The Big Community

by Rich

A few doors down from Fortnum & Mason’s on London’s Piccadilly might seem like  an odd place for a community centre offering free computer classes, tea dances, free legal advice and a charity shop. Someone just happening upon the place might find that it jars somewhat with its surroundings. Who would have thought that in such an upmarket area there were groups of people who had need of such facilities?

The community centre has not been opened by the council, however. There are rumours among the people who use it that a mystery benefactor is behind it. And indeed this is the case; although the centre’s staff are not eager to spread the information around, the centre is the creation of the Swiss artist Christoph Büchel.

However, for those visiting the centre as an art work rather than to use its facilities, it is disorientating to experience just how much the installation, which seamlessly occupies the entirety of the premises of the Hauser and Wirth gallery, is functioning as a fully-formed community centre, with large groups of mostly older people enjoying the facilities and making the space their own. There seems to be a general sentiment that it is a shame that a facility which is clearly both necessary and appreciated is not provided by local councils and that it will also close at the end of July.

The artwork, then, is not merely the flawless simulation of a community centre in the vein of, say Thomas Demand’s purposely sterile cardboard recreations of office environments. What is being produced, in fact, is an actual community.

This might be seen as a cynical gesture by the artist. After all, what will become of this community after the closure of the centre? There is after all no chance of a public institution offering to keep such a laudable project going after the end of July. The gallery obeys the needs of the international art market rather than any local community.

Perhaps one solution would be for a high-minded philanthropist to provide a similar space nearby for the recently-formed community to use. Or, perhaps the members of said community could somehow band together and create their own space, staffed by volunteers. It is unlikely however that either solution would be able to find or to afford a such an ideal location, right bang in the middle of some of the most lucrative real estate in the world. Also the people who use the centre come from diverse parts of London: Camden, Southwark, Chiswick and elsewhere. Where could they find a space which would serve their needs as a community, and how would they sustain it?

The centre, then, is haunted by the ghost of its own future absence, and of the inevitable dissolution of the community formed by those who use it. In it one hears an echo of a comment made by Slavoj Zizek a year or so ago, when he was asked about the identity of this ‘we’ he refers to when he talks about what ‘we’ must do in the face of the multiple crises that we face. Is such a political identity discernible today? His answer seems particularly perceptive now, in the light of the first few months of 2011, of Tahrir Square and Plaza del Sol and, closer to home, Stokes Croft. He said that the ‘we’ he refers to is a ghost from the future, a political subjectivity not yet formed. In Buchel’s installation we can see how this can happen. A space has been created in which a social identity, if not yet a political identity, has come into existence.

So is this then a version of the social centres which have sprung up around Europe in the last few years, such as the Rampart Centre in East London and the 56a infoshop down the road in Elephant & Castle? Büchel is clearly keen to draw this comparison, providing a meticulous recreation of an communal anarchist squat in the building’s loft, beyond the reach of the centre’s elderly clientele. I would say that something entirely different is on display downstairs. For one thing, the people using the centre are not doing so because they already share a political identity. In this case, their social need for a space to commune may, indeed will, give birth to an idea of themselves as a distinct group which needs to make specific demands of power (space, facilities, resources) if it is to go on existing. Although what this particular group needs cannot be provided by the market, it can be safely assumed that the centres users are not about to occupy the space.

Of course occupying premises on Piccaddilly in order to emphasise the primacy of social need over the demands of the market has a very recent historical resonance. The rich generally have no need of community centres proving free classes, meeting rooms, free legal advice and  therapy sessions, tea dances and free tea and coffee. They have Fortnum and Mason’s.

In the basement of the community centre there is a door marked Private. Visitors to the exhibition, as opposed to users of the centre, are quietly encouraged to enter. It is an uncomfortable experience; an intimate space filled with the seemingly chaotic detritus – bedclothes, notebooks, piles of books and VHS videos – of an intensely private existence. It is an emphatically non-public space which conjures up the same feelings of being an intruder that Büchel worked  with in his creation of a bizarre abandoned hotel/warehouse in Coppermill in 2006, with its piles of seemingly abandoned ethnographic mementos, rooms full of unmade beds, collections of dogeared pornographic magazines and rooms full of second-hand electrical appliances. That feeling of possibly intruding on a space which was not mine I also felt when I made my way upstairs to the floor where the tea dance was in full swing. To the left of the room is a cloakroom, which I felt distinctly disinclined to enter. A salutory experience, of course. Even in the context of what was for me a visit to a gallery, I was forced to recognise that I was not part of the community of users, that despite the absence of a sign explicitly warning me that I was not allowed to enter, an automatic sense of respect for the community prevented me from doing so.

The installation, if it can be so called, is destined to provoke a sense of unease in those who visit it purely as an object to be contemplated. It constitutes a lesson in the distinction between what is and can be shared, and what is private, and the need for respect for a community of which we are not part, and it also raises a series of difficult questions about how a sense of social belonging is created and how it can be sustained. The community centre can and should be visited, with respect for the users of the facilities, until the end of July, when it will, like so many treasured and desperately needed public and community institutions, be suddenly and heartbreakingly closed down in accordance with the wishes of the market.

The tyranny of structurelessness

‘The idea of ‘structurelessness’, however, has moved from a healthy counter to these tendencies to becoming a goddess in its own right…If the movement is to move beyond these elementary stages of development, it will have to disabuse itself of some of its prejudices about organisation and structure. There is nothing inherently bad about either of these. They can be and often are misused, but to reject them out of hand because they are misused is to deny ourselves the necessary tools to further development. We need to understand why ‘structurelessness’ does not work.’

