Demanding the future?... What a demand can do
By Bertie Russell
(Dr Bertie Russell is a member of Plan C MCR, and works as a lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Liverpool.)
‘Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will’ – Frederick Douglass, 1849 (1)
In the late-summer of 2014, around 180 people from a variety of political backgrounds attended a weekend long residential gathering in the UK entitled Fast Forward 2014: Demanding the Future? (FFW2014). Described as ‘a weekend of discussions, plenaries, workshops, walking, climbing and socialising’ based in the Peak District, the event was aimed at ’building new relationships, new ideas, new energies and new strategies that help equip us to enact the future’. Coordinated by the UK-based organization Plan C (2), this represented the organisation’s most ambitious undertaking to date, part of a broader process of ‘recomposition’ of the Left in the UK.
To understand the significance of FFW2014 requires briefly placing it within the specific peculiarities of the post-2008 British Left (or general lack thereof). In the first instance, Plan C has been attempting a process of recomposition in a time where the network-forms that dominated the past 20-years of left-activism have reached their limits, and where the most significant of the also-toothless left parties – the Socialist Workers Party – collapsed in on itself following internal attempts to silence rape allegations (3). As the one-sided class war continues to be waged under the moniker of ‘austerity’, neither the monolithic nor the pluralist forms of organizing have shown a capacity to resist the ongoing ‘zombie neoliberal’ restructuring of our daily lives – to say nothing of an ability to actually precipitate post-capitalist worlds.
On the other side of the coin is the complete failure to imagine worlds other than the present. This absence of the future is expressed through (at least) two limits of contemporary popular-leftist thought; in the first instance there is a fetishization of resistance, a celebration of any and every ‘struggle’ that emerges in opposition to austerity (4). Whilst resisting the onslaught of capitalist restructuring is necessary, and whilst these moments confirm that there is widespread dissatisfaction with world as it is, resistance as resistance is neither means nor end in itself. Secondly, there is an absence of any ability to think beyond Keynesian and quasi-Keynesian macro-economic responses to austerity - the “Plan B’s” that see an expansion of the public sector as the answer to our woes (5).
The UK, like many other places, thus faces a dual crisis of the left; we know neither the forms our organizing should take, nor exactly what we are fighting for. As Gareth Brown suggested in the first issue of B.A.M.N., ‘as the projected image of [a] neoliberal future has faded and faltered, its untenable nature exposed, we have flung back the curtain triumphantly to find, deflated, that our vision of the future isn’t there either’ (6). The project of recomposing a left is thus manifold; it is both about finding new ways of organizing that are appropriate to the contemporary organization of capital and labour, and it is about projecting different futures. If we are to do more than ‘resist’, it means returning to the fact that we are communists, where being a communist can be reduced to the simplest dictum that we have faith in our ability to organize our lives in ways that are better – healthier, fairer, more fulfilling, and less destructive - than those proposed by the managers of capital.
It is in this spirit that the theme of Demanding the Future? was chosen as a thread to run throughout FFW2014. An engagement with the ‘politics of demanding’ provides one entry-point among many for engaging with the dual concern of how ‘we’ organize and what ‘we’ are organizing towards, and does so without prioritizing or separating the questions.
What follows is my own contribution to one of the plenaries, which featured alongside talks by members of Critisticuffs (7) and Feminist Fightback (8). It must be clarified that what is offered is a personal contribution, and does not reflect an agreed position within the organization. It is published here with the hope that it will resonate and connect with others experiences, and help push forward a discussion of how the hell we ‘do communist politics’ in a world in which the future is currently foreclosed.
What can a demand do?
“How do we set in motion a process by which one group (most often, but not always a party) is no longer able to dominate all the others, seeking to remake them in its own image and where, at the same time, we are able to move beyond merely existing indifferently alongside each other?” (9)
This question, asked by Ben Trott in Turbulence Magazine as the anti-summit movement reached a hiatus in 2007, is central to why we are here today. How do we ignite a process which, to use language that constrains the political imaginary, is neither vertical nor horizontal? How do we set in motion a process of solidarity, one in which collective political power begins to coalesce, which at the same time not only preserves but amplifies every voice that composes it?
We know that there is no privileged subject – such as the industrial worker – whom is structurally placed to set this process in motion on our behalf. From those unemployed to those unwaged, students to affective labourers, from the destitute to the comfortable, to anti-prison struggles to campaigns for migrant rights, this process must be one that draws its strength from where it intersects, rather than attempting to impose the ‘One True Struggle’. Yet this does not mean the abandonment of common goals in favour of an uncritical celebration and affirmation of difference.
