On Fairy Dust and Rupture

The Free Association[i]

It began with the suicide, a self-immolation by fire, of a man who has been downgraded to unemployment, and to whom was forbidden the miserable commerce that allowed him to survive; and because a female police officer slapped him in the face for not understanding what in this world is real. In a few days this gesture becomes wider and in a few weeks millions of people scream their joy on a distant square and this entails the beginning of the catastrophe for the powerful potentates.

— Alain Badiou, 2011[ii]

Before, I watched television; now television is watching me.

— Egyptian rebel, 2011[iii]

In the 1980s security experts in the West used the idea of the domino effect to talk about social movements in Central America. El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras… the US government feared that victory by ‘communist’ (sic) forces would threaten its own strategic interests. If one government was allowed to fall to popular power, neighbouring regimes would topple, one after the other, until the spectre of revolution was at the gates of the US itself. Underlying the domino theory was the laughable notion that outside agitators (in this case, Moscow- or Cuban-trained revolutionaries) were somehow responsible for the rise of popular national liberation movements. But the domino theory was also part of a wider outlook which tries to squeeze social movements into a mechanistic and linear framework: this event sparks that movement, that movement leads to this rebellion.

Thirty years ago UK politics was transformed by a series of riots that raged across every major town and city. In the space of 10 days in July 1981, eruptions in London, Liverpool, Birmingham and Leeds were mirrored by street battles in less glamorous locations like Cirencester, Market Harborough and Dunstable. The ferocity of the riots was stunning. But even more shocking, for the state, was the speed with which they spread. Newspapers talked of outside agitators travelling the country on motorbikes, but more tellingly they warned of the ‘copycat effect’. Fast forward 30 years, and the Arab Spring saw oppositional movements emerging and spreading with an awesome speed. Their effects were not confined to North Africa. (Think, for example, of the slogans on the March 26 demonstration in London: ‘walk like an Egyptian’, ‘strike like an Egyptian’, ‘riot like an Egyptian’.). A timeline on YouTube gives some sense of the global spread of protest and uprising over the three months between December 2010 and March 2011.[iv] Social networking tools like Twitter and Facebook clearly played a role in expanding those movements, and the speed of that exchange was significant. But in itself that’s not enough to explain the power of these events. Struggles have always circulated one way or another – in the 1790s the Black Jacobins in Haiti and revolutionaries in Paris couldn’t rely on tweets, but news went back and forth on the ships that crossed the Atlantic. So the question is this: why are some events taken up, re-interpreted and re-played elsewhere? What connects a suicide and millions of people screaming their joy?

Capital and the state tend to treat popular movements as a virus that must be purged from the system. It’s a narrative that we too have often adopted. Rebellion is contagious and there’s an infectious joy to be found in a collective ‘no’, a refusal to accept the world-as-it-is. Developing this medical analogy further, we can talk about viral models, the way a practice developed in one context can be reproduced worldwide. Protest can be seen as a meme that self-replicates across a range of environments. For example, in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and elsewhere, the occupation of public space (Tahrir Square, Pearl Roundabout) became a central theme in shaping opposition to those regimes. We can trace a connection here to other simple acts of disobedience or resistance that rapidly take off – like Rosa Parks’ refusal to move to the back of the bus, or the mass refusal of the Poll Tax. These acts are usually low-cost entry points into a movement: people can ‘do’ them, and so become part of a ‘movement’, without risking very much (to join the anti-Poll Tax movement, all you had to do was not pay something that many of us couldn’t afford to pay anyway).

But talking about memes or viruses doesn’t get us far enough. As people active in social movements, we are not neutral transmitters of information and practices. Those practices first have to make sense to us. We see or hear something that speaks to our lives. We then interpret it, apply it and pass it on. It’s more useful to think of movements spreading by resonance rather than contamination.

