered an ultimatum to local unions, demanding $200 million in cost savings, of which $60 million had to come from workers, or the steelworks would be shut down. The unions were told, ‘it’s up to you to save the plant’ — and if they didn’t, five thousand people’s direct and ten thousand people’s indirect jobs would go and $3 billion would be lost from the region’s economy.
In response, steelworkers, the union movement, the ALP and the Greens demanded that the Federal and State Governments defend the steel industry, by requiring that Australian-made steel be used in all state and federal government infrastructure. Local steelworkers eventually agreed to savage cuts to their jobs, pays, and working conditions, to help BlueScope save $40 million. The New South Wales government also gave Bluescope a $60 million reduction in tax payments and the company saved a further $100 million through what it termed “worker flexibility”. Taken together, these savings provided the $200 million BlueScope were demanding to keep the steelworks open. Shortly after, BlueScope announced a six-month profit of $180 million and the full acquisition of North Star Steel for $1 billion. According to BlueScope’s major shareholder, Perpetual Investments, the decision to keep Port Kembla open was only an “interim measure”, before eventual closure in the next few years.
When asked about their future plans for Port Kembla, Bluescope management said they would be making a decision about the steelwork’s future in a few years, when they have to decide on whether to reline the blast furnace. As has occurred for the past 40 years, the company expects the local community to put pressure on the Government to subsidise their operations. Yet, globally there is over-production of steel and global competition in the steel market is part of a rapacious ‘race to the bottom’. This involves ramping-up pressure on communities, workers, and governments to see who is willing to sacrifice the most in terms of wages, working/ living conditions, and environment. Multinational corporations seek to play one part of the world off against another, dividing workers, and communities in order to maintain their rule. Local fossil fuel corporations and their political lackeys also try to turn us against each other and will blame us for any loss of jobs/incomes. Instead, as we face widespread and growing crises, those seeking to accommodate the wealth and power of corporations should be asked – How low must we bow down to their intensification of exploitation and environmental destruction? How much of our lives and how much of our futures should we sacrifice to maintain their profits? – These concerns must be swept aside by exerting community control over resources, production, and consumption, in order to drive the radical changes required to respond to climate change with a truly just transition.
Climate barbarism, disaster communism and solidarity adaptation
In recent years, the mainstream debate concerning the climate crisis has been framed primarily in terms of mitigation and adaption. Mitigation is the idea of preventing climate change in the interests of preserving the existing mode of production and accompanying social relations. Energy sources might be substituted, and green technologies developed to replace non-green ones, but ultimately mitigation rests on the assumption that the climate crisis can be averted based on the existing capitalist and colonial systems. Arguments about mitigation therefore tend to take for granted that the current political, economic and social arrangements can continue largely as normal. While the issue of climate crisis has shifted from one of debate to accepted norm, or in other words to a general acknowledgement that the possibility of complete mitigation has passed, the implications of this shift, and the fundamental transformations that follow from it, are often left unstated.
As Naomi Klein recently argued, the ruling class is not in fact denying the climate crisis, but rather implementing measures of adaptation on their terms. Indeed, as Klein says “they’re building border walls. They are adapting through this unleashing of white supremacist ideology and creating the intellectual rationale for allowing millions of people to die…that’s…climate barbarism.” However, adaptation is not only taking shape as climate barbarism, there is a counter-power within the politics of adaptation currently shaping the possibilities for the future, which sees various forms of solidarity adaptation and adaptation from below opening new political horizons.
Solidarity adaptation, or adaptation from below is a way of naming the tangible ways people develop relationships of support and solidarity to sustain and amplify not only resistance to climate barbarism, but also for creating spaces in which new forms of sociality can thrive. Solidarity adaptation is the organisation of resources and relationships that meet existing material needs of those on the frontlines of the climate crisis, those living through or displaced by drought in communities with no water, those displaced by sea level rises, floods, fires and so on. It is also the organisation of these resources for the extension of collective control and decision making in the hands of those struggling. The challenge of solidarity adaptation is to move from a mechanism of survival to a logic of decolonisation and communisation.
In so-called Australia, current struggles over water, the self-organised collective provisioning of water to towns that have run dry and had water stolen by capital, demonstrate forms of solidarity adaptation that will be fundamental to struggles going forward. Deepening these processes and relations of commonality is one dimension of solidarity adaptation. In response to the daily individual and collective disasters of capitalist society, the desire to help others, to make a difference, to aid recovery and healing, to share and care, to make life more wonderful, and to construct a better world together, already inspires a vast amount of powerful social action. When disasters hit, people responding in caring ways reach out to each other, take direct action, re-configure spaces and relationships, get to know each other, and develop more democratic, loving, and egalitarian social processes. These horizontal network forms of organising, a type of disaster communism which replaces the usual corporate and state forms, are shown not just to be more inclusive and democratic, but more efficient and more productive. Skills or attributes that are often under-valued; healing, caring, flexibility, self-sufficiency, counselling, local knowledge and community connections are suddenly understood as crucial. As people come closer to each other they are better able to share resources, knowledges, ways of doing and experiences, enriching lives and communities, opening-up new horizons for creativity, and further deepening interactions. This is a process of building the foundations that can better weather the coming storms.
Grass roots planning for disasters involves a wide variety of responses, such as moves towards energy democracy, emergency preparedness, the creation of social hubs/meeting places, and transforming urban infrastructures in ways that challenge inequalities and deepen public participation. The more we help each other and meet one another’s needs, the greater our likelihood of survival. We are the most important alternative power source and our community’s resiliency is a product of our social connectedness and organisational abilities. Wollongong’s adaptation to climate, environmental, and extinction crises is already demonstrating how we can overcome isolation, alienation, atomisation, and despair. We are not alone and together we are building a local eco-system of relationships of care – care for each other, for all living things, for the earth.
Being the Change: Our Response-ability
During the Wollongong Global Climate Strike, we stopped doing what we usually do; we didn’t go to work, to school, to university, or stay at home. By organising the Strike and by striking we created the freedom to connect, to engage in communal activity, to unleash our imaginations, to figure out for ourselves what to do, how to do it, and organise to get it done. The Climate Strike gave us a glimpse of the utopias that exist within us and our communities every day, but which tend to be under-valued and neglected. Maintaining the Climate Strike, not as an event but as a new way of life, may seem impossible. But taking back our time, our communities, and our relationships – freeing them from of a system heading for destruction – is our real challenge.
We don’t know what technological breakthroughs, large-scale social changes, or ecological feedback loops will shape the next 20 years. But it’s clear that we must prepare for disasters, which to some extent are unavoidable. In the face of environmental, climate, extinction and social crises, we can see more clearly that we’re unable to rely on corporations, governments and bureaucrats, and in response many of us turn to each other for support, building respect, camaraderie, and trust. These are the social relations we can rely on when faced with future crises.
Wollongong is a city with a long radical history of class solidarity and intersectional struggle. The struggles for climate and environmental justice intersect with all other struggles for social and economic justice. Increasingly these struggles must confront the clash between the priorities of political, economic and social elites and those of the vast majority of people. So, we need to build our own power, whilst also holding political institutions, corporations, and governments to account, putting pressure on them by using a range of tactics and strategies. The revolutionary transformation of society we require involves developing our own strength, increasing people’s ability to organise their own lives, as we sweep aside the economic, political, and institutional obstacles standing in our way.
As this post was being finalised, the Illawarra Climate Justice Alliance responded to Greta Thunberg’s announcement of another Global Climate Strike on November 29 by calling a Strike in Wollongong on that date. You can find more details here – https://www.facebook.com/events/414436109105114/
As a founding member of the local political organisation Revolutionary Action (RA), I have created a blog to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of RA’s formation and to present some of the events and texts related to the collective’s history. You can find the RA blog via the link below. Our struggles continue.
In 2013, I put this article together for the local Love: Art, Ideas, Music, Politics reading group to discuss. I’m posting it now so that it can be included as an accessible source in the forthcoming Love: Art, Ideas, Music, Politics book, to be published next year (2020). More information on the Love book project and other Love group activities can be found here – https://www.facebook.com/love2017.org/
In this article, I will examine some of the ways in which the theories, practices and desires for love are channeled into capitalist production and accumulation, exploring capitalist strategies to suppress, undermine, utilise and exploit the love of the multitude (I use the terms ‘proletariat’ and ‘multitude’ interchangeably, to describe the class that struggles against capital and produces communism. The multitude is brought into existence through collective struggle against capital and for freedom, democracy, peace and love). In some of my other writing I have emphasised the love of the multitude and how it exceeds and escapes capital. I argue that love cannot be measured, valued nor contained by capital and that it is created as a common wealth which composes the proletariat and creates communism.
Love exists only through the affective labour of the multitude and some of my work grapples with the importance and value of affective labour to capital and its significance to the development of communism. In explaining affective labour, Hardt and Negri (2000a: 292 – 293; 2004: 110) have included the “creation and manipulation of affect”; “maternal work”; “service with a smile”; the work of those who care for the earth; producing relationships; and communication and cooperation within the family and the community. They say that affective labour “is best understood by beginning from what feminist analyses of “women’s work” have called “labour in the bodily mode” and that it produces “social networks, forms of community”, as well as feelings “of ease, well-being, satisfaction, excitement, or passion”.
For example, certain lines of feminist inquiry and practice, setting out from an analysis of the gender division of labour, have brought into focus the different forms of affective labour, caring labour, and kin work that have traditionally been defined as women’s work. These studies have clearly demonstrated the ways in which such forms of activity produce social networks and produce society itself. As a result of these efforts, today such value creating practices can and must be recognised as labour (Hardt and Negri: 1994: 8).
Love therefore is a form of affective labour, as it produces the common and subjectivities, “a sense of connectedness or community” (Hardt: 1999: 96) and it can “construct a commonality amongst subjects” and “the commonality of a desire” (Negri: 1999b: 85) and “a new society” (Hardt and Negri: 2004: 352).
Through affective labour, people function both as instruments of capital and live as social beings, affirming themselves and others by actively producing the power of love to satisfy human needs and desires. Affective labour expresses interconnectedness and involves the transaction of goods and services meeting material and emotional needs. Affective labour is undertaken out of empathy, compassion, obligation, affection, affinity and for wages. It reproduces the social relations of capitalism and constructs social relations alternative to those of capital. Much of the multitude’s labour is free of charge, part of an intricate and long-established web of human relationships in which “the production of social relations, human life, social assets and values, is as essential to the survival of most [people] as wage labour” (Donaldson: 2006: 8).
Erich Fromm (1960: 22) relies on the work of Spinoza to explain the difference between active and passive affects. Active affects are products of freedom and agency, whereas passive affects are products of domination and ignorance. For Fromm (1960: 22), love is “the practice of a human power, which can be practiced only in freedom and never as the result of a compulsion. Love is an activity, not a passive affect”. For many (e.g. Dalla Costa: 2008; Finch and Groves: 1983: 3; hooks: 2000a: 183; Ruddick: 1989) love is work, or comes through work. As Sara Ruddick (1989: 49) explains, even the loving relation of mothering is work. This recognition of love as work, as an activity, points to the importance of self-organisation, self-actualisation and self-valorisation. The work of love is crucial to freedom, revolution and the creation of communism.
The multitude’s acts of love are affective labour, part of the immaterial labour of the multitude. “Love – in the production of affective networks, schemes of cooperation, and social subjectivities – is an economic power” (Hardt and Negri: 2009: 180). Hardt and Negri (2000a: 53) recognise that immaterial labour “occupies an increasingly central position in both the schema of capitalist production and the composition of the multitude”. While continuing to use the term, they realise that immaterial labour is an ambiguous term and that biopolitical labour may be a better way of conceiving of the labour that “creates not only material goods but also relationships and ultimately social life itself” (Hardt and Negri: 2004: 109). For Hardt and Negri, there are both capitalist and communist tendencies to immaterial labour, on the one hand there is the subsumption of life to work for capital and on the other the production of the multitude through networks based on communication, collaboration and affective relationships. Struggles over affective labour intensify the antagonism between labour and capital and the resistance of the multitude to capitalist domination. These struggles increasingly involve attempts by capital to capture the independent networks of co-operation through which the multitude produces communism and love.
When affective labour is waged labour it can be extremely alienating, as what is sold by the wage labourers and commanded by their client and/or boss is the workers’ ability to make human relationships. Capital seeks to control all means of producing social wealth and attempts to exploit all social cooperation. Capitalism tries to subsume and exploit love and integrate it through commodification and social management while preventing the extension of its communist potentials. Loving relationships have been undermined through the development of property as the basis of human relations and it is important to examine the ways in which the theories, practices and desire for love are channelled into capitalist production and accumulation.
Capital has developed sophisticated strategies for suppressing, commodifying, managing and exploiting love. According to Bojesen and Muhr (2008: 79-85), contemporary Human Resource Management “has become subject to a code of love” to ensure emotional commitment from “the passionate self-managing employee”. ‘Care’ for the employee involves encouraging love as a resource that can be subsumed, exploited and consumed by the employer. The company “wants to own you; absorb you, direct you to its needs – all in the name of love”. “Love has become a growing business enterprise” and consultancy firms sell “love packages” teaching companies how to develop a “Loving Life”, “Loving Management” and a “Loving Culture”. Capital increasingly expects an “emphasis and self-reflexivity on social relations, communication and affects” (De Angelis: 2007: 169), policing and directing affective labour to gain a competitive advantage over others.
