:: Article

What’s in a name?

By Anna Aslanyan.

What We Are Fighting for: A Radical Collective Manifesto, edited by Federico Campagna and Emanuele Campiglio, Pluto Press 2012

As we continue to watch Starbucks wriggle its way through the ever shrinking (unless it’s merely an optical illusion) loopholes of the corporate tax system, let us not forget the role played in this by UK Uncut, a grassroots organisation that set out to expose tax dodgers over two years ago. It was their efforts that closed a number of Vodafone outlets back in 2010, and converted an even greater number of Starbucks cafés into community centres this month. That the initiative proved efficient and popular may have different explanations; my favourite one, while not necessarily the main factor in the equation, is the pertinence of their name. It is alliterative and allusive, but not overly so, and, combined with slogans like “Too Little, Too Latte”, to give a recent example, makes for a winning formula.

Even those who have never waded through the murky waters of copyrighting should understand that, whatever your chosen activity and literacy level, if your enterprise is to succeed you need to think carefully about what you are going to call yourself. The editors of What We Are Fighting for: A Radical Collective Manifesto address this point in their introduction, only to admit that no obvious definition can be offered: “we are the insurgent multitudes, rebelling against the rule of global capitalism” sounded too woolly a decade ago, let alone now. Taking the least resistance path, Campagna and Campiglio settle for “single persons” to describe themselves and their comrades-in-arms before elaborating on the etymology of the word “person”, a useful exercise, but one that leaves the reader no wiser. You can, of course, always turn to ‘Notes on Contributors’ for clarifications; still, the identity of “us” remains vague, and by the end of the manifesto it is hard to decide whether to sign up for it or put it aside with a shrug. Names are only part of the problem.

This collection of articles written by academics, activists and journalists, among them David Graeber, Marina Sitrin, Owen Jones and Nina Power, focuses on all things new, that is, post-2008, its chapter titles ranging from ‘New Economics’ to ‘New Social Imagination’. There is certainly a demand for these concepts, especially now that the financial crisis has matured into a constant presence in our lives, and the book is a timely – indeed, necessary – attempt at formulating them. It does its best, but the absence of an established vocabulary typical for new protest movements (which often goes hand in hand with their lack of any serious, well-thought-out political agenda, as anyone who has ever tried talking to a random bunch of Occupy protesters would agree) shows. Someone has to do it, though, to start a conversation that many of us have been too busy, or complacent, or apolitical to have. I have to confess that in my case the main stopper has always been having no meaningful words for it, so I was keen to read a manual which, according to the blurb, “lays the ground for a new tactics of struggle”.

The manifesto’s several threads cover a range of spheres: economics, first and foremost, but also culture, media and, of course, environment. This last one I was least familiar with, and the book left me more confused than before, as the authors talked about their ideas over my head, hardly ever stopping to recap or define things. Mark J. Smith’s piece, with its intriguing title ‘Practical Utopianism and Ecological Citizenship’, mentions the latter notion a few times, most extensively in the last section, stating: “ecological citizenship challenges the assumption that citizenship is” associated with a number of characteristics; there follow eight points, but no definition of the concept in question. I can think of a great many things which “challenge” the proviso that something is “limited to members of (a sub-category of) the human species” (point four), but definition by exclusion is a more delicate business.

Considering similar issues in his aptly titled ‘Struggle for Meaning’, Shaun Chamberlin makes a lot more sense when he describes the Transition Towns, a network he has been involved with for a while. There may be no space for much detail, but at least we are told that “[t]he practical manifestations of this movement are […] ranging from food cooperatives [to] Energy Descent Action Plans”. Tradable energy quotas are also explained, and if the central idea of the piece – that our choices are determined by “the stories that will be told through our lives and our actions” – is still a little nebulous, it can be digested in some way or another. A “story” is usually linked to a “word”, so it’s a good starting point.

After all this, Owen Jones discussing “class politics with a green tinge” goes down quite easily: his article poses no verbal traps; nor does it provide any particularly shrewd insights. Most of us all know – in particular, from his 2011 book – that “workers need to reclaim a sense of pride and social worth” and that a new class politics is long overdue.

The article I was especially looking forward to reading, ‘The Transversal Function of Disentanglement’ by Franco Berardi “Bifo”, did little to help me liquidate my illiteracy. Here, the word “insurrection” is dissected, with somewhat unexpected results. “The etymology suggests that insurrection means getting up, arising, but also deploying the inner potencies of a body” – so far, so logical. But the next passage breaks the constructed argument by trying to strengthen it: apparently, “the concept of insurrection […] hints at the idea that the potency of the general intellect can no longer be contained by the capitalist mode of production.” That hint was too subtle for me to pick up. I could equally submit that the said concept defies democratic centralism – or, for that matter, the family, private property and the state. The author goes and overdoes it, creating the “I’m Brian, and so’s my wife!” effect. Curiously, when Bifo is expounding on the same word in a lecture, his ideas are fully cogent and never come across as far-fetched.

The same must have been true about the contributors’ talks at the ICA conference out of which the manifesto was born. Still, some of the articles collected here look power-pointed: no matter how fully and eloquently the authors explained themselves in their live talks, those of us who weren’t there are left with their bullet points, sometimes hastily recycled, sometimes frustratingly sketchy.

While the manifesto has failed to convert me into a fighter, I would not dismiss it outright. Its gaps are of a kind that can and should be restored, either in another, more comprehensive volume or by each of us, “single persons”, in our own time. Some authors, to give them their due, never skip over concepts, keeping their structure well organised. For instance, Hilary Wainwright’s ‘An Excess of Democracy’ is clear and informative, its title referring to the reaction of the powers that be to the social unrest of the ’60s and ’70s. Comparing the present-day situation to the political and economic crises of those times is more instructive than labelling everything that is happening now “new” without quite knowing what it translates into.

One of the best pieces in the collection is ‘A Programme of Media Reform’, contributed by Dan Hind. His analysis suffers from no illogical hiccups, his suggestions being quite radical yet plausible, namely: to let the public decide what the media should cover and to distribute funding to journalists and researchers in a democratic fashion. The proposals that “the money could be ‘top-sliced’ from the BBC” and that the corporation should “leave the public to commission the really controversial stuff” may sound utopian, but not totally unreasonable. Hind also praises the success of UK Uncut and understands the importance of being able to identify things: “first we must be clear about what we want.” He is right to conclude that “the road to freedom passes through a clarified system of knowledge. It is up to us to take the first step.” I wish I could say that this book, as a whole, is just such a step down a well-signposted route. On close inspection, however, it’s more like a cup of coffee (not Starbucks, naturally) for the road.

Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant and Zadie Smith.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, December 19th, 2012.