‘An insurrection is not like a plague or a forest fire — a linear process which spreads from place to place after an initial spark. It rather takes the shape of a music, whose focal points, though dispersed in time and space, succeed in imposing the rhythms of their own vibrations, always taking on more density.’[v]

How does an insurrection resonate? How does a social uprising take on more density? In Tunisia, when Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid, riots immediately followed. A few days later, Hussein Nagi Felhi climbed an electricity pole, shouted ‘no for misery, no for unemployment’, and then electrocuted himself. That cry of ‘no for misery, no for unemployment’ spoke to the lives of working-class Tunisians – and made sense to them in a way that it could never make sense to the Ben Ali regime. In exactly the same way, the rupture created by the July 1981 riots was seized upon by an angry, alienated and youthful working class who felt its meaning: in Luton, for example, a mob began by attacking a pub frequented by racists, and then moved on to attack the police and the local Tory party HQ. As a rioter in Brixton later explained, ‘It was the thing to do.’ Again, speaking about the response of Italian workers to news of the Russian Revolution of February 1917, Wu Ming say this: ‘Those proletarians asked themselves: “What does this remote event look like? What does it feel like?” And they answered: “It feels like what I’d like to do myself!”’[vi]

Of course, it’s easy to read history backwards in this way, as if action X inevitably produced result Y. As if things could only have turned out this way. But at any one point there are infinite possible futures, and events don’t always resonate so clearly or quickly. We remember Rosa Parks, but not Claudette Colvin. History is littered with discarded leaflets, dead campaigns, acts that didn’t take off. Or in Samuel Beckett’s words: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’

If insurrection takes the shape of music, then perhaps music can tell us something about how to fail better. There’s a famous bootleg tape of 1960s band The Troggs having a hilariously sweary argument at a recording session. The sound engineer, who failed to press stop on the tape player, captured a band trying desperately to grasp what turns any particular song into a hit record. The conclusion they reached is now legendary: ‘You got to put a little bit of fucking fairy dust over the bastard.’ When we seek to go beyond what seems possible, analysis can only take us so far. We can use the idea of fairy dust as a stand-in for the element of chance in political action. Perhaps the Troggs were channelling a wider point about the process of creation. After all, if we shift the register from pop music to revolutionary political analysis, the problem of the elusive hit record could read something like: how do isolated acts of resistance gel to become mass rebellions? And what conditions make them more likely to succeed, even if only for a short time?

Fairy dust is more than just a nice metaphor. Perhaps we can use it, in a materialist way, to talk about things that normally evade analysis. The power of events like the 1981 riots or the 2011 Arab Spring is that they puncture normality. Our notion of what is possible is constrained by the ‘reality’ of everyday life. Sometimes it takes an act of imagination (of fiction, even) to reveal the real potential. By breaking our understanding of what is natural, such events introduce the ‘supernatural’. The economic crisis, which began in 2007, has severely dented belief in the ‘naturalness’ of the neoliberal world-view. The series of revolts that have followed, from Athens to London, from Tunis to Cairo, have allowed us to glimpse a different, re-potentialised world. Is this, perhaps, a glimpse of the ‘supernatural’?

Of course neoliberalism isn’t dead; its current zombie state seems stubbornly persistent. Meanwhile our political and media elites continue to broadcast from within the old worldview, as if such events never happened. ‘Politicians within the parliamentary-democratic system (or its near equivalents) are entirely caught up in the logic of killing politics [a logic we can] associate with capitalism. It is a logic that aims to “naturalise” – and hence automate and de-politicise – political decisions.’[vii] It is this natural logic which is used to justify austerity. The political possibilities opened up by the crisis have disappeared behind a veil of apparent necessity. The mantra of neoliberalism remains the same: There Is No Alternative.

