Which left should those Better Questions be directed at?

Slide from Better QuestionsI was at the Better Questions seminar in Semora last Wednesday for a discussion of the ideas of two French philosophers Jacques Ranciere and Alain Badiou. The audio recording of the seminar is below, here I wander into a discussion of the fundamental concept underpinning the seminars and an argument that the Better Questions need to be directed as much at the 'moment of movements' as at the 'old left' which I argue it has now joined. This and the previous BQ session seem to share a similar problem to me, that the presentations are demolishing a left that has not only been simplified for the purpose of the argument but which almost no longer exists. What is more in terms of the audience its almost completely a left that no one in the room has or even had much faith in.

The problem with putting forward polemical arguments in that context is that rather than correcting problems with the actual movement they have the clear danger of causing a large overshoot in the opposite direction though cultivating an informal group think in opposition to what are identified as problems. In the specifics of the talk I focused in on what was expressed as a pretty absolute rejection of unions (as a tool of the state) and what looked like a similar rejection of any collectively agreed self-discipline.

For ideas to be challenging rather then enforcing certainties depends very much on the context and in particular who the audience is. Any of the presentations would have been challenging to a room full of SIPTU officials or Labour Party TD's. But your average Seomra audience is not going to be challenged by ideas that the left is outdated, that unions are ineffective (or even part of the state), that community can trump class, that organisational loyalty and discipline can be a problem etc etc. With the exception of Laurence's presentation in the previous talk on Community (with which I disagreed) the seminars to date have very much tended to tell the people who attended what they are already comfortable with. Challenging them would have involved arguing the opposite of the now commonly accepted assumptions I list. I suspect that's part of the reason why the discussions afterwards have often lacked bite and tended to drift into irrelevances about the arrangement of chairs in the room. The one aspect where the seminars departed with the new left orthodoxy.

Seomra operates in the political space created by 'the movement of movements,' one term for the coalition that emerged in the period from the Zapatista rising of 1994 to the Seattle, Quebec, Prague and Genoa summit protests. This new left was organised on a very different basis to the previous post Stalin 'new left' which had ran from the 1968 to 1989 and that in turn was a break from the previous 'new left' Leninism of 1917 to 1956. The various writings of the 'movement of movements' were once a new challenge to 'the left' when it was restricted to these old lefts. But now I think such writings have become a new left orthodoxy. That is the 'movement of movements' has become another 'old left' even if as with previous waves the previous 'old left's are also still in the background to be argued against.

I think we need to consider that the imaginative period of the 'movement of movements' ran from 1994 to the Genoa summit protest of July 2001.  Or in other words that it too has been a stagnant 'old left' for almost a decade. Genoa is arguably an early termination date. But it feels right. It was certainly when we discovered that the radical new tactics (or rather 'diversity of tactics') developed could be defeated by state violence just as easily as previous tactical innovations could. One could be more generous and move the stagnation forward a couple of years to the invasion and occupation of Iraq of 2003. Again an exact date can be argued for, February 15th 2003, when the world marched against the coming war, power told us it really didn't care what we thought and we all slunk home to watch the bombing of Baghdad on Fox News. I'm more inclined to argue for the earlier date because the post Genoa stagnation of the new left allowed the 'old left' offshoots of leninism to climb back in the driving seat and run the anti-war movement in a way they could not run the summit protest movement. Our attempts to challenge this were as ineffective as out attempts to challenge the war.

In the introduction to this BQ seminar recording Mick said "A lot of the concepts we work with on the radical left are in something of a crisis or at least no longer aim to allow us to radically critique the forms of power." The problem I think is not that this claim is wrong, it is obviously correct. It is that the Better Questions series has translated this as a need for the 'movement of movement' left to overturn the orthodoxies of the Leninist left. Sometimes as with this seminar through arguments that are even sourced more in a faction of the post-Stalinist left then the 'movement of movements' left. At least the arguments that we have heard have been directed along the lines of familiar debates, idea put forward by the Situationists or before them Council Communists. But, if as I argue the 'movement of movement' left has also stagnated then these critiques of the older left far from asking Better Questions may hide that stagnation behind a 'at least we are better than that old crowd' set of rhetorical questions.