The constitution of affective labour as capital involves the production and management of capitalist subjectivities, the work of self-controlling emotions and feelings, and the use of love as a form of capitalist biopower. The editors of the Australian Institute of Management publication, Love @ Work, propose “serious conversations about love and humanity” to galvanise management and workers by encouraging them “to love their work, love their co-workers and love themselves” (Barker: 2006: viii, 7). In the same publication, management experts discuss: love as “a leadership tool” which can “strengthen the corporate heart, build profits and create social good” (Cairnes: 2006: 19); the importance of workers’ growing “love affair with their jobs”; and how bosses can “seduce their employees to give their hearts and minds to the office” (Fox and Trinca: 2006: 105-106). Fox and Trinca (2006: 116) explain that “organisations co-opt the language of love to bind people to the job and increase productivity”, spruiking “workplace democracy, greater freedom, openness and treating people well”, while disguising the brutal reality of poor working conditions and “more pressure to ratchet up productivity from fewer workers”.
To manage and manipulate relationships capitalist management techniques and instruments aimed at subsuming love intervene in and encroach on the social networks of the multitude. For instance, because social networks are integral to production, the use by workers of social networking tools such as Facebook, Twitter and blogs, is now recognised by many managers as good for business, as an employee’s social network and their affective relationships are potentially valuable to corporations because a person’s social network can be used to sell products and to promote corporate values. Fox and Trinca (2006: 106 and 108) discuss how many, especially young, workers successfully mesh “their nine-to-five activities with their after-work networking and social activities” and “play out elements of their domestic lives” in the workplace, often utilising technology to maintain and develop personal relationships, connections and community. While social networks have a dual potential, as values for capital or values for the multitude, they are often used by capital to police and imprison the multitude’s affective labour, through the creation and management of capitalist subjectivities.
Capital diverts to its advantage love and desires and struggles for love, so as to impose capitalist discipline and decompose the proletariat. Capital carves into the gift economy and utilises peoples’ love for each other to build team work, team solidarity and work morale. Human Resource Management techniques such as Total Quality Management endeavour to totally integrate peoples’ innovative potential and social relationships into capitalist production. Hochschild (2003) shows how companies and institutions manage the feelings and actions of workers, teaching affective labourers to suppress their own feelings and desires and to police the affective labour of others. Capital seeks to control and manage affective labour, throughout the social factory, attempting to elicit love for capital, turning peoples’ capacity for love into an instrument of accumulation, a resource and a power for capital.
Capitalism’s commodification of love is powerful and effective. Within capitalist social relations people are commodities and are encouraged to consider and treat each other as such. “When greedy consumption is the order of the day, dehumanisation becomes acceptable. Then, treating people like objects is not only acceptable but is required behaviour. It’s the culture of exchange, the tyranny of marketplace values” (hooks: 2000a: 115). The use by the mass media and consumer culture of love to sell commodities, has made it appear hollow, as people are encouraged to find emotional satisfaction in private experiences linked to consumption. Capitalism strips love of its best aspects and repackages it as a set of product choices. Advertising “turns lovers into things and things into lovers” not only promising that if you “buy this you will be loved” but “buy this and it will love you” (Kilbourne: 1999: 27, 81). As capitalist culture tries to divide and separate the multitude, it represents love as centred on ownership and control, teaching people to treat each other as possessions, commodities and competitors. In this way, capitalism tries to retard and detach loving social connections, to limit people’s desires to those that serve capital.
As capitalism works to subsume every part of people’s lives, love has clearly become an important target. In his book, Lovemarks, Kevin Roberts (2004: 36), the CEO of leading global advertising company Saatchi and Saatchi, argues that “[t]he social fabric is spread more thinly than ever. People are looking for new, emotional connections. They are looking for what they can love”. He (Roberts: 2004: 74) understands that “[l]ove is about action” and this means the corporations he works for require “meaningful” relationships that they foster by embracing consumers and communities and by “inspiring love”. This corporate strategy hopes to cultivate a close emotional connection between consumers and brands. Roberts and the companies that employ him believe that if consumers can be convinced that corporations are interested in love, and that corporations care about them, they will reciprocate and love corporations and their products.
Advertising is often considered as motivational, getting us to work harder to be able to afford the commodities and lifestyles advertised. Many people’s lives are dominated by consumption, debt and working harder to buy more, leading to rapidly rising levels of stress, anxiety and depression. None-the-less, sociological surveys consistently show that, rather than commodities, what people value most are their social relationships with family, friends, lovers and peers. Attempting to subsume love, capital endeavours to capture people’s imaginations and to exploit their desires. As capitalism fosters lovelessness, it offers to satisfy the desire for love with commodities and alienated relationships, producing capitalist subjectivities for capitalist commodities and capitalist commodities for capitalist subjectivities. Discussing the use in advertising of “the general fear of not being loved”, Erich Fromm (1973) explains how commodities are marketed as a way of gaining love; how, by the purchase of some product, consumers will be able to be loved; that love is dependent on a commodity; and that it is “not human power, human effort, not being” but commodities, that create love. When love becomes a commodity or the promise of a commodity, the desire for love is channelled into consumerism. The threat of love to capital is diffused and the meaning of love is reduced to crass commercialism. On one hand, people are swamped by images of perfect couples and fed the idea that someone will come to save them with love and make everything all right. On the other, they are constantly reminded that relationships have a use-by-date. Capitalism uses built in obsolescence, a short limit on the life of commodities, to boost consumption and profits. In the same way, people’s relationships are marketed, and often perceived, as another accessory with a short-term use value, based on self-gratification, performance and competition.
bell hooks (2000a: xxvii) argues that “lovelessness is more common than love” and explores lovelessness as both a consequence and a cause of family breakdown and dysfunction, abuse, addiction, loneliness, isolation, rampant greed, consumerism and narcissism. She explains that “[k]eeping people in a constant state of lack, in perpetual desire, strengthens the marketplace economy. Lovelessness is a boon to consumerism” (hooks: 2000a: 47). hooks agrees with Fromm (1960: 83) that in capitalist society love is relatively rare, “that its place is taken by a number of forms of pseudo-love which are in reality so many forms of the disintegration of love”. However, while it is clear that the commodification of labour and the suppression of freely associated labour corrupts love and suppresses the desires of the multitude for more than material possessions, work for capital and alienated relationships, the multitude is much more than the common experience of capitalist subjectivities. Capitalism poisons lives with a concentration on ownership, consumption and competition, undermining loving relationships. But, alongside the system’s violence and destruction, exploitation and oppression, there are continuing struggles over who has power over social relations, social cooperation and labour, over whether love is destroyed, suppressed or harnessed to strengthen the power of capital or used to build and extend proletarian power.
In his essay, For Love or Money, Michael Hardt (2011) considers some of Marx’s views on love in relation to money and property. In his Economic and Political Manuscripts, Marx argues that money corrupts social relations by displacing being with having. Money “distracts us from our being in society and the world but also and more importantly . . . causes us to neglect the development of our senses and our powers to create social bonds.” Posing love on the same level as money, Marx explores how the exchange of money distorts our relationships to each other and the world, where-as “love can be exchanged only for love” in both intimate human relations and in organising society (Hardt: 2011: 679). However, Hardt criticises Marx’s comparison of love and money as it “diminishes the power of love . . . insofar as it leads Marx to consider love only in terms of exchange.” “Considering love only in terms of exchange undermines an understanding of love as a power that generates social bonds. What is most important about love . . . is not what it can be traded for, but what it can do and how it can transform us.”
Hardt (2011: 681) prefers Marx’s comparison of love and property, where “Love . . . is not merely set free by the abolition of private property. It must be created anew, and this new love must fill the social role that property does now. It must have the power . . . to generate social bonds and organise social relationships.” As Hardt explains, “Communism can thus be conceived as the creation of a new love . . . by increasing our power to create and maintain relations with each other and the world.” While I agree with Hardt regarding Marx’s comparison of love and property, their emphasis of ‘new love’ seems to suggest that communism/love does not yet exist. This neglects previous and contemporary manifestations of communism/love, overestimating the power of capital and underestimating the continuity of proletarian power.
Hardt, Negri and Marx put forward contradictory views in relation to love and its subsumption by capital. Yet, at times they recognise that the proletariat’s love exceeds and escapes capitalist capture. In discussing the Paris Commune, Marx (1977a: 241) explains that capital is incapable of destroying the “international bond” of the proletariat and that “its martyrs are enshrined in the great heart of the working class”. Clashes around affective labour show that while capitalist subsumption can capture some of the value created by love, this is contested, for love is outside capital and cannot be completely subsumed. The dynamism of proletarian power is inseparable from the power of the mind and body to affect and be affected, to love and be loved. Capital cannot capture this capacity to love and be loved because it is a product of communist social relations, re/produced and manifested outside capital.
The multitude produces affective relationships which capital attempts to subsume. Since love is an unrecuperable autonomous excess that continually threatens capital, capitalism is forced by this proletarian power to advance strategies to subsume love and decompose the loving movements of the multitude. Capital tries to use love to reproduce capital but the multitude’s love always exceeds capital and produces communism, obstructing capitalist accumulation. The love of the multitude re/produces alternative qualities of labour, labours of love, that capital is unable to subsume. As Emma Goldman (1911) pointed out when discussing free love, “all the millions in the world have failed to buy love . . . all the power on earth has been unable to subdue love . . . [and all the] armies could not conquer love”. However, capitalist accumulation can exploit love and destroy love. A constant antagonism exists between capitalist valorisation and proletarian self-valorisation arising from the multitude’s needs and desires for caring and nurturing and the system’s strategies to destroy, suppress, capture, control and exploit these needs and desires. Capital relies on the sociality of labour, on loving relations, while it simultaneously uses violence and repression to impose commodification and exploitation, trying to protect itself from communism.
Love is a communist power and capitalism is faced with the problem of suppressing and subsuming it, while managing and relying on its power. Although capital recognises the importance of the value produced outside of the wage relation, and how profitable its capture can be, the caring practices of the waged and unwaged remain undervalued. This is because love is beyond capitalist measure and affective labour cannot be adequately valued by capital. The strategies and techniques used by capital to capture love cannot negate the positive effects of the multitude’s labour nor can capital erase the revolutionary potential of the power of love. Capital relies on the limitation and channelling of the affective labour of the multitude, but it cannot completely control or smother love. The multitude is so powerful that capital depends on harnessing its love and the stifling of this love deepens systemic crisis.
Continual efforts by capital to break the collaboration, solidarity and cooperation of the multitude are integral to the counter-revolution against the common, loving subjectivities and the mobilisation of self-valorised labour. Businesses and governments undermine the basis of love and utilise it for the purpose of gaining profit through exploitation. The imposition of capitalist value through violence and the ruthless economy of sweatshops, digital assembly lines, relocations, short-term contracts and managed anxiety, erode and block social connections and relationships. At the same time, the reliance of capital on the love of the multitude, for its own re/production, mystifies and disguises subordination, exploitation and the creation of ‘pseudo-love’.
Many of the transformations in work practices, including intensification, casualisation, precarity, flexibility, nomadism and speed-ups, have detrimentally affected the capacity of the multitude to engage in affective labour for capital and the multitude. People who become physically and emotionally distanced from each other, often don’t have the time, money, resources and social support to sustain strong connections and loving relationships. Instead lovelessness, competition, isolation, estrangement, stress, individual and social breakdowns erode the basis of love and impede the work of love. Capital consumes affective labour, driving social activity through alienation, commodification, acquisition, consumption and self-indulgence. It promotes a selfish culture in which things matter more than people and where the passion to connect is replaced by the passion to possess. In the process, as the demand for affective labour increases, capital actually undermines the ability of people to re/produce this labour.
Social re/production increasingly comes up against the destructive praxes of capitalism. Capitalism is anti-love, constantly and violently erecting barriers and obstacles to love. Capital erodes the social fabric of love which it requires for social re/production and cooperation, violently destroying social relationships by incessantly producing poverty, hunger, war, the destruction of people, communities and the environment. This systemic assault atomises the social networks of the multitude and separates relationships, families and friendships along the lines of gender, ethnicity, age, sexuality, religion, nationality and culture. As Shiva (1992: 8-9) has noted
Integration as understood by global capitalist patriarchy is leading to disintegration because it is generating economic, social and cultural insecurities faster than people can identify the roots of these insecurities. Feeling the besieged ‘other’ in the global playing field of the market, and not being able to identify that field, members of diverse communities turn against each other, identifying their neighbours as the ‘other’ that poses a threat to their well-being and survival.
Capitalist labour often involves violence to the psyche as well as to the body and for many millions this work is little more than a life sentence or a living death. Still, researchers like Hochschild (2003) show how people resist, subvert, refuse and rebel against attempts to limit and manage their love and to fuse them with capital. She explains that when capital uses and sells acts of love, these acts are in fact often pretence; not genuine loving and caring ‘from the heart’, but acting. In order to reclaim the managed heart, people produce inventive and often invisible ways to avoid, resist and subvert efforts to capture and control them. Instead they find ways of self-organising and mobilising their love against capital and its state forms. Capital continues to try to pull affective labour into its domain but the proletariat powerfully resists by deploying various forms of work refusal and self-valorisation as loving defences against capitalist exploitation and accumulation. These human strikes, where the multitude withdraws affective labour from capital, entail both an individual and a collective rupture with capital. They build relations of commonality and praxes that construct communism through the self-organisation of love.
Barker, C., 2006, ‘Preface’, in Barker, C. and Payne, A. (eds.), Love @ Work: How Loyalty, Humanity, Spirituality, Inspiration, Communication and Intimacy Affect Business and the Workplace, Wrightbooks, Queensland, pp. vii-ix.
Bojesen, A., and Muhr, S., 2008, ‘In the Name of Love: Let’s Remember Desire’, ephemera, Volume 8, Number 1, pp.79-93.
Cairnes, M., 2006, ‘Returning Love to the Corporate Heart’, in Barker, C. and Payne, A. (eds.), 2006, Love @ Work: How Loyalty, Humanity, Spirituality, Inspiration, Communication and Intimacy Affect Business and the Workplace, Wrightbooks, Queensland, pp.15-44.
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Roberts, K., 2004, Lovemarks: the Future Beyond Brands, Murdoch Books, Sydney.