This question is thus one of the formative questions for Plan C, one of the principal reasons we exist. Born from previous cycles of movements and organizations – all with the intention of moving in, against and beyond capitalism – the question of ‘how we can constitute ourselves as a political force appropriate to the future we want to produce’ is central to what brings us together.
Indeed, it was from the debris of an event 4 years ago that some of us began to travel together, guided by the shared feeling that the language, the tools, the practices and the frameworks of thought available to us were inadequate to the task. If we wanted to compose forces capable not only of ‘pushing back’ against capital, but of making capital redundant, we needed to generate novel processes and practices for organizing alongside one another. It is clear that this need has not gone away!
This ultimately is a question that has been brewing for years; from Hardt & Negri’s conceptualization of the multitude – a heterogeneous-class-without form – through to the Zapatistas “walking we ask questions”, how we politically compose this nebulous class without falling back into traps of the past has long been what any want-to-be-revolutionary has been charged with. Yes, we are all Zapatistas!, but how?
That question is also what FFW2014 is about. Not searching for a theoretical answer to an interesting question, but a practical experiment to help us see what works, and what doesn’t; what could be useful, and what takes us down blind alleys. It is in this spirit that some members of Plan C have previously referred to what we are doing as producing neither a party, nor a network, but rather a ‘community of reference’ – with everything those words can imply. Shared languages, shared emotions, shared perspectives, and a commonality in our direction. Yet at the same time, neither ‘community’ nor ‘reference’ allow a reduction to ‘the one’ – it demands an openness to different languages, different emotions, different perspectives, but again a commonality in our direction.
This is, I think, a lovely idea! The idea of “a community of reference” is a provisional step towards answering the question of what Plan C is doing… but what now! The reason we’ve orientated this years Fast Forward around ‘demands’ is to try and explore how demands – as a political form – may help or hinder us in producing this ‘community of reference’, to go from a multitude in the abstract to the concrete.
We are thus not interested just yet in “which demands” are the “right ones”. Whilst it is difficult to think through demands as a political form in the abstract, jumping straight into a discussion of ‘which is the right demand’ suggests that there is some predetermined correct answer waiting to be discovered by some mythical leftist prophet. It also presupposes that we all share an idea of what we expect a ‘demand’ to be capable of. It is this question that I want to address: “what can a demand do?”; can demands help produce a community of reference that operates differently to the party and the network? Can they help us leave behind the tired view of the world as ‘horizontal’ and ‘vertical’?
Introducing a sample demand
Before moving forward then, I’d like to introduce a ‘sample demand’ that I’ll use to help us explore this question of what we want a demand to do. I’ll mention that this demand hasn’t been carefully formulated, it’s not been discussed within Plan C, and I’m not suggesting that this is necessarily something we’d find desirable. Rather, I’m treating this demand as a proposition that can help us think through some of the elements I’m about to introduce.
“Any privately owned building, space or piece of land left inactive for more than 6 months, is expropriated and returned to common redistribution, to be allocated to any collective project that is deemed to have reasonable, non-profitable use for it”.
For shorthand, I’ll call it the ‘demand for universal expropriation’.
Approaching demands as a technical-science
Conventionally, when we think about demands, we tend to assess them as proposals for technical assessment. Is ‘X’ demand realistic? Is Y demand really workable without causing untold economic chaos? Is Z demand ‘a nice idea’ but just ‘too utopian’? These technical analyses all take place as a consideration of whether a specific proposal can be realized within the current relationship of forces of capitalism. Responses can range from an outright rejection based on maintaining some form of economic principle, through to an outright rejection based on an assessment that it won’t immediately deliver full-communism wrapped up under the Christmas tree.
It is from this technical perspective that we get trapped in ‘objective’ questions of whether a basic income of £72 per week would lead to uncontrollable inflation, or whether capital could tolerate a surplus labour force that it has to pay for whether or not it is being directly utilized. Whilst these forms of analysis may be useful, what are the implications of approaching demands in this purely technical sense?
