JD Taylor is the author of Negative Capitalism: Cynicism in the Neoliberal Era and got in touch to ask if we’d be interested in an article along similar themes – we were very interested indeed, and you can read his article below.
And while we were waiting for summer to arrive, JD whipped us off a very special blog post about the People’s Assembly. He’s also going to be giving a talk alongside another of our contributors, Mark Fisher, at Housmans bookshop in September – put it in your diary now!
Evening’s Gentle Sun – bored, hungry, shattered, skint, by JD Taylor.
The evening’s gentle sun is sinking, and the red skies above the soon-to-be demolished council high-rises carry an air of extraordinary beauty, simplicity and peace.
Beneath the palisades of CCTV posts, surplus street-signs and rolling billboards, I cycle through familiar streets, a nice way to pass the time and keep fit when you can’t afford to meet friends in pubs or eat much except processed foods (frozen, tinned or dried). The bike’s seen better days but it’s a gift from my Dad, from the last generation of workers who can still expect a pension – at the expense of long-frozen wages and delayed retirement. I could go back home, but my head’s still reeling from arguing with my partner again about how skint we are and the growing number of things we can’t fix. So I’ll keep cycling a little further, marvelling at the beauty of the sky this evening.
I wrote a book called Negative Capitalism: Cynicism in the Neoliberal Era about a year ago, while I was still in work and fizzed up from the then-recent events of the student protests and August 2011 riots. Unlike others I was weary of reading, I didn’t want to add another condescending Return to Marx text, nor a denunciation of everyday life without a sense of humour or happy ending. Instead, it drew up a shopping list of new means and ideas of revolt, proceeding from strategic optimism. But things have changed in many respects, shifting into a more indistinct moment, an interregnum between the collapsed political legitimacy of neoliberalism since 2008 and some new dark night of reaction and opportunity. That the book has just been published by Zero Books now is strange for me, and the work reads like a love-letter or note written by yourself five or ten years ago, animated by a foreign, naive bravura for transformation and revenge that has become dulled over the stalemates and no-score draws of the last few months.
In particular, the voice of James Connolly, Irish socialist revolutionary and one of the leaders of the Easter 1916 Uprising, booms out and addresses our contemporary melancholia, a near-century on: ‘the great appear great to us only because we are on our knees: let us rise’.
Roll Connolly’s words around in your mouth again, feel the syllables with your tongue. Though all forms of the British establishment have lost all legitimacy and moral authority – be they politicians, bankers, newspapers, police forces, monarchy, church or the army – we, the collective body of people living and working in Britain, have yet to confront them, bring them to justice, or meaningfully prevent their cuts and impositions. For that reason their class war continues, with government policies motivated only to benefit the most wealthy: privatisation and private tendering of public services and justice, tax cuts for high earners and businesses, QE for banks, removal of legal aid and the welfare state, eviction of the poor from inner cities, de-skilling labour, reducing university access and teaching/learning standards, and so on.
Some people are toying with a bogus idea of national independence, straight out of an episode of Downton Abbey. It’s compelling that images of country-pubs or cucumber sandwiches on village greens should appeal to the disenfranchised of the bland suburban sprawls and Tesco towns of the M25, Midlands and Home Counties. But nationalism offers an immediate win-or-lose, us-or-them narrative, which in disorientated times appeals – offers clarity and stability, a purpose. I reckon it’s time we started thinking about our own narratives.
Our narrative could begin with a question: for how much longer do they dare ignore our anger?
It leads me to a few observations. First, evidence of popular anger is everywhere, in ways activists always underestimate. The crimes of politicians and banker are well-known and recited often, but so far with a sigh of defeat or cynicism. It’s as if misrepresentation and dishonesty are undesirable but necessary features of a democracy. This anger races around without an outlet like a bee in a hot room, repeatedly colliding against that one bit of the window that’s still shut. Occasionally it erupts in spectacularly self-destructive and horrible ways, like psychotic killing sprees in schools, malls or high-streets, or in self-immolations or suicide bomb attacks.
It’s a matter of tactics, then. Aside from the passive marches from frustration to impotence, or the self-serving reactionaries of TV political debate, our discontents are electively expressed online. Untold labour is expended in e-petitions, comments, blogging and social media exchanges, and great ideas are developed and put to the collective test. Problem is when these words and symbols are mistaken for political activity. The recently-leaked NSA online surveillance programme demonstrates that our western political leaders seek to indiscriminately record every communication each of us makes, and in their paranoiac endeavour, can count on the collusion of the handful of web/software magnates who have now monopolised the net. Online radicalism becomes not just a talk shop but a honey trap.
Besides, even well-directed talk changes nothing when the political establishment has no intention of listening to anyone except the rich. Perhaps it’s not a problem with our words, but a problem with the question. They have no obligation to ignore or hear our anger. In the UK at least, there is no meaningful political constitution or moment of consent, a social contract, for citizens. I think there should be. Politicians are only accountable to those interests that sustain them – wealthy donors mainly, but also security forces. With political parties in all countries now in practice identical, the interests of one part of the electorate or another are irrelevant.
Lastly, our situation isn’t unique to our country or specific era. Since the 19th century there has been talk each decade of an age of anxiety, of the necessity of austerity. It’s a type of language typically used to justify bankers and politicians becoming richer whilst the working class have their living conditions substantially reduced. Across Europe and America, the situation’s similar: tax cuts for the rich and privatisation of public services, paid for by wage decreases, rising rents and prices. But the error is in seeing anything new in this. Though this is neoliberalism, it follows the same logic as 19th century capitalism. If anything, we’re going back in time, with workhouses, pawnshops, food-banks, overcrowding, poverty ghettos, illiteracy and a lifetime of debt on our Victorian horizon.
The problem facing anyone with a mind or heart who seeks to oppose the miserable circumstances above is that the new political act of the 21st century has not yet been discovered. The first stone has not yet been thrown, and genuinely new tactics of resistance and creation await discovery. It could involve a simple narrative that mobilises collective power, that speaks of collective desire, that isn’t just online, or passive, or strategically irrelevant like the march, petition, or town hall grumbledown. They will hear your anger once you force them to listen. Though this expression must emphasise not the clarity or meaning of the words, what has been so long quibbled and theorised over, but the power and charisma of their expression.
With that, I step away from the soapbox of certainties and back into the night’s bruised light, the black and the gold of streetlamps beating against bust-up pavements and bursting buddleia. I’m bored, hungry, shattered, skint. There’s nowhere left to escape to but back the here and now, and for that I’m glad. Nothing less than a basic quality of life is what we ask for. In our struggles for the present, nothing less than the future is at stake.
JD Taylor is a writer and PhD researcher from south London. His book Negative Capitalism: Cynicism in the Neoliberal Era was published recently by Zero Books.
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