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On Monday, April 8, 2019, the second monthly event of the Gong Commune was an open discussion about the many challenges of work and unemployment and what we can do to address them. As part of the discussion of unemployed workers struggles, anti-poverty campaigns, over-work, under-employment, casual, flexible, and gig work, the refusal and radical transformation of work, I gave a five minute ‘fire starter’ response to the question – What are the major issues related to work in Wollongong and more broadly?
It is often unclear when we’re at work and when we’re not at work, when we’re working and when we’re not working. The lack of clear demarcation lines between ‘workplaces’ and ‘non-workplaces’, between ‘work times’ and ‘non-work times’, and between ‘workers’ and ‘non-workers’ throws into question many assumptions about work and which issues are related to it. In Wollongong, traditional workplaces, which used to offer employment security, are now precarious. At the steelworks workers have made huge sacrifices, including wage cuts, the erosion of working conditions, and limits on industrial action in a bid to save their jobs. Yet company threats to shut the place down continue, even though they’re making huge profits. At the same time, struggles over jobs and conditions in the local coal industry often pivot around that industry’s future. Meanwhile the education, hospitality and service sectors have become the major employers – with work more focused on people’s health, learning, and personal needs. Here worker’s ability to actually serve, teach or care is constantly being ground down. This situation has sparked important local campaigns against exploitation of students and migrants in hospitality, for better nurse and midwife ratios, and successful strike action at the university. At the same time, the city has a growing security and military industrial complex involving the local education and manufacturing industries – with increasing money going to policing and war. As part of the rise of authoritarianism, anti-union and anti-strike laws curtail our ability to take collective action over work & welfare issues and our lives, our work and activities, are increasingly monitored, micro-managed, regulated, and manipulated.
Unemployment in Wollongong is higher than the national average. Yet, if you work 3 hours per week you’re considered employed and not counted as unemployed. And if you receive unemployment benefits you’re expected to be ‘Job Active’ and must pass the government’s ‘Activities Test’. It’s hard work being unemployed and this work is worth more than a billion dollars a year for the job agencies imposing strict activity compliance & punishments. Social control of the jobless is both incredibly profitable and very important for those scared of the collectively organised power of angry poor people. The major political parties deliberately punish the poor by cutting their incomes – forcing them into deeper poverty. At the same time, Work for the Dole schemes establish a “reserve army” of vulnerable workers, forced to work for no pay and lacking basic rights. These forms of discipline compel the jobless to serve as a both a danger and a warning to those in waged work, helping to maintain a climate of fear which stifles workers’ struggles.
Job agencies are part of a network of labour companies organising casualisation, contracting and self-employment, attacking wages and conditions, and helping to undermine workers abilities to collectively organise. The imposition of widespread overwork and employment vulnerability creates financial, psychological, physical and other problems. More people are joining the ranks of the working poor, while many of those in waged work are working longer hours and for more years of their lives, as part of an increasingly flexible, mobile and casual workforce. To endure such conditions thousands of Wollongong workers also spend hours commuting to and from Sydney.
The working poor includes both employed and unemployed workers on poverty level incomes. There has been no real rise in wages for five years and it is now 25 years since Newstart was increased. The bosses and the governments that serve them are constantly trying to drive down the cost of our labour – making sure we receive less money and less support for the time we spend working – whether we’re employed or unemployed. Employed and unemployed workers are victims of wage theft and time theft – with the quality of our lives and the time of our lives being stolen by the bosses. Workers’ desires for a better life are expressed in their recognition that waged work is undermining social relationships, in concerns about the ‘quality of life’, and struggles over ‘leisure, family and work time’. The uneven distribution of paid work means that while large numbers of people are ‘underemployed’ a significant proportion of waged workers want less waged work, even if this involves a loss of income. Another issue that employed and unemployed workers have in common is resistance to and refusal of crap jobs, shit work and pointless work. Some people are lucky enough to have good jobs doing what they enjoy. But many of us find our paid jobs less and less fulfilling. Working for a boss or a bureaucracy, competing with others in a ruthless struggle to ‘get ahead’, undermines our ability to do what we really care about, leaving too little time or energy for what is most important – our own work – where we decide what is valuable and worth doing.
Wollongong is full of talented artists, musicians, poets and writers, people caring for friends, family members, their neighbours, communities, and environments, for little, if any, financial reward. They are involved in cultural activities, social movements, social justice campaigns, community groups, civic and leisure activities. Importantly, those who want to build a different world, now and in the future, are already constructing new worlds here in the Gong, with alternative forms of production, distribution and consumption. None-the-less, there’s a desperate need for more solidarity and the self-organisation of unemployed people, precarious workers, and all workers, to increase our social power, to ensure we’re not a threat to other workers, and to support each other in altering the social relations in our communities and ‘workplaces’, so our personal and mutual needs can be addressed.
In March 2011, I celebrated International Women’s Day (IWD) by posting each day on Facebook about a remarkable woman. In 2014, I created a blog – Pollyanna – to record and share those posts (slightly edited and with one addition). During the month of IWD, it seemed appropriate to acknowledge all of the wonderful women who have been, and are, struggling for a better world. I especially wanted to recognise the women who’ve taught me, those with whom I’ve organised, campaigned, marched and demonstrated, those who cannot be named, and those who are unknown to me. I called the blog Pollyanna because I’m often criticised for being ‘Pollyannaish’ – too optimistic. Pollyanna is the heroine of a novel, Pollyanna, written by Elanor Porter in 1913. Her book has also been made into a number of movies. Pollyanna’s philosophy of life centres on what she calls ‘the glad game’. The game consists of finding something to be glad about in every situation. In some parts of the world ‘pollyanna’ also means a gift exchange. When I originally created these posts, I received a couple of criticisms regarding the women I’d chosen. So, I wish to make it clear that, whatever my own differences with these amazing women, this blog was written in the spirit of Pollyanna.
On Valentine’s Day 2019, I joined my two dear friends Melanie Barnes and Alexander Brown in Tokyo to discuss love as a form of class power. They recorded our conversation for the first episode of their podcast – Love From Tokyo. I was in Japan to attend the Love as Politics seminar at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. My talk at the symposium addressed the importance of care in social movements and argued that love is increasingly being recognised as key to building alternatives to the social relations of capital. In the podcast, we expand on political uses of love, its neglect on the political left, and how love can serve as the basis for building proletarian power.
You can listen to the podcast here
You can listen to my seminar presentation at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies here.
In September 2018, I was invited to speak at an Illawarra Greens public forum about the impacts of casualisation, insecurity, and poverty, and what we can do about them. The other speakers were Dr Kate Bowles from the University of Wollongong (UOW), Greens MLC David Shoebridge, and South Coast Labour Council Secretary Arthur Rorris. It was an interesting, informative and constructive evening, where I met some lovely people and caught-up with old friends. Here’s my contribution to the discussion.
After being unemployed for many years, I began working at Wollongong University 23 years ago, firstly for their academic development services – as a casual on a series of short term contracts, then as a recruitment officer for the academic’s union, the NTEU, as a casual on a number of short term contracts, and for the past 12 years as an academic, as a casual on a series of 13 week contracts. These contracts could all be cancelled at any time; they offer no job security, no commitment to on-going employment, no sick pay, and no holiday pay. In order to survive the summer break, I have another job driving a bus. Because I work at 3 different workplaces it‘s hard to keep-up with what’s happening at each of them, to attend meetings, or to stay in touch with my workmates. I’m more in touch with my students, and I know that they’re usually engaged in casual precarious work; over-worked and stressed out, and increasingly anxious about their futures.
Unemployment in Wollongong is higher than the national average; more people are joining the ranks of the working poor, while they work longer hours, and for more years of their lives. Many of Wollongong’s unemployed are economically and socially marginalised, condemned to a life of poverty. The major political parties deliberately punish poor people by cutting their incomes. At the same time, Work for the Dole schemes establish a “reserve army” of vulnerable workers, forced to work for no pay and lacking basic rights. These forms of punishment and discipline compel the jobless to serve as a both a danger and a warning to those in waged work, helping to maintain a climate of fear which stifles workers’ struggles.
Attacks on worker’s rights, anti-union laws, decades of employer-friendly changes in labour standards, and the erosion of the minimum and social wage, have all contributed to a massive redistribution of income. Across Australia, the richest 1% now own more than the bottom 70%. Wage stagnation and household debts are near record levels. Wage theft is rampant. 40% of workers are in insecure work and half of employed young people are in casual jobs. At UOW, 75% of teaching is done by casuals.
Neoliberal management techniques foster insecurity making it hard to keep up with the constant restructuring of work, and the rapid technological, organisational, and global transformations in production, distribution & consumption. Many of these transformations are deliberately aimed at disrupting and demolishing our ability to organise collectively. The lack of job security undermines our ability to fight for wage rises and is used to enforce more intensive work regimes and longer work hours. The insecurities of our work and incomes are also connected to the instability of the economic and political systems, and the existential threat to much of life on earth. We live in a time of intensifying insecurity – in a world where the dominant system of organising our lives is uncertain, unsafe, and unsustainable.
Reflecting this uncertainty, the social power of trade unions is diminishing due to changing class composition, job losses, strict industrial laws, and co-option by corporate states. Traditional unionism is unable to represent a variety of contractors, mobile and flexible workers, domestic workers, students, unemployed people, cash-in-hand workers, and the poor. Today less than fourteen per cent of employed people hold a union ticket. Membership among young workers is down to 5%.
Currently we have a campaign to ‘Change the Rules’, focused on more secure jobs and fair pay rises. However, many are sceptical of the campaign when we recall the ALP’s long history of betrayal. The previous Labor government was elected following the Your Rights at Work campaign against the Howard Government’s ‘WorkChoices’ industrial laws. Yet when the ALP returned to power in 2007, it did so on a platform almost as draconian as Work Choices. I know that Arthur and other union leaders have acknowledged the failures of the previous campaign and pledged to ‘hold every government to account until the rules are changed.’ Yet past experience, and the rhetoric of many unionists, suggests the ‘Change the Rules’ campaign is still mainly about electing a Labor government.
While I’m hopeful the defeat of the current government will see action to address casualisation and low pay, the ALP is refusing to scrap restrictions on industrial action which previous labor governments introduced. And let’s not forget Bill Shorten has admitted that under his leadership the Australian Workers’ Union negotiated agreements with bosses which left workers, especially casual workers, much worse off. For these reasons and more – we must assert the independence of unions from the ALP and build democracy at a grass roots level both in our workplaces and the wider community.
Transformations in the nature of work require us to change how we think about the way workers organise. Flexibility, mobility, and casual work can have advantages for workers – but it depends on who has power over the work and how it’s done. The relationship between workers’ bargaining power, casualisation, and wages growth is now a hot topic. There’s also widespread concern that we lack control over our lives and that more and more of our time is being sacrificed to the competitive and hard-hearted pursuit of ‘making a living’ in an increasingly ruthless struggle to ‘get ahead’. So let’s be clear – these concerns are about class power – who has it and who doesn’t. And we should recognise that those fostering fear and insecurity, impoverishment and exploitation, often act together to further their own collective interests – that is they act as a ruling class.
Currently, at Wollongong University, management are refusing to bargain around our demands for better wages and less casualisation. The NTEU bargaining team has spent countless hours compiling information, consulting, and negotiating, with little headway being made. As our union has learned from the past, it is when we take collective action, bringing our power to bear on the operations of the university, that the management starts to move. This is not evidence-based policy, or a shift due to finding a convincing argument, this is about our ability to organise ourselves and demonstrate our strength.
Class power is constructed around solidarity – and at a recent NTEU meeting we discussed the university’s decision to give permanent employees a $1000 bonus, an offer which wasn’t extended to casual staff. So instead of letting management decide who would be counted and valued as workers, union members offered solidarity to precarious staff by donating bonus money to compensate them when they take industrial action. Similar solidarity has recently been demonstrated by the South Coast Labour Council, when students organised themselves and spoke out against exploitation and wage theft in the local hospitality industries, helping them win back wages and expose their bosses to ongoing action. The SCLC has also developed a range of innovative measures aimed at supporting student workers and their on-going ability to self-organise.
Meanwhile, people are increasingly fed-up with the traditional political process, widely distrusting those claiming to represent them. The most popular politicians in the English-speaking world are Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. They’re especially popular among young people – the most casualised, poor, and insecure workers. Perhaps this is because they say – electing people isn’t the solution to our problems, instead we need powerful social movements to fight for progressive political, economic, and community transformations. Fortunately, these movements are already being constructed via a multitude of existing struggles and the widespread creation of alternative social relations.
Since the current economic system has a limited future, many people are looking beyond traditional understandings of incomes and wages. While wage rises can help to redistribute wealth, they won’t address growing inequality and poverty if prices rise, or when the value of wage rises is manipulated, or if the unwaged remain impoverished. Promotion of a Universal Basic Income is becoming more popular, so wealth can be redistributed from those who have it to those who don’t, by taxing the rich and corporations to fund social security and social justice. A living wage for all, one that allows people without jobs to live comfortable lives, can acknowledge the social contributions of unemployed people; it can mean greater freedom to choose the amounts and forms of work we wish to do and help us to refuse crap jobs. Since the minimum wage currently leaves workers in poverty, a UBI would need to be significantly more than that.
Many people’s desires for a better life are expressed in recognition that waged work is undermining social relationships, in concerns about the ‘quality of life’, and struggles over ‘family and work time’. The uneven distribution of paid work means that while large numbers of people are unemployed or ‘underemployed’ and casualisation is increasing, a significant proportion of waged workers want less work, even if this involves a loss of income. Dismantling destructive forms of labour and using productivity improvements for shorter work hours, rather than more output, could mean that technological advancements go towards creating richer lives while reducing ecological impacts, giving us more time for what’s most valuable – our relationships, environments, and communities.