At least in part I suspect that the problem here is building the critique around published academic writings rather than a lack of willingness to self-criticise. Not in this case because of a problem with academics but because there is a considerable delay between a shift in the left, that shift being understood by the academy, texts that describe this being developed, publishers being found, books being printed and those books becoming widely enough known to become the basis of a critique. I think its not coincidental that the actual texts at the peak of the 'movement of movements' were 'No Logo' a polemical journalistic piece published at the right particular moment or a multitude of short, often internet published pieces that were sometimes gathered into collections along the lines of 'We are everywhere'. The early attempts at academic analysis from 'Empire' to 'Changing the World without Taking Power' were actually pretty woeful and haven't stood the (brief) text of time since publication.

Perhaps the Better Questions we need to ask are not the questions of the post 68 generation, nor even those of the 'movement of movements' but rather those that address the failure of both these waves of 'new left' organising, 'ours' as well as 'theirs'. At this moment in time the most obvious immediate questions revolve around the failure of all fragments of the left to create any meaningful resistance to the crisis but as I suggest above these can also be extended back to the absolute defeat of what was a massive anti-war movement in 2003. In the context of the first seminar the massive defeat of the racist Citizenship Referenda in Ireland and the institutionalization of extreme border controls in Europe and North America with the complete acceptance and indeed support of the resident populations is another failure we need to question. The Better Question standard blurb includes "Our point of convergence is our recognition that we must develop better questions about the world around us in order to change it" which suggests to me a willingness for this, the problem I suggest above is a tendency towards developed ideas that cannot serve as as a basis to do so because they predate these events.  These tend to re-enforce rather than challenge our mistakes because at least some of our mistakes are the products of over correcting those of previous 'lefts.' I'm thinking in particular of the complete failure to engage with mainstream unions.

In writing this I'm not criticizing the organisation that has gone into the Better Questions seminars to date. Indeed its very useful that a pattern of using Seomra for political discussions has been established because one of the problems of the stagnation of the 'movement of movements' is that such discussions often stopped or were substituted for by organising for the 'next big summit protest' (™). Political discussion has tended to be avoided beyond the search for the next buig thing. The last few years feel very sterile to me in comparison with the decade that ran from 1994 to 2004. There is value in the actual presentations we have heard, I've found it very useful to hear a more formal presentation of the ideas I've become used to hearing in random conversations. I'm just of the opinion that they have tended more towards 'Not Quite so Old Answers' as opposed to the 'Better Questions' promised in the title.

I'll interject at this point to say that this blog post has developed in a direction that wasn't intended at the start (I'll have to go back and re-write the first paragraph). But that is the reason why I started blogging, as a sort of out loud first draft of what will sometimes be provocative criticisms. The frustration with stagnation I suggest above isn't confined to Better Questions or Seomra but extends through all the organisations I have or am involved in over the period from 2004 to 2010. I'll list WSM, NEFAC and Common Cause in with the rest of them and I know in at least two out of those three cases a majority of members would understand why I do so.

During the week I took part in a meeting to discuss winding up the Social Solidarity Network, yet another failed attempt to restart things on the basis of 'movement of movement' thinking. (It decided not to wind up but to recognize that it didn't become what it wanted even if it remains a useful name to organize some future activity under). The last year has seen the failure of our unions to organize against a massive offensive against workers, a failure that I've been arguing extends all the way from the top leaders down to every ordinary member. This week I've been watching one of the small campaign groups I'm involved in tear itself apart in a set of stupid email exchanges, the same thing almost happened with another and I’ve heard reports from comrades of the danger that what could be a major community struggle around a new Water Tax is becoming an electoral carve up from the get go.  Perhaps here I'm indicating that the blog may largely be a product of immediate frustrations, I think not though but disclaimer duly delivered.

We do in other words need better questions even if Better Questions doesn't really seem to be asking them yet (but then who is, or how do we move towards doing so?) But the shake up that needs to happen is no longer a shake up restricted to the Leninist, or post Stalin left but one that includes the 'movement of movements'. Those earlier lefts failed to deliver, so too have we and it is past time to unpick our certainties and methods alongside theirs.

Audio: 1. The left and the ideas of Jacques Ranciere and Alain Badiou
Audio 2: Discussion about the above presentation


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