The Covid Post

I chose this image for my last post but it also seems relevant now.

It’s now many months since I wrote my first blog post. I had been hoping to write at least one per month but not only found myself very busy in February and March but by the end of March had contracted (almost definitely) Covid-19 and while I was only severely ill for a short period of time, I have since then been suffering from what has been called the ‘long tail’ form of the virus.

As Paul Garner, a professor at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, recently wrote: ‘Symptoms come and go, are strange and frightening. The exhaustion is severe, real, and part of the illness.’ Thankfully, I am now more or less over it and am relieved to find that I am not the only one for whom it has dragged on for so long.

So, I have a bit of catching up to do. I started this blog as an attempt to work through some of my research interests and connect the dots. The pandemic has thrown up some interesting ways for this to happen and there is lots I could write about. For one thing, it is amazing how a tiny thing, a thing smaller than an individual cell or bacterium (viruses are generally about 100 nanometers in length) could cause so many enormous changes. The virus is an entity on the boundary of what counts as being alive because it commandeers the host’s cells to produce multiple copies of itself, and has initiated enormous changes in human behaviour and governmental action including shutting down large sections of the economy.  It has shown our interdependency on each other, and the planet’s ecosystem. Not only that but it has made visible inequalities and structures of governance that we knew were there but couldn’t see so clearly.  Changes that we deemed impossible before the pandemic, especially in relation to carbon emissions, happened incredibly quickly.

On the day I came down with Covid-19, philosopher and sociologist Bruno Latour posted a series of questions for people to think about during lockdown. Latour asked people to think about the activities that have been suspended due to the pandemic and decide which ones should resume and which should not. His questions also ask us to think about how people who were engaged in the activities we don’t want to resume should be helped to transition to do other things. These are great questions and ones that can get us to think about transitions, connections and relationships, that we really are part of an ecosystem with chains of consequences. However, something that perhaps they miss are things that have emerged during the crisis that we might want to continue in some way or at least to exert an influence on how we resume. This is about continuing or developing something that has emerged rather than just encouraging or discouraging something that has been stopped. I’m thinking about the rise in altruism, goodwill and neighbourliness during the pandemic and in particular the appearance of Covid-19 mutual aid groups which happened very quickly as lockdown was taking place. There is currently a network of small groups across the UK that is loosely affiliated but not centrally coordinated in any way. This is echoed in other countries such as Spain where there are also groups all over the country. Anna Kleist, who set up one of the first in Lewisham, recounts how they very quickly ‘went viral’.  The obvious pun here might be too much of a cliché given the severity of the pandemic, however, Covid has perhaps ‘given us a model of contamination’ in which the personal and the collective are not totally distinct or discrete. Ideas, knowledge and organising models can also move quickly.

Mutual aid practices are nothing new. The concept stems from a 1902 series of essays by anarchist-communist philosopher Peter Kropotkin and it has been widely practiced by radical and marginalised communities to provide for their everyday needs, especially in circumstances in which state provision has not been forthcoming or deemed prejudicial. The fact that these groups have appeared perhaps does point to something that has not been forthcoming even if the anarchist roots of the practice become obscured. Crises can prompt paradigm shifts precisely by highlighting the limitations of existing norms, beliefs and practices. They can provide opportunities for the re-evaluation and reappraisal of dominant values. Years of austerity and neoliberalism have placed more and more burden on the individual to look after themselves as the state withdraws. The pandemic has not only highlighted this but the deep inequalities that underpin much of society.

The groups themselves may not directly challenge the status quo or see themselves as political, although many of them were set up precisely to deal with some of these inequalities. The assistance they offer such as picking up someone’s shopping, is not antagonistic to the logic of capital, and may ultimately act as a sticking plaster especially if the groups develop along more charity based lines. However, they challenge the limits of commodity exchange through the development of social solidarity.

What might emerge from this mass organising, whether the groups do just develop into neighbourhood charities or entities that have more radical potential, remains to be seen. Deborah Grayson has argued that they could promote a kind of ‘radical neighbourliness‘, entailing a long term commitment and an increasing willingness to tackle injustice.  Certainly, from reports, it seems some of them have already resisted evictions that should not have been happening because of the lockdown laws, even as others are being heavily policed for anything ‘political’.  They could also encourage more micro-democratic organising: that is, the development of local structures such as community councils that allow people in a given area to hold decision-makers to account.