Caring work tends to be poorly paid and we have recently seen nurses and aged care workers demanding action on staffing ratios and childcare workers taking strike action for decent wages. Care workers are under pressure due to constant cuts, erosion of working conditions, and the continual re-organisation of their work. This situation reflects a more general pattern where our ability to care is under attack. Meanwhile, humanity’s survival hinges on the preservation and extension of relationships that nurture the biosphere. Many social movements are now concerned with the creation of healthier environments, focussed equally on humans and the nonhuman world in a dynamic of interdependence and love.
We are at a major turning point in history and there will be no jobs or incomes if we don’t rapidly and radically transform work, the economy, and life in general. Rather than relying on bosses, governments, or bureaucracies, we need to educate ourselves, find our common interests, and support each other. Struggles are the greatest teachers and as we seek to change the world, we can experiment with different ways of doing and living. As we do this, the obstacles we face and who is putting them there, becomes clearer. In the face of widespread despair, we can encourage hope – built on the development of existing alternatives and our ability to create positive change. In response to the many problems facing us – we can work with each other, learn together, and collectively organise our own better futures.
This post is an edited and adapted version of a seminar paper presented at Newcastle University on December 6, 2018.
We are living through a revolutionary period with competing radical potentials. Over the past decade, militant movements have included widespread struggles for democracy and the development of experiments with various forms of direct and participatory self-organisation. The response from capital and its state forms has been an extensive and forceful backlash. The consolidation of neoliberal authoritarianism and the rise of the ‘alt-right’ involves the utilisation of revolutionary praxes, developed by those building alternatives to capitalism, by the forces of reaction seeking to reconfigure it. As the need to radically transform the dominant system becomes increasingly clear, we are challenged by multiple revolts that proffer both great danger and tremendous promise.
Today capitalism is in crisis, with humanitarian, military, economic, political, social and most importantly environmental disasters widespread. Even a fairly conservative body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is calling for a radical transformation of global politics, economics, and society in general, including a massive and rapid redistribution of wealth and power, firing-up an environmental movement which increasingly appreciates the need for revolutionary change.
Over the past twenty years, there has been a wave of global rebellion. In the early part of the millennium, the so-called ‘anti-globalisation’ movement in fact constructed an alternative form of globalisation to protest and challenge neoliberalism. The movement was, or perhaps is, a form of democratic self-organisation made up of a complex ‘network of networks’ or ‘movement of movements’. The movement exercised power through multilayered forms of organisation and through often temporary structures, affinity groups, activist circles, collectives and coalitions, most famously, organising massive protests outside meetings of the global elite, attended by hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world. After it was violently suppressed and the global ‘war on terror’ was launched, the ‘alter-globalisation’ movement transformed itself into the largest ever global peace movement, in opposition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the militarisation and terrorisation of society.
A few years later, following the Global Financial Crisis, anti-austerity movements occupied squares, universities and banks. A popular uprising in Greece sparked ‘fear of Europe in flames’ and was soon followed by a wave of strikes and workplace occupations against retrenchments and wage cuts from Canada to Turkey, from Argentina to South Korea. In North Africa, the Middle East and the Arabian Peninsula the Arab Spring revolutions toppled dictatorships and destabilised authoritarian regimes. At the same time, the Occupy movement transformed streets and parks all over the world in a challenge to the tyranny of the one percent. In Japan a powerful anti-nuclear movement arose after the Fukushima disaster, calling into question the ability of the state to protect the population, and inspiring similar movements in Germany, Italy and elsewhere. In South America, we saw years of radical upheaval including the so-called ‘pink tide’ of anti-neoliberal governments and a wide range of anti-capitalist experiments against, within, and beyond capitalist state forms. During the last few years the level of protests, strikes and rural uprisings has significantly increased in China, India, and Bangladesh, while Indonesia and Vietnam have seen growing workers’ unrest and militant social movements around environmental and other issues. More recently, we have again seen mass protests for increased public spending, peace and justice in much of South America, general strikes in Costa Rica and Brazil, and now the streets, worksites, and schools of France are blockaded by yellow vest protesters. Meanwhile the uprising of indigenous people across the globe remains at the forefront of radical struggles against dominant development models and for ‘real democracy’.
In the United States, recent immigrant worker strikes have been the largest work-stoppages in the nation’s history and after sweeping across the U.S. the Black Lives Matter movement has become a global phenomenon. Since Trump became president, America’s four largest ever protest marches have occurred – the two women’s marches, last year’s Earth Day march in defence of climate science, and this year’s March for Our Lives against school shootings, gun violence, and the gun lobby’s political influence. Unprecedented protests have also erupted at American airports to oppose the regime’s immigration bans, while sanctuary networks, structured largely on a neighbourhood-to-neighbourhood basis, have been established in hundreds of US cities to support immigrant families living under the threat of deportation. Meanwhile workers have organised powerful actions for better wages and conditions, importantly among minimum wage and precarious sectors including the gig economy, as well as the largest prison labour strike in US history. These are just some examples of contemporary insurrections helping to destabilise the status quo.
‘Real Democracy’ and the ‘Alt-Right’
In the face of widespread revolt we are witnessing political polarisation and what’s often called a ‘crisis of democracy’. Faced with the corruption of political representation, there are widespread attempts to reclaim the concept of democracy in its radical, utopian sense: the absolute democracy of ‘the rule of everyone by everyone’. Many social movements see democracy as central, challenging the anti-democratic power of existing institutions and processes, refusing to be represented, aiming powerful critiques against government structures and advocating the inclusive and open involvement of direct democracy. Despite their differences, movements of democratic revolt have shared tactics and strategies, including a collective civil disobedience which constructs ‘autonomous zones’ by seizing and creating space for struggles that are not controlled or limited by previously established political apparatus, where more democratic politics can be experimented with. Importantly, rather than just making demands of governments and corporations, democracy movements have created alternative places, occasions and practices, where the struggle for democracy becomes more clearly the contestation of existing state forms.
The reaction from elites has mainly involved attempts to curtail democracy, while escalating attacks on those who are struggling to defend and create it. As these struggles have intensified, we have witnessed the emergence of the ‘alt-right’, an ill-defined movement, made up of various people, organisations and institutions. Michael Moore, one of the few left-wingers to predict Trump’s election victory, explained that he would win the Presidency because people were sick of the current political system and wanted to throw a Molotov cocktail at Washington. While Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief election strategist, explains the rise of the ‘alt-right’ as a “worker’s revolution”, an uprising aimed at “getting decision making away from global elites and back to working people and middle class people.” Yet, the ‘alt-right’ is generally dismissive of democracy. While denouncing elite rule and deep state manipulation, they often view the so-called ‘normie’ public as ‘sheeple’, and see their own leadership task as reinventing social and political structures with strong authority, where powerful leaders can make the hard decisions and enforce emergency measures; a vision of centralised power becoming more popular with people who feel besieged, vulnerable, and disillusioned with representative democracy.
The global trend toward far-right populism is today aided and abetted by major global powers – including the USA, China, Russia, India, Saudi Arabia, and now Brazil. But to help understand the tendencies of our current period we should also recall that capitalism has always been fascistic and that neoliberalism was launched in Chile by the Pinochet dictatorship. From then on, neoliberal states have introduced more repressive laws governing protests, strikes, behaviour, speech, movement, use of public space, and other civil rights, increased surveillance and the practices of control, including preventative detention without charge, travel restrictions, roundups, deportations, concentration camps, torture, assassinations and mass murder. I have previously explored moves towards “a fully privatised war built to have no end”; how global corporations, governments and military elites sponsor the ‘planned chaos’ and widespread violence which are the lifeblood of the ‘free market’. Here we can see the rise of fascistic ‘security industries’, mercenary armies and ‘security states’ expanding and profiting from global civil war, as economic, political and social chaos fosters viciously competitive gangs.
The growing influence of the ‘alt-right’ is indicated here in Australia by right-wing movements moving further to the right, including a hard-right turn in the Liberal Party and recent revelations that neo-Nazi groups had infiltrated the Young Nationals. Less than six months after ‘alt-right’ provocateur Lauren Southern wore an “It’s OK to be white” T-shirt when she landed in Australia, Senator Fraser Anning was sharing memes about “white pride” online and calling for a “final solution to immigration” in the Senate. Soon after, Pauline Hanson put up a motion calling for recognition of the “rise of anti-white racism and attacks on Western civilisation” and asked the Senate to acknowledge “it’s okay to be white”. When this motion was narrowly voted down, Channel Seven News ran a poll on whether anti-white racism was “on the rise”, with nearly 145,000 people voting, 57% said it was. Meanwhile, we have the black shirts of the border force carrying out dawn raids on people of colour, an ultra-right threat appearing on our streets, continuing racist militarism, and our own torture and death camps which have inspired an ‘alt-right’ crackdown on migrants across the globe, helping to transform international norms, undermine global concepts of human rights, and fostering a degeneration into barbarism.
Sadly in much of the world things look even worse. In response to the Arab Spring, it is in the Middle East and Africa where the most intense counter-revolutionary violence has been unleashed, involving local and international armed forces fostering widespread terror. Recent media attention has also focused on the mass murdering Saudi dictatorship which is both brazenly killing its opponents, while unleashing vicious devastation on the people of Yemen. In the past few years, we have seen coups in Egypt, as well as Honduras and Thailand, and the military in Myanmar has been carrying out a pogrom against the Rohingya, with the aid of fascist Buddhist gangs. In Japan a far-right resurgence has taken hold of the government; the Israeli state is now widely criticised for descending into fascism; and Turkey is run by a nationalist, authoritarian, militarised regime. We also have narco-states in Mexico and Colombia and crime gangs largely running El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Russia and many former Soviet republics are dominated by various mafias and criminal oligarchs in league with fascistic state forms. In the Ukraine openly fascist groups helped to lead a successful revolt against the government and are now part of the ruling apparatus. Xenophobic and authoritarian regimes are in power in Hungary and Poland. Far-right figures have been occupying the interior ministries of Germany, Austria, and Italy and in France the neo-Nazi National Front is now the mainstream opposition party. Meanwhile, China is perhaps the most important model of efficient and effective authoritarian development, with ‘ruler for life’, Xi Xin Ping, intensifying a crackdown on left-wing dissent.
Of course it’s Trump’s Presidency focusing most attention on the rise of the ‘alt-right’. Although Bernie Sanders remains the most popular politician in the US, Trumpism has successfully channeled widespread anger with the political and economic establishment into the intensification of neoliberalism. While challenging key neoliberal ideas – such as free trade – the Trump administration has made government more like a business than ever before, and now has the wealthiest cabinet in history. Most of those in charge of government departments are publicly committed to privatising their functions or eliminating them. Spending on healthcare, education, aid to the poor, foreign aid, & environmental protection has been slashed and spending on the military & police increased. While Trump’s blunt rhetoric and vicious policies have been shocking; he has brazenly pulled the mask off long-term fascistic practices of American administrations. A couple of weeks ago, shortly after defending the murderous Saudi dictatorship, Trump declared that anti-fascists in the United States had better hope their opposition “decides not to mobilise . . . Because if you look, the other side, it’s the military. It’s the police. It’s a lot of very strong, a lot of very tough people. Tougher than them. And smarter than them . . . Potentially much more violent.”
Meanwhile, the recent election of Jair Bolsonaro as president of Brazil has raised further alarm about a descent into fascism. Bolsonaro was the favoured candidate of big business, the armed forces, and the Trump regime. He is now militarising the government and aims to give the army and police free reign to suppress any opposition, including giving “carte blanche for the police to kill” and torture. He has vowed to “end activism in Brazil” and eradicate NGOs, blaming economic crisis and social problems on the left, progressive social movements, queers, feminists, Afro-Brazilians, and the Indigenous. In the past, Bolsonaro has stated that 30,000 people would need to be killed in a civil war against communists before democracy was possible in Brazil. Just before his election victory, he promised a “cleansing never seen before in this country” and has spoken openly of wanting to criminalise social movements, such as the Landless Workers’ Movement. In the days before his election, army raids were carried out on universities to remove anti-fascist materials. Since the election, heavily armed police have attended classes to interview professors about the content of their lectures. A bill now moving its way through the Brazilian Congress, would bar teachers and academics from expressing their political views in the classroom, and ban subjects related to inequality or the factors that cause it, as well as the use of the terms “gender” and “sexual orientation.”
Complexity of the ‘Alt-Right’
The ‘alt-right’ is diverse and complex, often deploying various characteristics of liberation struggles and reflecting ‘real democracy’ movements in distorted ways. For example, much has been made of the ‘alt-right’s’ successful appeal to those in the working class who have lost their economic privileges and social power as a result of capitalist globalisation processes. The ‘alt-right’ denounces the job displacing and poverty producing impacts of globalisation and exposes the complicity of various elites in the creation of inequality, unemployment, and precarity. In response to these concerns ‘alt-right’ organisations, politicians and governments push a range of policies from hyper-neoliberal agendas right through to increasing welfare payments.
The struggle for ‘real democracy’ has involved a widespread rejection of nationalism, with solidarity movements reaching across borders, while organising alternative forms of globalisation. Meanwhile, reactionary forces have responded to globalisation by tapping into people’s emotional attachments to the nation and their fear of change, promoting divisive responses to concerns that ‘foreign’ powers have too much control over their lives. Today, we can see more clearly how the defence of the nation leads to fundamentalism and fascism, attempting to break human solidarity, divide people and pit them against each other. This includes the erection of border walls in many parts of the world to help keep us separated, with much of the ‘alt-right’s’ activity attacking the global freedom and autonomy migration movements of those seeking a better life. Yet, while nationalism is a key framework for the ‘alt-right’, the movement is also a form of alter-globalisation, including the development of a fascist international as an organised political project. Steve Bannon, for instance, promotes the ‘alt-right’s’ ‘anti-establishment’ struggle as a “global operation” against the “elites” and the “liberal post-war international order”, built by constructing a “connective tissue” of right-wing movements into a “global revolution”.