Whilst this speculation can make for a quite exciting undertaking, how do the majority of us relate to this? Personally, it encourages me to treat any ‘demand’ as if it were something that requires scientific analysis; political action becomes determined on whether the demand can be ‘proven’ to be the ‘correct course of action’. In turn, this leaves me feeling disempowered, as my desire to act becomes conditional on some specialist group ‘who knows better than me’ determining the best course of action – once a party cadre, now the academic? Assessing demands through this scientific lens has an inherent danger of creating a relationship where there are some who are much more powerful than others; there are those who in a position to make claims to holding ‘the truth’, and those who are required to put their faith in it, or face their actions being considered deviant, irrelevant or even counter-revolutionary. The shepherd, the sheep, and the infidel – perhaps not the form of organizing we are looking to return to!
We can also see how this technical reduction of what is and is not possible within the current composition of capital reduces social change down to a question of management - who will have the most truthful account of how we should act? Having suitably researched and prepared a silver bullet, what remains for the specialists and scientists is to persuade individuals to join an undifferentiated mass – the act of ‘building the party’ behind the one-true revolutionary act. It is not the specifics of your lived experience that need to be taken into account, but your capacity to be massified.
Approaching demands as political
So what if we alternatively look to approach demands, not as an object for verification through a cold lens of political economy, but rather ask ‘what can a demand do to the political composition of the class?’.
If we start from here, we can perhaps realize that demands might help us build a community of reference – neither a single unity nor an uncritical celebration of difference – that changes the stakes of any technical analysis of what is currently possible. We must remember that the technical composition of the present is an interplay of forces; how we are politically composed changes the forces at play, and can affect fundamental changes in what seems possible.
So what could a demand do, at the level of our political composition? Or rather, what do we want a demand to do?
Firstly, we want a demand to be something that produces a new social actor. A demand should act as a subjectifying force, which is to say, through fighting for and looking to articulate a demand in different contexts, it produces new language and practices between seemingly disparate groups. Rather than diverse interests groups pursuing aims that others can only sympathize with, a demand should open up a common ground between diverse experiences.
A demand should help form a process that is greater than the sum of it’s parts, is irreducible to its parts, and that cannot exist without its heterogeneous parts. You cannot have a forest without the diversity of life that composes it; a forest that destroys its diverse ecosystem ceases to be a forest.
- Secondly, this means that we want a demand to be something that can be articulated differently in different contexts, that works differently for different people in different places, living through different conditions. It is through the commonality of the demand – a demand which holds different implications to different people – that channels for communication are opened up.
We can think here of how and what the “community of reference” means in reality; you and I may relate to a demand differently, its fulfillment may imply different changes to your life than it does to mine. A demand will mean something different to an unemployed Caucasian 20-year old male in Glasgow to a middle-aged Asian single-mother of two living in Bradford. Yet we can speak across these differences, as the common demand provides a connection and basis not for ‘sympathy’, but for solidarity – we want a demand to produce commonality across difference, not through the denial of difference.
- Thirdly, we want this novel social force to be capable of breaking the rules of what we are told is possible. I like this phrase “demand the impossible”, but there is something in it that is fundamentally misleading, taking us down confusing avenues regarding our capacity to effect political change.
In 1961, the German critical theorist Herbert Marcuse gave a short lecture entitled ‘The End of Utopia’, in which he suggested that word ‘impossible’ has two different meanings that have been allowed to bleed into one another. Either, 1) we are talking about “the impossibility of realizing the project of a new society, due to the subjective and objective factors that stand in the way of the transformation”, or 2) we are talking about “a project which contradicts certain scientifically established laws, biological laws, physical laws” when something is strictly speaking a physical impossibility.
It is only this second form that truly constitutes the ‘impossible’ – the first form can only, at most, be designated as “provisionally unfeasible”.
The failure to establish the societies we want is a political matter and has nothing to do with possibility vs. impossibility. What we want is only considered impossible by the small minority who are directly interested in keeping the present intact, those who falsely believe that economics is a science (whether they be from the Left or the Right), or the vast numbers of us that have become so blinkered by capitalist realism that we see the social rules we live by as existing outside and before life itself.
As the Berlin-based group FeLS (“For a Left Current” (10)) suggests, “Nothing is as it is because it is so! Social systems are man-made, and power relations have no inherent right to exist. Man as an acting subject can combat power relations with other people in collective form and change it“.
This then is the response to those who want to make scientific/technical claims regarding the impossibility or futility of a demand based on its technical feasibility in the present. A demand should be a tool that helps in the political composition of the class, such that what was once considered “provisionally unfeasible” comes onto the horizon. What we want isn’t impossible, it just hasn’t happened yet.