Even if they don’t develop further as organisations as such, the fact is that an increase in social solidarity could help to rewrite our social and political imaginary with a shift in focus towards a more caring idea of the common good. Coupled with a hopefully wider acknowledgement of the existence and effects of racism that the Black Lives Matter protests have encouraged (and an increasing commitment to do something about it), this could create a real shift in values. Watch this space.

Connecting the dots…..

Five-thousand-randomly-located-individuals-dots-on-a-landscape-surface-of_W640I have decided to start blogging in order to try to bring together and connect the dots between my various research interests. I am hoping that as I write, some of these will come together to form either a coherent body of writing or identifiable strands that I can develop further in my research.

For this post, I want to focus on a particular gap or interface in our political culture. This seems especially important in the aftermath of the 2019 UK election and the continued rise of various kinds of contemporary fascisms. Writing as I am now in early January 2020, one of the things I want to do is to reflect on what kinds of theory and practice might be needed in order to counter these, to develop grassroots capacity, solidarity and counter-power.

Living as I do in a housing co-op, I am interested in alternative and ‘autonomous’ forms of organisation and practices of grassroots democracy. By autonomous, I mean non-hierarchical, de-centralised organisational structures and counter-institutions on the edges of mainstream culture and political economy. There have been several waves of these kinds of organisations. The housing co-operative I live in comes out of a wave during the 1970s. There was a previous wave during the 1930s, and a more recent one around 2011 with the square and Occupy movements. These kinds of alternative organisations have coincided with experiments in different modes of democracy. One question I could ask is what the relationship of these micro-democratic practices have to democracy as a whole. Is it a mistake to link the two?

Increasing democracy in the widest possible sense seems to be vital in order to respond to the current erosion of democratic culture. However, it can come with its own challenges because the areas of life that become contestable increase. Mark E. Warren writes that an increase in democratic decision making can put a strain on the social fabric in ways that we are not used to.

Most social interactions we can take for granted – not because they do not involve risks, but rather because the risks are contained; they are governed by a myriad of intricate forms of shared social knowledge, such as the rules governing reciprocity when one gives and receives gifts. Politics emerges when these forms of shared knowledgeability fray and become contestable so that the risks of social interactions are no longer predictable.[i]

Earlier in December, I was involved in a project with the School for Civic Action, an experiment in alternative urban pedagogy run by Public Works, a critical design practice.[ii] At one event in Blackfriars on community charters, there was an interesting discussion about the gap or disconnect between local councils and communities. I use the word communities advisedly here, as it has to be acknowledged that community is a catch-all phrase which belies complex realities. There are many different types of community-based in a geographical area or around particular interests. Also at the event was a worker from a managing agent for housing cooperatives. She talked about a similar disconnect between the organisation and the co-ops that they help to manage. In both cases, there seems to be the tension or clash between very different cultures, and particularly cultures with different ideas of structure and democracy. I’ve also come across similar tensions between activist groups and local government. This is perhaps not so surprising, as activist groups very often make a point of organising non-hierarchically and are set up in order to lobby organisations such as councils. While the machinery of local government is often, as cyberneticist Stafford Beer described it, a machine of inertia.[iii] Local councillors seem beleaguered and fearful. They seem to be continually in fear of being attacked. If councillors were open to admitting that the machinery they are a part of is in large part, a machinery of inertia, perhaps they could invite and accept activists’ role in lobbying them, in order to give them more momentum to change things or to apply pressure that they couldn’t otherwise.

I am also currently involved in the editorial team of the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest (JOAAP). For the next issue, issue 11, JOAAP has invited groups to produce newsletters to circulate within their particular communities.[iv] These will then be collected together to produce the issue. The initial invitation asks how autonomous critical, creative and activist practices might create a commons while retaining their specific conditions/situations. In particular, those that are situated outside of cultural and political institutions. It suggests that ‘the gap between the radical imaginary built on actual social capacity, and formal politics’ might be reclaimed. This is another way of talking about the gap I already identified. Might there be something productive in thinking about or even dwelling in it?

 

[i] Mark E. Warren, What should we expect from more democracy? : Radically Democratic Responses to Politics, Political Theory , Vol. 24, No. 2 (May, 1996), pp. 241-270

[ii] https://www.publicworksgroup.net/projects/school-for-civic-action

[iii] Eden Medina, Cybernetic Revolutionaries: technology and politics in Allende’s Chile, (2011) MIT

[iv] http://www.joaap.org/issue11/issue11note.htm