From its emergence, capitalism has always been counter-revolutionary, but its reactions to democratic revolts are more ferocious when facing demolition or collapse. The rise of the ‘alt-right’ and the accompanying authoritarianism of hyper-neoliberalism are violent responses to historical and contemporary rebellions, from the legacies of 1968 to more recent opposition to global capitalism. Many of the ‘alt-right’s’ tactics have been seen before, but we’re also seeing the deployment of more sophisticated strategies and techniques to counter progressive movements. The ‘alt-right’ seeks to both strangle and harness anti-capitalist rebellions in order to eliminate all opposition, dominate completely, and rule without question. And while these are the traditional aims of fascism, the ‘alt-right’ has involved a shift from top-down structures, employing more egalitarian and anarchic anti-elitist politics, to help maintain social hierarchies and to establish new and different ones.
The ‘alt-right’ can be seen as reactionary and conservative, responding to the struggles for ‘real democracy’ and seeking to preserve or protect the social order. However, the strategic vision of the ‘alt-right’ is also revolutionary, attempting to overthrow what exists, to transform the way power and property is distributed, and to create a futuristic dystopia. Fascist movements articulate a ‘revolutionary’ ideology, posing as the ‘real’ radicals, more anti-establishment than the left, who they accuse of being part of the status-quo. The ‘alt-right’ promote themselves as rule breakers and defiers of social convention, rebelling against state and institutional regulation, and seeking to overthrow those in power; as well as posing as the defenders of traditional authority and privilege, and the protectors of civil liberties – like ‘freedom of speech’ – from those they claim are the real fascists – ‘red fascists’, ‘PC Nazis’, and ‘femonazis’.
The ‘alt-right’, like the left, organises along both reformist and revolutionary lines. In the USA this has been described as a two-track fascism, with both an electoral track closely aligned with Wall Street, pursuing a policy agenda which cloaks unpopular neoliberal measures behind nationalist rhetoric and ‘culture-war’ policy fights, and a street-level track, organised outside of official political processes, where violent gangs try to wrest control of the streets and the public sphere from democratic forces. Yet it’s hard to distinguish between the ‘alt-right’ groupings working within-and-for the continuation of traditional state structures and those working within-and-against those structures, towards their dissolution. We should remember that fascism was born at a time when anti-capitalism was broadly popular, that fascist parties used various state forms to carry out their radical plans, and how the widespread desire for revolution was used to overthrow the old order by the Fascisti who emerged from the Italian Socialist Party and those in Germany who called themselves National Socialists, even though the Italian Fascists declared war on socialism and the Nazi Party was based on the militias used to crush the German Revolution.
Much of the traditional left argue we are now seeing the rise of reactionary & fascist forces without a revolutionary situation. Looking for previous modes of rebellion, they point to the lack of mass parties of the left and old-fashioned forms of working class configuration. However, history is not repeating itself. Neither contemporary struggles for democracy nor the movements against it are following previous paths. Those seeking to build left-wing organisations often neglect the power of radical social movements and tend to view the diffuse power of grass roots revolts as disorganised and ephemeral. Unlike much of the ‘alt-right’, they fail to grasp the potentials of fluid, mobile, decentralised and horizontal forms of self-organisation. This failure to understand the complexity of social struggles is also behind arguments that fascists are not establishing mass movements, downplaying the ability of networked organisational forms to powerfully mobilise millions of people.
When we think of social movements we tend to think about the left and democratic ones. These are the movements which have most powerfully transformed the world in the past few decades. However, the rising attacks on democracy demonstrates that much of social movement theory and practice can be utilised by right-wing civil society as it moves into spaces which were until recently dominated by progressive causes. Right-wing populism is often centred on political parties or charismatic leaders, however the role of grassroots movements is also important. For example, Bolsonaro’s success in Brazil follows years of support from powerful social movements; Islamist civil society in Turkey has strongly backed the authoritarian regime of President Erdogan; in Thailand, anti-democratic movements have helped to underpin military rule; in India, the Hindu nationalist movement is a crucial foundation for Prime Minister Modi’s policies; in Poland, conservative civil society works closely with the far-right government; and in the Philippines the murderous Duterte government was initially supported by a wide variety of movements from the left and right.
Across the globe the ‘alt-right’ is developing a radical mass insurgent character which depends on network forms of organisation and technology. Those engaged in planning counter-revolution have identified ‘swarming’ as the main strategy of networked conflict. The challenge is to become a network in order to effectively fight a network. So the ‘alt-right’ uses decentralised organisational forms, as well as traditional forms, helping to produce a variety of fascisms in a complex movement of movements and network of networks, which is diverse and multi-pronged.
Network organising is of course facilitated by communication and technology revolutions, which have assisted democratic experiments and a decentralisation of power, as well as creating new forms of centralised power, inequality, and exclusion. Those struggling for democracy have made innovative use of communication networks to circulate information and analysis and to foster people’s collective and collaborative participation in social change, bypassing and challenging entrenched power structures. While, at times, authoritarian states have used the blunt force of shutting down the internet, the global battle for control of news, social media, and information has spurred right-wing forces to map, study, and follow the lead of progressive social movements, helping them adapt to the new forms of struggle and develop more complex counter-insurgency methods, assisted by tech companies, intelligence agencies, public relations, data analysis and security firms.
Many on the right appreciate the internet and social media as revolutionary ways to connect with people, exploiting the libertarian potentials of open platforms to build grassroots movements for change. As a cultural and intellectual movement the ‘alt-right’ is shaping how people think about society, popularising far-right ideology, and shifting mainstream activities and debates by expanding what’s acceptable to say and do. For many years, the spreading virus of far-right disinformation, memes, and propaganda has been facilitated by a troll army poisoning online and public forums of discussion and debate. Many ‘alt-right’ activists only operate online, as part of a decentralised network functioning as an ideological weapon for authoritarian personalities, political formations, and processes. Here the ‘alt-right’ continuously adapts and transforms itself, while providing support and nourishment to its more mainstream propaganda outlets like Fox News, Infowars and Breitbart.
The Affective Turn
Elsewhere I have written about the ‘affective turn’ in politics (see posts below for more) and how experiments in autonomy and direct democracy have been established on the basis of solidarity and love. This new politics is centred on “the creation of loving and trusting spaces” where direct democracy fosters a collective agency which “changes the sense of the individual and the sense of the collective”. This understanding of the connections between micro and macro politics is at the heart of a vast array of solidarity teams, which can include your family, work mates, friends, allies, as well as people you’ve never met, constructing reciprocal caring relationships and networks of social support which can help people create living alternatives to capitalism face to face, in neighbourhoods, communities, and online. Love and care are crucial to democracy, as democratic power is constructed around forms of solidarity which respects and accommodates differences while countering divisions. ‘Real democracy’ struggles are focused on intersectionality, cooperation and collaboration, where movements manage conflict through communication, debate, collective support and mutual aid. Democratic organisational forms do not cancel difference, but act in a diversity of ways through difference, to produce commonalities.
The ‘alt-right’ has also demonstrated its ability to address the ‘affective turn’ and develop common forms of struggle – but these are focused on sectionality, forming coalitions based on wedge politics and sowing divisions. Among the commonalities of the ‘alt-right’ are ideas of purity, xenophobia, racism, nationalism, homophobia, misogyny, authoritarianism and opposition to democracy. Here toughness, rather than sensitivity, is considered powerful and effective with much of the psychology of the ‘alt-right’ revolving around the triggering and manipulation of emotions – viewing people’s emotional vulnerabilities as weaknesses which can be exposed, denounced, and exploited. So-called ‘snowflakes’, especially those displaying sympathy, care and compassion, are seen as weak, and in response to widespread struggles for greater safety, the ‘alt-right’ fosters danger and an assault on the most marginalised, aiming to relentlessly pit differences, identities and individualities against each other, intensifying conflict and competition.
Capitalism is constantly erecting barriers and obstacles to love, atomising caring social networks and violently destroying compassionate social relationships. This situation reflects a more general pattern, where our ability to care is under attack, where frustration and anger is being channeled into a crisis of compassion, and where many people become resigned to not caring and to ‘letting it all burn’. Meanwhile, the right can attract those feeling angry, lonely and alienated by offering a sense of community and togetherness with the idea that you should care, but only about yourself and your ‘own people’. So, while the ‘alt-right’ is a movement that powerfully mobilises around hate, it also rallies around love; the love of shared identities, ethnic ancestries, or cultural identifications.
Although much attention has focused on nationalism and the politics of race, the ‘alt-right’ is also responding to the global wave of feminist action. Women and their labour are at the heart of social reproduction – the reproduction of capitalism and the reproduction of non-capitalist alternatives. Therefor women’s liberation is crucial to the struggles for ‘real democracy’ and the domination of women is essential to the counter-revolutionary projects of the ‘alt-right’. MeToo, International Women’s strikes, and mobilisations around safety, reproductive rights, and caring work are part of a growing transnational movement for women’s autonomy and emancipation for all; whereas the ‘alt-right’s’ assault on democracy involves the defence and extension of hegemonic masculinity, a rise in hate crimes against women, the emergence of the Incel and Men’s Rights movements, the targeting of outspoken feminists in an attempt to scare, silence them, or worse, as well as the mobilisation of womanhood as a representation of traditional families, ‘family values’, and gender roles. So it’s not surprising that this month’s Australian speaking tour by Gavin McInnes, founder of the ‘alt-right’ Proud Boys, a self-described men’s ‘support group’ encouraged to use violence in order to ‘reclaim what feminism has taken away from men’, was being funded by the publisher of Penthouse magazine. A promotional video for the recently cancelled tour praised McInnes as “the leader of the patriarchy, the ultimate male, the legendary Western warrior”, while he talked about punching people in the face and footage showed him doing exactly that, McInnes stated: “This is a civil war. My job is to fight.”
The Regime Must End
So, let’s be clear – this is a civil war and fascism and war go hand in hand. We often forget that we’re at war, that a ‘war on terror’ was declared nearly twenty years ago, a global war meant to have no end. Since then there have been a series of invasions and continuous fighting which involves all of us in the power struggles within capitalism’s global hierarchies. As well as reflecting inter-capitalist competition, civil war is a response to the upsurge of democratic uprisings and rebellions. When the ideological facades defending corporations and capitalist states are exposed, the ruling class is left with little more than the exercise of force to protect itself. This is why recent revolts have included mutinies against security and surveillance states, against the power of armed forces, against unending war, against the militarisation of society, and police repression. The predictable response from authorities has been to try and terrify us, to convince us that we are a danger to each other; that only a strong state, more repressive laws, greater spending on armed forces, increased surveillance and violence can protect us.
We are now at a major turning point in history. The old capitalist order is disintegrating and the whole biosphere is being rapidly transformed. When we look back at the tumultuous period of our recent past it is sobering to consider that the pace of change is likely to accelerate and intensify. Late capitalism is increasingly disaster capitalism and from its inception neoliberalism has been a counter-revolutionary anti-democratic project. The ‘alt-right’, as a manifestation of this project, is utilising revolutionary rhetoric, tactics, and strategies, with their vision, ideology, movements, and regimes focused on creating a more authoritarian world. It is becoming clear there can be no ‘return to normal’ and we should shed the illusion of a democratic capitalist state which can be relied on to protects us from danger. While some capitalist state forms are worse than others, radical change is required to halt a systemic death spiral, and it’s up to us to organise it.
The ‘alt-right’ cannot solve systemic crises, and while authoritarian formations cooperate with each other, finding commonality in targeting democratic forces, they also compete with each other in vicious internal squabbles. ‘Alt-right’ groupings have also been infiltrated, exposed, and weakened by anti-Nazis, and their coalitions have collapsed in the face of counter-actions and movements. As I was writing this paper, tens of thousands of people took to the streets of London to march against racism and fascism and in Brazil, fascism and how to fight it was being openly discussed on campuses around the country, with thousands packing auditoriums to help organise resistance. A massive mobilisation against the ‘alt-right’ has also occurred on the streets of American towns and cities and in many other parts of the world, including a recent protest in Berlin by up to a quarter of a million people.
For those who doubt the ability of diverse, fluid and dispersed networks to make decisions and take powerful collective action, recent revolts have shown how movements can collaboratively organise formidable capacities and coalesce around common needs and desires, despite their differences. As I finish off this piece, my thoughts have turned to France where the ‘Yellow Vests’ uprising has raised many of the concerns considered here. Frustrated with the inability, or unwillingness, of left parties or trade unions to defend their interests, people have taken it upon themselves to halt Macron’s neoliberal regime via militant action. Popular insurrection and a social strike against the ‘President of the Rich’ and deepening inequality has involved widespread occupations of various social spaces, as well as what Naomi Klein calls ‘blockadia’, where ‘the whole of social life’ is increasingly seen as the terrain of struggle. Within this terrain both right-wing and left-wing forces are mobilised; however many participants are not so easily identified. Meanwhile, as the media has explained; Government efforts to prepare for the protests are “hampered by the grassroots movement having no formal organisation or leadership” and the regime has found it impossible to negotiate with the movement because it has no representatives or agreed demands.
So, Paris is locked-down, ninety thousand police and sections of the army are deployed on the streets, along with armoured vehicles, and their pre-emptive violence includes mass round-ups of striking school children. Yet this fails to deter the rapidly constructed communities of militant struggle, which continue to take to the streets, demonstrating their differences and common concerns. Here people construct alternative social relations where personal, local, national and mutual needs can be more directly addressed, where participatory democracy is more practical, and where forms of cooperative organisation, which materially undermines the divisions imposed by capital and its state forms, are produced.