So to re-cap – what do ‘we’ want a demand to do? Firstly, a demand should play a compositional role, helping to coalesce a new social force that is greater than the sum of its parts, is irreducible to its parts, but that cannot exist without its different components. Secondly, it should act as a point of solidarity, a language that intersects through and across different lives. It can make my struggle your struggle, without obfuscating our differences and reducing us to a homogenous mass. Thirdly, to the extent that the demand helps to compose new forces, it can make what was provisionally unfeasible an imminent possibility. It can help change the horizon of what is realizable.
These three elements that I’ve highlighted are not independent – I’d suggest that we are not interested in thinking about the ‘demand’ as a political form if it takes only a partial approach to these requirements. Indeed, there are perhaps many more elements or qualities that we are looking for, yardsticks by which we can undertake a political assessment of a demand.
Concluding through assessing the sample demand
Perhaps I can conclude through applying this triple-requirement to the provocative demand for ‘universal expropriation’. How could we imagine this demand fulfilling these requirements? In the first instance, we can see how this is a provocation which is not technically feasible in the present. It is clear that, with social forces poised as they are, it would seem utterly unrealistic to pose this – yet we also know that this does not make it impossible. It is clearly not a biological, physical or chemical impossibility that this process of commonization could occur; that institutions and processes could exist that would make this part of the fabric of what we call society - it would certainly confuse the limit-point of ‘property’ as a right within capitalist social relations. It only appears impossible given the current balance of forces – the very struggle for it makes it a more realistic proposition, as we coalesce and compose ourselves, the horizon of feasibility changes.
But why would this demand hold more valence than any other, such as the demand for a military base to be closed in a given community? I would expect many on the left would sympathise with such a demand, but that does not lead it to fulfill the categories of what I will now name as a directional demand (11). To engage requires one to either be directly affected or to act out of belief in an abstract principle (a right for community decision-making, or anti-militarization more generally), to join a campaign, and to become an ‘activist’. Whilst the closure of a given military base is perhaps a commendable and necessary goal – something to desire – the concept of solidarity here is one that is based on a fundamental detachment. The struggle is particular – it has very little to potential to resonate through different contexts, only to be imitated. Its proposition cannot be articulated differently-yet-in-common through other struggles.
The difference of a demand such as ‘universal expropriation’ is its potential to speak to different contexts, a provocation that will mean different things to different people. I may struggle for this demand because of my own dreams, because of having experienced different persecutions, because it provides a partial way out of my own anxieties, worries and fears. Yet the demand that space be returned to the common pool does nothing to pre-determine what it will be used for; from the establishment of common-agricultural projects through to popular theatres, industrial workshops, common-schooling projects, or simply some truly affordable housing. The demand is common – you may want it, and I may want it, for very different reasons – but it does not deny or override our differences. Indeed, the strength is that we find something whereby our differences are held in common.
And it is this – the ability for our differences to be held in common, and articulated as a common goal – that opens up the space for a new language. What does it mean when the 20-year old Glaswegian finds common-cause with the single-mother of two in Bradford? How do we come to understand one another – how can we both be fighting for the same thing, when we are so different? It is not for us to predetermine what discussions will be had, or what language will emerge, but coalescing around a commonality may provide the strongest way of us understanding our differences.
1. Douglass, F.  (1991) Letter to an abolitionist associate. In Organizing For Social Change: A Mandate For Activity In The 1990s. Edited by K. Bobo, J. Kendall, and S. Max. Washington, D.C.: Seven Locks Press.
2. weareplanc.org (back)
3. http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2014/05/comrades-war-decline-and-fall-socialist-workers-party (back)
4. cf. Costas Douzinas, ‘Welcome to the age of resistance’, openDemocracy, 1 March 2014. Available from: http://www.opendemocracy.net/can-europe-make-it/costas-douzinas/welcome-to-age-of-resistance
5. http://www.weareplanc.org/a-is-for-austerity/ (back)
6. Brown, G. (2014) ‘Invisible Planet’, B.A.M.N. Issue One. pp. 21 (back)
7. https://critisticuffs.org/ (back)
8. http://www.feministfightback.org.uk/ (back)
9. http://turbulence.org.uk/turbulence-1/walking-in-the-right-direction/ (back)
10. http://fels.nadir.org/de/992/fels-towards-left-wing-current (back)
11. The ‘directional demand’ is a term outlined by Ben Trott in his Turbulence article. (back)