Destroying this mask of naturalness is far from easy. Politicians (and indeed the rest of us) are not the freely choosing agents presupposed by liberal ideology. They are caught up in this logic of killing politics and even if they wanted to escape it they simply wouldn’t know how. Marx and Engels captured this point when they channeled Faust in the Communist Manifesto: ‘Modern bourgeois society is… like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.’ Capitalism isn’t just greed; nor is it reducible to the nefarious plans of individual capitalists or politicians. It is a set of logics that we are all caught up in, a series of abstract dynamics that have been summoned forth but which, during their operation, come to appear as natural and eternal. Isn’t this what we might understand as Capitalist Sorcery?

We are all caught up in forces that we can’t quite get at. As we go about our everyday lives, as we go to work or to the shops, we presuppose, for instance, that money will be the basis of our interactions. Because we presuppose these things they seem beyond our control. Of course we also know that our interactions contain something in excess of capital, something human, but we are continually encouraged to discount this excess. Such dynamics are facets of capitalism but they are made worse by neoliberalism. As politicians impose competitive markets in ever more areas of life, as we are put into situations that force us to see others as competitors, as we repeat behaviours over and over, then it becomes harder to make out where capital ends and we begin. As the Gang of Four put it: ‘Each day seems like a natural fact.’ The paradox is that the effects of capital become hidden and ungraspable and yet they act concretely to limit our lives.

Anti-capitalist politics is about breaking with these limitations, it is about re-potentialising the world. However to most people, most of the time, anti-capitalist politics don’t quite make sense. The individual components might be sensible enough but as a whole it just doesn’t seem viable. It is, after all, an ‘unnatural’ position to take, with so much in our everyday lives arguing against it. Events and crises, however, put the continuation of our previous everyday lives into doubt. When the ‘naturalness’ of the current state of things begins to lose its grip, then the space opens up for ‘supernatural’ solutions.

Despite the disappearance of the crisis behind the veil of necessity, we still feel something changed in 2008. It is hard to make out what that something consists of; it has, after all remained, largely mute. (Opinion polls, however, continue to report sizeable proportions disagreeing that the free market economy is ‘the best system’, even in countries such as the United States.) With some analysis though we can begin to guess at its contours. The ‘natural’ state of things once seemed to promise an improved life – if not for us then at least for our children. Now that promise appears empty and the ‘natural’ state of things seems more like a trap. If the path to what we currently understand as ‘the good life’ becomes blocked, then we can come to question whether it was such a ‘good life’ after all. This is why it has been so hard to make out the something that has changed; it is a change in the underlying structure of contemporary desire. What we once desired, and the mechanisms that produced those desires, have lost their coherence.

This means that new desires are being produced and with them new political possibilities. We can be sure of this because of the change in recent struggles. We have seen the unexpected resonance of previously minority ideas. We have seen the emergence of the kind of movements not seen for a generation. We have seen cascades of events that have broken forty-year stalemates. Yet we still don’t know how far the new possibilities go because they have not been given full expression. Only collective political action can do this and our task, if we have one, is to see if we can trigger it. The problem, of course, is that we are also caught, to a greater or lesser extent, within the current sense of things. As such we, as anti-capitalist militants, are also sorcerers. We are trying to conjure up something beyond ourselves, something we can’t wholly know, something beyond the existing ‘natural’ limits of society; something ‘supernatural’.

It is in conditions like these that concepts like fairy dust begin to make sense. Fairy dust invokes the need for a gamble, a roll of the dice, an experiment. For this we need to leave our safety zones. ‘“We don’t know” thus makes us leave the safety of the regime of judgment for one of risk, the risk of failure that accompanies all creation.’[viii] But involving the element of chance doesn’t mean just trusting to luck. We can think of the process of putting ‘a little bit of fucking fairy dust over the bastard’ as a kind of incantation that draws on past experience in order to exceed it. Even the Troggs knew that the path to fairy dust lies between knowledge and cliché: ‘I know that it needs strings, that I do know.’