It’s unclear where the current revolts will lead and the struggles for democracy will be very long. For, if we want rich and rewarding lives, authentic and loving relationships, decent work and living conditions, sustainable development and environmental protection, we need to create and recreate these every day. It is when we stop looking to those who hold power over us for solutions, and construct those solutions ourselves, that democracy is understood not just as a goal, but as our ability to organise and govern our everyday lives. As the young people who organised the recent climate change school strike clearly articulated – this is a time to take action; a time to appreciate and demonstrate people’s capacity to struggle together, despite our differences; to create progressive social change, and reshape the world for the better. While ruling class forces are fostering and manipulating the self-organisation of an ‘alt-right’ offensive in order to stop us, our self-organisation of democracy, solidarity, love, and freedom continues to offer a multitude of possibilities.
In June 2018, to mark the 20th anniversary of the maritime dispute between Patrick Stevedores and the Howard Government on one side and the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) and the labour movement on the other, Dave Eden and I discussed the formation of Maritime Defence Committees, class struggles during this period, and their relevance today. The discussion was recorded by Dave for ‘Living the Dream’ an anti-capitalist podcast produced in Brisbane. Our discussion is available via this link –
For the past year, the American nightmare has captivated and traumatised us. We find ourselves horrified by what we’ve witnessed, yet are too fearful to look away. Those familiar with this blog will know I have previously posted on advertising during the American Super Bowl in order to explore capital’s attempts to colonise our caring relationships and our loving resistance. This year, despite seeking to avoid the difficulties of commenting on the current divided states of America, as the days passed and various controversies erupted over Super Bowl 2018, I couldn’t help delving back into the heart and soul of the U.S.A..
Previous readers of Revolts Now may have sadly noticed that advertising is now being imposed on this blog, because I don’t pay for the premium ‘no advertising’ version of WordPress. If you have the money you can avoid some advertising, or, of course, you can buy advertising. The spots available during the Super Bowl are by far the most expensive air time on television. In 2014, thirty seconds of advertising during the game cost four million dollars. In 2015, the cost was around five million dollars. This year the average cost was more than that. Advertisers spent a combined $534 million on ads before, during, and after the game last year. This year they spent well over half a billion. Most advertisers budget millions more to preview their Super Bowl spots on YouTube and to promote them on social media.
As I’ve pointed out before, many commodities are marketed as a way of giving or gaining love, or of showing that we care. The purchase of some product, we are told, will make us loved or demonstrate our love for others. Kevin Roberts, CEO of leading global advertising company Saatchi and Saatchi, argues that “the social fabric is spread more thinly than ever. People are looking for new, emotional connections. They are looking for what they can love”. He understands that “love is about action” and this means the corporations he works for require “meaningful” relationships that they foster by embracing consumers and communities and by “inspiring love”. This corporate strategy hopes to cultivate a close emotional connection between consumers and brands. Roberts and the companies that employ him believe that if consumers can be convinced that corporations are interested in love, and that corporations care about them, they will reciprocate and love corporations and their products.
Disaster Corporatism – We’re All in this Together
With much of the divided states of America now gripped by fear, with the fostering of hatred, bigotry and the ‘crisis of compassion’ normalised, and in the face of intensified struggles between progressive movements and radical right forces, countering the tendency towards polarisation was high on the agenda of those seeking to ‘depoliticise’ this year’s Super Bowl. One attempt during the game’s adverts, to straddle growing national fault lines, was Budweiser’s ‘Stand By You’ commercial. Set to the song “Stand by Me,” the ad focused on the company’s delivery of cans of water to people affected by recent disasters in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and California.
Responses to disaster can foster and promote ideas that ‘we’re all in this together’, and with recent catastrophes in the U.S. clearly demonstrating the callous disregard and inadequacy of various state forms, ‘disaster philanthropy’ is becoming more popular. As I’ve highlighted in a number of other posts, when tragedies befall people, the common scenario involves their friends, family, neighbours, and communities stepping in to care for them. This ‘disaster communism’ is an area of interest for those seeking to harness the power of love in order to make a buck. Corporations promoting themselves as supporting family and community ties, who are apparently socially concerned, or social justice-oriented, seek to reconfigure purchasing as a communal act, positioning consumer choice as a site of responsibility, where states promote ‘self-reliance’ and corporations seek to portray themselves as interested in, and committed to, solidarity, love, and care.
However, viewers remain sceptical of such corporate positioning, with many asking why Budweiser didn’t simply donate the cost of the commercial to disaster relief? The company declined to say how much their ‘relief program’ was worth, while social media debates about the ad centred on the price tag, and the amount it cost to provide around 2 million cans of water. The beer conglomerate which owns Budweiser aired six commercials during Super Bowl 2018, for a total of four minutes of ads worth tens of millions of dollars.
The ad has been viewed more than twenty million times on YouTube alone, and has garnered interest for using its own brewery workers rather than actors. Here we discover that these ads are not only aimed at consumers but, perhaps more importantly, at the corporation’s workforce.
According to Forbes American business magazine, ‘Stand by You’ “tugs at the heartstrings because actual employees are at its heart . . . reminding leaders that employees feel good about working at brands that do good.” According to Forbes; “The ads represent months of research, hundreds of hours of planning by marketing teams, dozens of scripts, and 14-hour days of filming. Budweiser has done its research, discovering that real stories of actual employees create stronger brand loyalty and employee engagement . . . (the) Budweiser ad for Super Bowl 2018 is an extension of a brand campaign that leverages the power of storytelling to make an emotional connection with its customers and its employees.”
“In the knowledge economy, the workplace relies heavily on trust, engagement, and goodwill,” writes Duke University behavioural economist, Dan Ariely, in his book Payoff. The importance of making everyone feel “deeply connected to the enterprise” is fundamental to building that relationship, he says. Ariely argues that leaders who infuse their companies with purpose and meaning see a remarkable boost in work quality, morale, productivity, and profits. Meanwhile, the editors of the Australian Institute of Management publication, Love @ Work, propose “serious conversations about love and humanity” to galvanise management and workers by encouraging them “to love their work, love their co-workers and love themselves”. Management experts discuss love as “a leadership tool” which can “strengthen the corporate heart, build profits and create social good”, highlighting the importance of workers’ growing “love affair with their jobs”, and how bosses can “seduce their employees to give their hearts and minds to the office”.
“A Heart full of Grace. . . Soul Generated by Love”
Continuing the theme of companies, people, and products, serving a corporatised America, and in a year when racial politics have been at the heart of so many social struggles, Martin Luther King Jr.’s ideas on community service rang out on televisions across America during Super Bowl LII — in an ad to sell pickup trucks.
The speech used in this Ram ‘Built to Serve’ advertisement was made 50 years ago to the day of the Super Bowl, near the end of King’s life, when he was focused more clearly on the need to confront militarism and capitalism. Although you wouldn’t know it from the Ram ad, his ‘Drum Major Instinct’ sermon was, in part, an examination of the power of advertising. Decrying the ‘instinct’ to put yourself ahead of other people, to ‘lead the parade’, King’s message urges us to recognise this ‘instinct’, harness it for the power of good, to let go of materialism, and our need to feel superior to others. That King’s words were used in an advertisement for pickup trucks, during an orgy of capitalist self-promotion, marking the end of an NFL season in which racial protest was a key element, is yet another ironic cherry on the top of a year of mind-boggling shit.
Despite his faults and failings, Martin Luther King sought to serve the oppressed. While doing so, he described the campaigns for civil rights as a powerful form of love, “the tough and resolute love that refused bitterness and hatred but stood firmly against every shred of injustice.” Joining a widespread outcry over the use of his words in the ‘Built to Serve’ advertisement, and responding to this monstrous mocking of a man, and a vision, many consider part of the true soul of America, a recut version of the Ram commercial quickly deployed other sections of the ‘Drum Major Instinct’ sermon to deliver an alternative message.
While attempts to ‘depoliticise’ this year’s Super Bowl were always going to fail, little media coverage was given to those protesting throughout the venue city of Minneapolis, against the militarisation and hyper-commercialism of the Super Bowl, which included brave people blocking the light rail to the stadium, because on ‘game day’ it was ‘public transportation’ reserved only for those with Super Bowl tickets. However, soon after the game ended, wide-ranging political debates erupted over white privilege and the minimal policing of the ‘riotous’ winning team’s celebrating supporters.
Media attention was also soon focused on the refusal of key Philadelphia Eagles players to visit the White House as the winners traditionally do. Eagle’s wide receiver Torrey Smith, who raised his fist on the field to express solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, expressed his disapproval of Trump’s war against players who take a knee during the national anthem to protest racism. Smith told the media; “You see Donald Trump tweet something … We have those conversations in the locker room, just like everyone else does in the workplace. We’re very informed about what goes on, and we’re trying to continue to educate ourselves.” Eagles defensive end Chris Long, who skipped the White House visit in 2017 when he played for last year’s champions, also won’t be attending. Eagle’s safety Malcolm Jenkins, who raised his fist during the National Anthem with Smith, has also been an outspoken critic of Trump, and is a founder of the Players Coalition a group of NFL players committed to fighting racial injustice. Asked after their Super Bowl win if he had something to say to Trump, Jenkins replied; “I don’t have a message for the president. My message has been clear all year. I’m about creating positive change in the communities that I come from.”
Clearly there is no depoliticisation of sport, of media coverage, of advertising, of life, of solidarity, of care, and of love. Jenkins appreciates the power of his teammate’s message and the ability of sports/media stars to raise awareness of social injustice and advertise political alternatives. As he explains; “I didn’t realise that the platform could be this big until Colin Kaepernick first took a knee,” referring to the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who helped to spark a wave of player activism. “When he did that, that was kind of an ‘aha’ moment for me. I’d already been doing work in the community . . . But when it comes to how to actually amplify your voice, when I saw what Colin Kaepernick did and the amount of coverage and conversation around it, that’s when I truly realised how much influence we have as athletes.”
Jenkins discovered he had locker-room allies in Smith, Long, and other NFL players, as well as strong support from many fans and admirers. Together their stand is a small part of the diverse responses to a variety of American disasters, and just one contribution to the wide-ranging fightback against the politics of hate. These struggles reflect a growing understanding that powerful manipulators and ideologues are pitting people against each other, dividing a class of working people whose genuine needs and desires cannot be met by capitalism. While corporate bosses tout the illusion of a united workforce ‘making America great again’ by boosting profits, genuine solidarity, care, and love are increasingly recognised as the crucial concerns of our daily struggles.
If you see an ad at the end of this post, what is it really selling? Will you buy it? When our hearts and minds are being continually targeted, who do we stand by? Who do we serve? What should we put our hearts and souls into?
‘Look to the Future Now’ is a deceptive title for a post which mostly gives voice to echoes of the past. Those who have read my previous posts will know that I’m interested in what is commonly known as the ‘affective turn’ – especially the importance and power of love. Nostalgia is another form of affect that has grabbed my attention, especially as I’ve gotten older. Having grown-up in England, my childhood memories of the festive season are mostly a series of sentimental Christmas clichés involving snow, ice, carol singers, sledding, church choirs, gift giving, and romanticised family gatherings. Last December, I published a post titled Loving Christmas and concluded by asking; “what would Christmas be without a special song about hope, peace and love?” So this year, inspired by various ‘people’s histories of pop music’, I’m writing about some of the special tunes, especially popular Christmas songs, which have affected me in various ways over the years.
Elsewhere I’ve celebrated the impact of musical cinema, such as the movie Oliver and artists like folk singer Pete Seeger, on my early political education. Throughout the 1960s, I was introduced to the music of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements, and the proliferation of politicised love and peace songs. The first pop Christmas track I remember well was released by John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and the Plastic Ono Band. Happy Xmas (War is Over) debuted in the lead-up to Christmas 1972, reached number four in the UK charts, and has since become a Christmas standard. As the campaign to end the war in Vietnam reached its conclusion, this record was a culmination of John and Yoko’s anti-Vietnam war activism, a more general cry for peace, and an attempt to convey optimism while avoiding the sentimentality that often characterises Christmas music. For a child whose experiences of the past decade had revolved around opposition to the war (I learned to walk delivering anti-war leaflets on council estates in Sheffield with my parents, was regularly traumatised by the war’s atrocity images, awestruck by the huge protests we participated in, and shocked by the police violence in response to them) for me the song struck both an upbeat and downbeat chord, as a pre-emptive celebration of a peaceful future we could hopefully look forward to.
The music of the 1960s continues to be an important influence on me; however it wasn’t until the early 1970s that music became a major part of my persona. Becoming an adolescent during a time of unisex androgynous fashion, and with a family background of rebelliousness, it’s perhaps no surprise that my ‘teeny bop’ years were snared by glam rock band The Sweet. Hearing them first on BBC’s Top of the Pops, the band attracted me with their performances of youth revolt, gender bending, and a series of chart topping hooky tunes. Emerging from the sixties under the influence of a feminist mother and a patriarchal father, I was gleefully ready to join a widespread cultural mutiny against gender norms and stereotypes, embracing ambiguity as much as my parents and school would let me get away with. I rushed out to buy The Sweet’s first single Blockbuster as soon as I heard it and was totally smitten when their next tune, Teenage Rampage, was released in 1974. Described in a recent history of Glam Rock as “pure celebration” and “one of the hardest-rocking pop anthems ever made” the song “imagines the kids rising up, taking complete command, writing constitutions and starting revolutions.”
My family’s English roots are located in the capital of the Midlands, Birmingham, and near-by Walsall, a deprived working class town in the heart of the ‘Black Country’, so called because of the effects of industrial pollution. It was here my maternal grandad Ron introduced me to heavy metal music, during its birth as a global subculture. Having been traumatised in combat during World War Two, Ron would often escape into the world of records he’d discovered at Walsall Council’s music library. It was on his prized stereo that I first heard a local band called Led Zeppelin and enjoyed their Tolkeinesque story telling, harking back to the feudal past and the emergence of capitalism. Some say that Tolkein, who grew up in Birmingham and based The Two Towers on a couple of the city’s landmarks, used the Black Country as the model for the grim region of Mordor in the Lord of the Rings.
Yet, despite Led Zeppelin’s artistic talents, it was another local band, Black Sabbath, who seemed more in tune with my darkening teen and existential angst. They released their song Paranoid at the beginning of the 1970s, described as “the bleakest hit single in [English] history, forged in the dying embers of declining industries across the British Midlands.” These ‘dying embers’ were where my grandad worked as a bricklayer, in the region’s ‘dark Satanic mills’. Close by, my father, like Black Sabbath founder John (Ozzy) Osbourne, grew up living in poverty in a bleak, bomb-ravaged suburb of Birmingham where after leaving school they both went to work in local auto factories. Heavy metal was ‘working class music from industrial towns’ and heavy metals were at the heart of the foundries and furnaces that stretched across the ‘Black Country’. As Black Sabbath launched their assault on our ears, a few miles away a young steelworker was forming Judas Priest and noting; “The factory I worked in was a massive steelwork labyrinth, riddled with polluted canals, massive grimy workshops, foundries and steam hammers. It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to realise why metal ended up sounding the way it did.” Nor is it hard to imagine why, having spent much of my childhood in the environment which inspired metal music, growing-up in ‘post-war’ Britain surrounded and raised by survivors and victims of World War Two, during a ‘Cold War’ that was really a hot war, Sabbath’s song War Pigs was my favourite of theirs.
Considered by some as proto-punk – aggressive, bleak, intense, and primitive – heavy metal spoke to my rising anger at the horrors of capitalism and my desire to fight to escape them. Yet despite the hardships endured by my extended family and my determination to resist the same scale of suffering, the most powerful and long-lasting memories of my grandparents are of the Christmases we celebrated together. I can’t remember a Christmas in England without my grandmother Gladys and I’m unsure if this is because we spent every Christmas together, or because Christmas without Gran wasn’t worth remembering. My saddest Christmas was our last one in the U.K., the year before my parents, my brother, and I migrated to Australia. Dad’s father, George, another permanently traumatised World War Two veteran, was meant to spend that Christmas with us, but he never arrived. My brother and I were told he wasn’t well. After the festivities were over, it was revealed he’d actually died, but our parent’s “didn’t want to ruin Christmas” by telling us.
‘Look to the future now, it’s only just begun’
The overtones of this last English Christmas, as we prepared to leave for ‘the Gong’ on the other side of the world, remain coloured by the hopes, fears, and sadness which permeated our lives at the time. The main sound track of this moment in my life, and the lives of many other people living in Britain during those days, is Slade’s joyful record Merry Xmas Everybody. This was ‘the golden era of the British Christmas single’ which reached its zenith with Britain’s favourite ever Christmas record. In the winter of 1973, Slade were the biggest band in Britain, having had a series of chart toppers featuring their poppier version of heavy rock during the previous year. Slade also heralded from the ‘Black Country’, with their drummer working a ‘day job’ as a metallurgist at a local foundry to pay off his drum kit. Looking to follow-up their success, the band’s singer, Neville ‘Noddy’ Holder, set about producing a ‘Christmas hit’ while spending the night at his mum’s council house in Walsall, where he’d been raised. He described Merry Xmas Everybody as “a working class family song” to cheer people up in the gloomy climate of that year’s ‘silly season’.
It wasn’t only boys who were fretting about leaving almost everything they loved, including Walsall, for an unknown future, who needed cheering up that Christmas. December 1973 was the height of the UK’s ‘energy crisis’ (part of a more general global capitalist crisis following a period of intensified proletarian struggle) when a combination of power cuts and economic gloom saw many in Britain facing Christmas in the cold and dark. In an emergency national broadcast on December 13, Tory Prime Minister Ted Heath told the nation: “We shall have a harder Christmas than we have known since the war.” He also announced a ‘Three-Day Work Order’ and a range of austerity measures, ostensibly to deal with the crisis, but seen and used by the ruling class as an opportunity to weaken militant action. Throughout that winter, hundreds of thousands of people were laid off work and many others suffered the misery of having to work in unheated factories and offices. The Government also introduced a national 50mph speed limit and shops were only allowed to use electric lighting for a total of five days between December 17 and 30. The scale of the cutbacks meant that many parts of the country had no electricity on Christmas Day. When people did have power, this was the song most likely to be heard coming from their TVs, radios and record players.
My family returned to the U.K. in 1977, and it seemed the misery, but not the hope, of our last Christmas in England had remained and deepened. During our stay, the volume of the mainstream media’s fanfare for the Royal Jubilee year was shattered by the sonic force of the Sex Pistol’s hit single God Save the Queen, both a smash hit on the charts and on the smug charade of ruling class elitism. We weren’t able to stay for Christmas that year, so for me, it’s this track which best captures the dissonance of the period and the growing sense that there was ‘no future in England’s dreaming’. As I’ve detailed elsewhere, from then on it was punk that most radically transformed my life, at a tempo which felt like ‘78 revolutions a minute’.
Post-punk music tended to be more politically conservative, but more globally oriented. However, although the focus on western poverty and rebellion receded, the influence of anti-racist campaigning spawned popular protest songs amplifying the concerns of militant struggles in Africa (e.g. Sun City by Artists United Against Apartheid) and launched the Live Aid phenomenon, addressing a widespread desire to do something about the ‘forgotten’ Ethiopian famine in the face of institutional inaction, while becoming the prototype for a new style of celebrity activism. So in 1984, as the remnants of my favourite band, The Clash, played a benefit concert for striking British miners, billed as ‘Arthur Scargill’s Christmas Party’, it was the awkwardly and perhaps aptly named charity super-group ‘Band Aid’ which reached the Christmas number one spot, with their fundraising single Do They Know It’s Christmas? The song was twice re-recorded to again become the number one Christmas hit in 1989 and 2004. Here’s the original version from 1984.
“The tune had been haunting London for weeks past. It was one of countless similar songs published for the benefit of the proles by a sub-section of the Music Department. The words of these songs were composed without any human intervention whatever on an instrument known as a versificator. But the woman sang so tunefully as to turn the dreadful rubbish into an almost pleasant sound.”
(George Orwell, 1984)
Charity ‘band aids’ and ‘rock-star messianism’ have been the subject of widespread derision ever since Do They Know It’s Christmas? As well, concerns about the increasing commercialisation of music and the corporate distortion, or muffling, of political activism continue to ring out in ongoing debates, while complaints about the death of ‘real music’ have seemingly become the cliché of every aging generation. At the same time, as evidenced by a main story line in the popular Christmas movie Love Actually, the hope of a Christmas hit continues to be the most sought after pop prize in Britain. The Christmas number one is ‘the most talked about and high-profile chart-topper of the year’ and enjoys increased sales over the holiday period. For four years in the late 2000’s, this number one position was colonised by Simon Cowell’s X Factor, with the show’s grand final timed for the Christmas season. Seen by many as the ‘Tone Deaf Grinch Who Stole Christmas’, Cowell’s domination of the Xmas charts was eventually broken by a powerful grass roots social media campaign.
Rage Against the Machine
In 2009, one of my favourite bands, Rage Against the Machine, helped to end X Factor’s rule when more than half a million people downloaded their famously anti-authoritarian track Killing in the Name (released 17 years earlier) in protest against the growing influence of corporatised music. Speaking on BBC Radio One’s Chart Show at the time, Rage’s Zach de la Rocha explained that the band getting to number one for Christmas said “more about the spontaneous action taken by young people throughout the UK to topple this very sterile pop monopoly and less about the song and the band. We are very proud to have had the song chosen as the vehicle by which to do this.”
The campaign to make Killing in the Name the most unlikely of Christmas carols was mainly organised via a Facebook group that quickly transformed itself into an anti-corporate and pro-social justice platform, with participants encouraging each other to support Shelter, an organisation campaigning to end homelessness and bad housing in England and Scotland, and which subsequently received £65,000 in direct public donations. Rage Against the Machine also lent their support to Shelter, donating all of the track’s royalties and promising to play a free ‘thank you gig’ in the U.K. if the campaign for the number one spot was successful. At the ensuing celebratory concert, held in London the following year and attended by forty thousand fans, the band handed over more than £160,000.
In the final weeks of ‘Christmas Rage’, the band increased the volume of the campaign when they performed an uncensored rendition of Killing in the Name live on breakfast BBC Radio Five. Despite the show’s hosts asking them to change the end of the song, during the crescendo of their performance Zach de la Rocha began singing “I won’t do what you tell me”, then after a few lines repeatedly screams the song’s lyrics, “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!” It wasn’t until the fourth repetition of this obvious retort to suppression, that the show’s production team cut out the microphone and returned to the studio. “Get rid of it!” radio host Shelagh Fogarty could be heard shouting in the background. “Sorry, we needed to get rid of that because it suddenly turned into something we weren’t expecting,” she told listeners. “Well, we were expecting it and we asked them not to do it and they did it anyway.”
Here’s the band’s radio interview and performance from that day.
What would Christmas be without a special song about hope, peace and love?
When I was writing last year’s Christmas blog post, the number one song in the UK still hadn’t been decided. As it turned out, the National Health Service (NHS) Choir beat Justin Bieber in a tightly run race to score the top spot. The choir’s track A Bridge Over You, “a celebration of the NHS” and an instrument in the long-running campaign to defend public health in Britain, reached number one after another grassroots social media campaign, using the hashtag and slogan LoveYourNHS2015. As the NHS faces sustained vicious attacks from the current Tory government, Katie Rogerson, one of the choir members, explained their motivation for the song: “It’s a challenging time for the NHS and morale is quite low … People have a genuine concern for what’s going to happen and for the future of the NHS … We wanted people to recognise all the brilliant things that happen on an everyday basis rather than feel miserable and unappreciated.”
‘Singing the world into existence as an everyday activity’
As is often the case with Christmas hits, the key to A Bridge Over You’s success is a well-versed ensemble of love, hope, and collective harmonies. The continuing affection people have for a common celebration of new beginnings at the end of each year rests on a long history of struggles, where ‘people continue to sing the world into existence as an everyday activity’. So in offering my Christmas tidings to those reading this post at the conclusion of such a difficult year, I have no wish to lament or reproduce Christmases past. Instead I’m keen to embrace Christmas present and the years ahead, with hope in my heart. None-the-less, this is often a time to pause, rewind our memories, and play them again. Yet each time we spin the old turntable and swing back our nostalgic needle, rather than returning to the same historical groove, we instead alter the record. For some this remix provides an encore which mutes various miseries and recomposes affects and emotions to make them less discordant. Those longing for days gone by often seek to erase the harsh realities of the past; but we should refrain from accompanying any conservative chorus seeking comfort in an endless replay of ‘the song remains the same’. Instead, although we live in testing and uncertain times, I hope this Christmas you can savour moments of joy, while keeping in mind the sage advice of Slade’s Noddy Holder – “Look to the future now” because “it’s only just begun.”
“Love is what makes you smile when you’re tired.” – Terri, aged 4
“Love is what’s in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen.” Bobby, aged 7
“You really shouldn’t say ‘I love you’ unless you mean it. But if you mean it, you should say it a lot. People forget.” – Jessica, aged 8
What is Love? Is it a feeling, an instinct, an emotion, an ideology, a passion, a project, an activity, a form of power, struggle, work, wealth, action, a need, desire, intention, dream, illusion, utopia, or is it all of these, and more? For the past few years, a group of local people have gathered to discuss and debate a wide range of books and articles on this question. In 2014, some of us also organised Love: Art, Ideas, Music, Politics, a two day gathering to celebrate love’s power and share collectively in an exploration of its meaning. To conclude the event those in attendance discussed the question posed above, sharing a diversity of views, experiences, and understandings of love. So, in the lead-up to the forth-coming Love: Art, Ideas, Music, Politics 2017 I thought it was time to revisit this question.
‘Love is more easily experienced than defined.’
I’ve previously published blog posts about love and Christmas, love and advertising (here & here), love and revolution (here and here), about love as a movement, and a form of defence against hate, violence and terror. Yet I continue to struggle with the question of what love is.
Love is socially, economically, politically and culturally constructed. How we imagine love – what we think it is and how we think about it – is learned during childhood and developed through our relationships with each other and the world around us. What it’s like to love and be loved depends on social and individual histories and our understandings and beliefs about love change as we change, as those around us change, and as society changes. In a previous post I pointed out that the vast majority of books on the subject of love work hard to avoid giving clear definitions. According to Morgan Scott Peck love lacks clarity because it “is too large, too deep ever to be truly understood or measured or limited within the framework of words” and “our use of the word ‘love’ is so generalised and unspecific as to severely interfere with our understanding of love.” None-the-less, when asked to produce a short response, I usually define love as the struggle to create, maintain and develop caring social relations.
John Armstrong’s philosophical work, Conditions of Love, explores “the task of separating the many themes, the many strands of thought that, are entangled around our word ‘love’.” He argues that love isn’t a single thing but a complex of different concerns which suggests some of the problems of love. “When we try to love we are not actually trying to undertake a single endeavour; rather, we are trying to do a whole range of different, and sometimes not very compatible, things simultaneously.”
All the Feels
People often think of love as an emotional reaction, as a ‘force or power inside the body’, which spontaneously erupts out of us. Love can produce a range of bodily processes and sensations, chemical reactions, and feelings which we may not clearly perceive, understand, or appear to have control over. But how we interpret and react to our bodies and emotions again reflects our personal and collective circumstances, histories, cultures, and ideologies.
There are various and contested definitions and understandings of emotions, what they are, how they’re created and how they’re experienced. Radical theorists explore emotions as structures of feeling that give meaning to relational experience, arguing you cannot understand love as an emotion from a consideration of the individual, because love is socially constructed, shaped by acculturation and inter-personal relations. Also, rather than being distinct, emotion and rational thinking can be seen as different ways of regarding the same process. Human interaction involves affecting others, being affected by others and acting on those affects, which then affects others, and so on. All of these social interactions are power relations and emotions/thought play a crucial role in them. Emotions are thus states of consciousness that go beyond sensations, feelings, expressions, or moods. They involve the recognition, combination, and alteration of these things.