Given this, we can see the occupation of Millbank Towers during the demonstration against tuition fees as an invocation. That jubilant show of defiance as boots went through windows crystallised a new mood of militancy. By doing so it conjured up a movement no-one was expecting. Yet that movement has stuttered as it has failed to generalise. Another example of actions sprinkled with fairy dust can be found with UK Uncut. Who could have predicted that occupations of Vodafone shops would resonate so widely and spread so virally? Was it the result of fortuitous circumstances? Or did the specifics of its incantations facilitate its spread?

UK Uncut certainly shows us some of the elements needed for a contemporary invocation of politics. Firstly it manages to capture a spreading desire to take part in direct action. There is a deeply felt need for a new collective, participatory politics to counter the parliamentary-democratic system’s killing of politics. Yet UK Uncut’s actions also spread because they are easily replicable. They have a low entry level. Taking part isn’t too difficult. It doesn’t require too much preparation or specialist knowledge. The risks involved are not too high. Secondly, although the actions contain a ‘supernatural’ element, they also make immediate sense. The argument is instantly grasped: austerity is a political decision and not the result of a ‘law of nature’. It is a political decision not to tax corporations and the rich as rigorously as the rest of us. It is a political decision to impose the costs of the crisis onto the poorest of society and those who did least to cause it. The UK Uncut actions, and the police response they provoke, reveal some of the dynamics of capital that neoliberalism seeks to deny. They reveal, for example, that capital contains different and antagonistic interests and that politicians, the police and contemporary structures of power align themselves with certain interests and against others. It is a political decision to do so.

Yet there is a danger here. Because actions must be instantly understandable, they can only push so far into the boundaries of what it is currently possible to say. They must by necessity still contain many of our society’s hidden presuppositions to thought. If the actions don’t contain a dynamic that pushes further and generalises wider, then the movement risks collapsing back into the sense of the old world. We are all too familiar with this. ‘Of course we’d love to tax the bankers’, says the government, ‘but if we did they’d simply move to Geneva.’ The parliamentary-democratic system seeks to kill every revelation of a political decision with a new ‘naturalisation’.

Now we can make out the third necessary element of our incantations. Our forms of action must include mechanisms or moments that set the conditions for collective analysis. Perhaps they must build in spaces, physical and temporal, which can maintain collectivity while slowing down the level of intensity. We need that familiar rhythm between the high intensity of action and the cooler pace of discussion and analysis. It’s only by maintaining this rhythm that we can push further through the dynamics of capital that limit our lives. In such conditions movements can change and adapt in order to generalise. During the student movement the occupations played something of this role but on their own they weren’t enough. For a movement to move, it must exceed the conditions of its own emergence. While a small group might stumble across a workable incantation, they must conjure up forces that make themselves redundant. The aim must be to make the mass its own analyst, to spread the potential for leadership across the whole of the collective body. After all if a genie gives you three wishes, then your last request should always be for another three wishes.

[i] The Free Association is an ongoing experiment loosely based in Leeds, in the north of the UK, although we find ourselves at home nowhere (and everywhere). A reading group, a writing machine, an affinity group… Moments of Excess: Movements, protest and everyday life, an anthology of our writings over the last ten years, is published by PM Press. www.freelyassociating.org

[ii] ‘Tunisa, Eygpt: The Universal Reach of Popular Uprisings’, at http://www.lacan.com/thesymptom/?page_id=1031.

[iii] Cited by Badiou, ‘Tunisa, Eygpt: The Universal Reach of Popular Uprisings’.

[v] The Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurrection.

[vi] Two brilliant accounts of the 1981 riots are Like a Summer with a Thousand Julys (http://libcom.org/library/summer-thousand-julys-other-seasons) and We Want to Riot, Not to Work; Wu Ming 1, ‘We’re all February of 1917’, at http://www.wumingfoundation.com/english/wumingblog/?p=1810.

[vii] Phillipe Pignarre and Isabelle Stengers, Capitalist Sorcery: Breaking the Spell.

[viii] Pignarre and Stengers, Capitalist Sorcery.