Many theorists have written about the importance of ‘emotion work’ – trying to change in degree or quality an emotion or feeling, in order to manage them – and how this can be done. Deborah Lupton explains how discourses on emotions, including ‘feeling rules’ (shared norms that influence how people try to feel), help to shape and reshape our emotions as continuous projects of subjectivity. Different cultures construct different rules and various prescriptions about what we’re supposed to feel about love and there’s a constant struggle around these ‘feeling rules’ as they’re contested, rise and fall, ebb and flow. These emotion struggles occur both within society and our own consciousness. So, rapid individual or social change can bring about a lack of clarity about what the ‘rules’ of love are, whether there are any rules, and if they should be obeyed. As with the attempt to define love, the emotions of love are uncertain and we often encounter situations where we can’t put our feelings into words, or find it hard to identify which emotion(s) we’re experiencing.
The Power of Love
Love is the result of our action, our caring activities. Since all relationships are power relations, love is about who has power, who has power over us, whether we have power to do what we want, and whether power is shared. I’ve written elsewhere about some of the limits capitalism places on love and it is helpful to appreciate how the dominant social system restricts what we can be, as well as appreciating how much power we have to overcome these limits.
In a recent article about love and what it could be, Natasha Lennard explored some of the problems with how we tend to perceive ‘romantic love’ and how “the mystification of romantic love has been particularly damaging to women.” Renata Grossi explains that romantic love is often seen by feminist/queer theory as oppressive, patriarchal and heteronormative, while others see love as a site of resistance, transformation and agency, embodying “a radical and permissive ideology.” Many, like bell hooks, seek to salvage and elevate love as a radical and healing practice, arguing for a definition of love as a mutual, life-affirming choice and practice — a verb as well as a noun.
For Natasha Lennard “the key questions are not about what love is but about what love does. Or perhaps more precisely, what we can do with it.” Pessimistic views of love suppose that it weakens, disarms or enslaves us, making us needy, or dependent. Love is often seen as outside of our control, inevitable and overpowering. Many definitions of love “emphasise its spontaneity” and “refuse to acknowledge that it could involve any element of effort or intention.” Here the separation between love and our labour is both misguided and conservative, “to the extent that it suggests that we have no agency, no power to shape the world as we recreate it.”
“It is one thing to feel loving towards someone, another to translate this feeling into words and actions which make the other person feel loved.” (John Armstrong)
Love is a practical matter – it involves caring for people. If love involves a desire ‘to do what is good for others’ – we require an understanding of what that ‘good’ is. Often love is considered to be about caring for others like you care for yourself. But what if you don’t care for yourself, or do so poorly? What if you’re self-abusive or self-destructive? And what if you reject notions of a stable ‘self’? Loving people raises a range of questions about what constitutes their well-being. Since people’s needs and desires are not static, but open to change, caring for others should involve developing a rich sense of what’s important to them, by maintaining an interest in what their needs and desires are. However, it can be incredibly difficult to understand one’s own motivations, desires, or the reasons we act in certain ways. So, it’s fair to assume that we cannot be sure what’s in other people’s heads or hearts, since our experiences, understandings and practices of love are diverse, complex, fluid and multitudinous.
Labours of Love
Those who view love as a form of weakness fail to appreciate how caring connections can transform social conditions. Love can be constructed on the basis of hopeful practices and strategies that recognise both the limits and potentials of our relationships. Many people overemphasise the negativity of the world and seek to ruthlessly criticise everything. This is often because they fail to account for the positive impact of love and ignore how the work of love, care and solidarity, re/produce positive developments. Yet it is true that capitalist social relations restrict how and whether we can love – limiting what we can do and what we can be, damaging our personalities, cutting us off from each other and our potentials, giving rise to numerous internal and external obstacles to love. Importantly we must continue to grapple with how some people’s professed love for themselves, their community, ethnicity, identity, or nation, can involve the hatred of others.
It is widely recognised and understood that the most important contributor to the development of a child is love – their progress is largely dependent on whether they are cared for, whether those around them, their ‘carers’, love them. So, if the presence or absence of love is the most important aspect in the development of an individual, it is likely the same can be said for all social development. In my previous writing, I’ve explored how the language of love can discipline us to obey, work and consume. What we do with our time, and what we work to produce, are vital considerations. As the distinction between ‘work’ and ‘non-work’ becomes more hazy, questions are frequently raised about what ‘work’ is?, what should we do with our time? and what should we love? Increasingly we’re supposed to love what we do, and find our passions in work. Yet many of us find our paid jobs less and less fulfilling.
A major obstacle when discussing ‘work’ is that the term tends to be limited to the re/productive work of and for capital and neglects the work of constructing living alternatives – the work of love. Love is an achievement; it is something we create, both individually and collectively. Yet love can be hard work. If we’re not prepared for our loving relationships to include struggles with pain and sorrow, and to provoke anxieties and fears, to at times involve loneliness, disappointment, vulnerability and fragility, then we’re ill prepared for love. These normal characteristics of loving relations do not negate love, sure they can make loving more difficult, but pure love is a fantasy. The idea that as a couple we become one person, or that our significant other is ‘the one’ we’re destined to be with, can be torn asunder when we find that we can’t fully understand them, they don’t understand everything about us, and there’s a lot we don’t have in common. John Armstrong explains, it is, therefore, “extremely important to work with a vision of love which sees problems not as the end of love, not as a sign that love is over, but as the ground upon which love operates.”
Most of us want love to last and be able to withstand the difficulties long-term relationships bring with them. My partner, Sharon, and I have been together for 32 years, and as she will tell you, developing and maintaining such an enduring bond is a difficult endeavour. As Sharon explained in her speech at our 25th anniversary party, our love is a shared effort – “Nick and I decided to call this party a ‘celebration of love’ because we wanted to not only celebrate our years together, but also celebrate and say thank you to all of you, our family and friends, for the love, support and friendship we’ve received over those years. When we started thinking about what to do to mark this date, some people suggested that we really should do something romantic together as a couple, rather than have a big party. But we understand and appreciate that it is your love which has made our love possible. So this celebration is a celebration of all of our love.”
It is widely understood that the labours of love are disproportionately borne by women, most of which is unpaid, with the value, power, and influence of this work under-estimated. At the same time, many people believe that sacrificing their lives to stultifying work is an act of love for the family they’re meant to provide for. We tend to surrender much of our lives – minute by minute, day by day, year by year – to the competitive and often hard-hearted pursuit of ‘making a living’. Working for a boss or a bureaucracy, competing with others in a ruthless struggle to ‘get ahead’, undermines our ability to love, leaving too little time or energy for what is most important – those we love and learning the art of loving.
Learning to Love
“Love isn’t to be sought after, it’s everywhere, and to search is self-deception, a charade.” (Leo Buscaglia)
Caring for others continually involves overcoming obstacles, as we work on overcoming these obstacles we learn how to cultivate the growth and development of our loving power. Learning to love involves conscious decisions to change what we do and to take the time necessary to mould new ways of living and being. In his book The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm argues that love is an art and learning this art can be divided into two parts: theory and practice. Love requires a great deal of practice, and theoretical knowledge and the results of practice need to be blended together– what is often called praxis. But, according to Fromm, there’s a third factor necessary for learning any art — it should be a matter of ultimate concern – and here lies the answer to why people struggle to learn the art of love. Despite a deep-seated craving for love, almost everything else tends to be considered more important: success, prestige, money, possessions, etc. According to Fromm, love is the only thing that can fully connect us to another person – and since he believes that being disconnected from other people is the central problem of our times, love is the solution to the key problem of human existence. Here the problem is not one of finding a person to love, but in developing our capacities to care for others – to love them. Searching for the right ‘object’ diverts attention from these tasks.
Learning to love involves adapting our subjectivities – changing our perceptions, our priorities and our behaviours. In an attempt to give more time to love, and as a way to connect loving theory and practice, the Love 2017 organising group has continued to hold regular discussions about various readings related to love. We’ve looked at the commodification of love and the need to transform work, explored questions about whether, or how, to work for wages, and in what ways the power of love has played a part in social struggles and movements. Recently we read Social Reproduction: Between the Wage & the Commons an interview with Silvia Federici on the importance of care work; for people, relationships, communities and social movements. Federici uses the example of Greece, where capital and its state forms are in deep crisis, to highlight the networks of social solidarity and support which have been organised to help people survive and to create living alternatives to capitalism. She also discusses the leading role of women in creating these alternatives, arguing that while wages and wage struggles remain important these need to compliment struggles to expand our autonomy from capital, and to reappropriate the wealth we create.
Exploring the importance of love to social re/production, the Love reading group has considered the situation of many care workers, such as nurses, educators, etc., who are dissatisfied with their paid work because they cannot do a decent job due to constant cuts, erosion of working conditions, casualisation and the continual re-organisation of their work, which erodes the social relations between those who care/are cared for. This, of course, reflects a more general pattern where caring relationships (family ties, friendships, etc.) are undermined. Via another reading (Bridging the Worlds of Therapy & Activism: Intersections, Tensions & Affinities) we’ve looked at the difficulties of “working in accordance with our ethical stance” and how going against this stance causes us pain. This article highlights the importance of believing our work matters, that what we do makes a positive difference. Yet, the authors ask, how can our usefulness be measured? Their answer is – it cannot. However the value of what we do can be indicated by other people, when they acknowledge its worth. Therefore, they argue, we need ‘solidarity teams’ to help nuture and support us, to remind us of our ethics, and so we can work in constructive cooperative collaborations. These ‘solidarity teams’ may include family, work mates, friends, allies, and even people we’ve never met (e.g. for me bell hooks or Joe Strummer can be on my team).
There’s a growing need for the collective organising of affective politics and various forms of ‘solidarity teams’ can provide times/spaces where we develop reciprocal caring relationships. Over the last few years, one of my most important ‘solidarity teams’ has been the Love group. Together we sustain and support each other, offer camaraderie, and help to provide hope. We also learn about how other people are trying to do the same. Recently we read The Street Syndicate: Re-organising Informal Work by Carlos Delclos which focuses on the struggles of informal workers in Barcelona to help examine the growing importance of this work and the need to organise it collectively, with the aim of putting human dignity above property rights. Carlos explores various perspectives on the ‘informal economy’ and considers how the ‘sharing economy’ can both reinforce capitalist exploitation and provide mutual aid. Importantly he also highlights how Barcelona’s African and unemployed communities take care of each other through self-organisation and group solidarity.
Another article that struck a chord among the reading group, and among others who talked about it on social media, was ‘Life-hacks of the Poor & Aimless‘ by Laurie Penny. She examines a number of issues raised during the group’s previous discussions, including the problem of activist burn-out, the importance of taking care of yourself and others, and the relationship between self-care/individual fulfilment and collective engagement/social solidarity. Laurie points out that queer and feminist communities understand the personal is political and that ‘real love’ is an action rather than just a feeling. Commenting on Facebook, in a heart-felt response to this text, one of our friends explained how she had countered her own anxiety through contributing to the community and by reconnecting to her political ideals via engaging in collective struggle. Recent social movements, such as Love Makes a Way or Equal Love, reflect similar understandings and seek to deploy love politically. Last month, the Love reading group discussed The meaning of love in the debate for legal recognition of same-sex marriage in Australia by Renata Grossi. This article revolved around the need to pose the marriage equality campaign as a struggle about love in order to counter the restriction of love to heterosexual relationships, to help transform social perceptions of love, and to demonstrate the power of mobilising love. She concluded by arguing that we need to redefine love “in a way that retains its utopian ideals” and expresses “love’s optimism.”
What is Love?
Some of you may have read this post looking for a simple, complete theory of love; a pithy answer to the question posed, rather than ideas suggesting the richness and varieties of love and the wide-ranging debates and activities currently spreading around the world. Narrow notions of love limit our imaginations and horizons, while open and expansive conceptions of love both challenge us and indicate how our social encounters and collaborations can bring us joy. The purpose of the Love group and the upcoming Love: Art, Ideas, Music, Politics event is to foster continuing dialogue and encounter. We interpret our theme broadly and are interested in conversations that celebrate love’s power and share collectively in an exploration of its meaning. This might be a personal exploration of the way we interact with each other and the world, or a discussion about how to deepen solidarity and peace, build strong communities, lessen alienation and inequality. It might be a creative workshop that explores love through movement, art or music. Rather than providing definitive answers – we prefer to carry on discussing and debating various forms of love, their uses and usefulness – constructing a range of responses as we ‘learn to love by loving’. Recognising that love is a form of power produced by our efforts to create alternative relationships and community, we seek to develop grounded optimism and realistic hope for the future, as we continue to ask – what is love?
Armstrong, J., 2001, Conditions of Love: the Philosophy of Intimacy, Penguin, London.
bell, h., 2000, All About Love: New Visions, Harper, New York.
Delclos, C., 2016, ‘The Street Syndicate: Re-organising Informal Work’, Roar Magazine, Issue #2, pp. 55 – 67.
Federici, S. & Sitrin, M., 2016, ‘Social Reproduction: Between the Wage & the Commons’, Roar Magazine, Issue #2, pp. 34 – 43.
Fromm, E., 2010, The Art of Loving, HarperCollins, New York.
Grossi, R., 2012, ‘The meaning of love in the debate for legal recognition of same-sex marriage in Australia’, International Journal of Law in Context, Volume 8, Issue 4, pp. 487 – 505.
Lupton, D., 1998, The Emotional Self: A Sociocultural Exploration, SAGE Publications, London.
Reynolds, V., interviewed by Hammoud-Beckett, S., 2012, ‘Bridging the Worlds of Therapy & Activism: Intersections, Tensions & Affinities’, International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work, Number 4, pp. 57 – 61.
Scott Peck, M., 1978, The Road Less Travelled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values, and Spiritual Growth, Simon Schuster, New York.