As Jo Freeman detailed in the classic essay from which the above quote is taken, in social networks which are initally informal and horizontal hierarchies tend to emerge. If this is not acknowleged and its implications considered in all their seriousness, the current trend for decentred models of political organisation will lead up a series of blind alleys, and two excellent articles from the last few days make this clear beautifully.

In the midst of the swarm of networked intelligence, centres tend to form, which connect to other centres. For example, to know in advance about the Netroots event yesterday, you had to be connected to the right people on twitter and facebook. All nodes are equal, but some nodes are more equal than others.

Organisations develop their own interests, and the initial objective tends to be principally obfuscated by the need to survive. Bureaucracies and hierarchies inevitably emerge. Most social movement organisations go from informal non-hierarchical organisations towards becoming institutionalised and formalised as advocacy groups and mass membership organisations. As they do so, they inevitably slow down and become less reactive, putting more emphasis on their long-term survival and effectiveness, partly because ‘Bureaucratic organizations often are more successful at gaining access to established political channels, being recognized as legitimate movement representatives and at sustaining ongoing interactions with diverse constituencies including “allies, authorities, and supporters”’.

This represents a constant problem for the fashionable model of informal, hyperreactive, mobile, non-hierarchical organisations. New, informal movements will spring up more or less on a whim to replace those that become formalised and hierarchical, but for example in this country no sustainable or effective anti-cuts movement can be built on the basis of a new UK Uncut-style group suddenly springing up every two weeks, while preceding mini-generations of previously non-hierarchical groups turn to the slow and morbid business of lobbying and advocacy work.

As Richard Seymour also points out, the fetishisation of the power of headless decentred networked movements to overcome the ‘old centralised, top-down, upright, phallic feudal army without contradiction’ ignores the fact that power itself is diffuse, distributed, with a multiplicity of centres. The future of the struggle against power cannot be left to the whims of those who are better connected. There is a need for explicit political leadership.

The best thing is for that leadership to be open, elected and accountable, rather than pretending it does not exist. Hence the need for consistent political organisation around a democratically agreed shared programme, on a regional, national and international scale.

Changing the rules of the game

Over a million people under 25 are currently unemployed in the UK. These are young people brought up in an environment in which every part of their lives is determined by their ability to compete with each other and with people on the other side of the world. Do the recent student protests mean that they have come to reject this whole social model? I don’t think we have reached such a  point. But a great deal of people under the age of 21 are angry that the rules of the game have suddenly been changed in order to make it harder for them to compete.

People clearly want to believe that they stand a chance, or, in other terms, they demand the right to be able to pretend that they stand a chance. Recently, particularly around campaigns like UK Uncut, there has been a lot of discussion of fairness, a rather nebulous category. Of course no-one would claim that the world we live in is fair, but a belief in the brutal fairy tale world of The Apprentice, where through hard work and determination we can enter the world of the superconsumer, or at least can achieve some measure of security and escape the precarity that conditions every aspect of our lives, is becoming impossible. That sense of the individual and collective precarity of our social existence is becoming unavoidable, and the inescapable truth staring young people in the face is that, in the words of Marlo from The Wire, the game is fixed. But it does not automatically follow that they want to rules of the game to be changed, or aspire to changing them themselves. They still for the most part want to play the game, but they want the rules (tax, regulation, trade) to be more strictly enforced.

Criminals like Marlo understand that the game is fixed, but their solution is to play it with more intensity and brutality, to adapt to the underlying logic of capital and act without sentimentality or long-term concerns. Others suggest that the answer, the only means of survival, is to abandon the game altogether, or in real terms, to develop new forms of society within the intersticies of the present one, to ignore power rather than to challenge it.

Such a solution is no more available to the overwhelming majority of working people around the globe than is the ‘option’ of becoming millionaires through hard work and good fortune. The reality is that we all depend to a very great extent on the institutions of the state and the market. The only meaningful option we have is the political one: we have to change the rules of the game. This is exactly what the managerial post-politics of failed social democrats like the Labour Party singularly refuses to do.

So where is this movement to seize control of the game and change the rules to our advantage going to emerge from? For the moment I am still a little inclined to reserve my judgement about the student movement, UK Uncut, and so on. It is by no means inevitable that the mood of the last few months will develop or deepen, and the UK Uncut campaign has already shown signs of a potential collapse into Jubilee 2000-style lobbying rather than direct action. In terms of the students the strategy of the state is to use brute force for the moment, and hope that the students knuckle down once they realise their individual fate is at stake. We live in an age not just of hypercapitalism but of hyperprecarity – the students of 1968 had for the most part pretty secure futures ahead of them, whereas this generation face the prospect of lives of frantic insecurity and the drudgery of endless debt.

This might lead to the development of a culture of devil-may-care radicalism, or it might not. Optimists including Laurie Penny, Billy Bragg and the SWP share the belief that a new political subject has emerged, with an intuitive grasp of the need for solidarity and a voracious appetite for ideas about how things can be made different. As I have argued here, there are certainly a great deal of people angry at their individual plight, some of whom have come into contact for the first time with the stark reality that power does not always have their best interests at heart. But as Laurie Penny has also helpfully pointed out, the media and the language which those of us who believe we have the answers for the students’ plight employ to address and engage with those students are often moribund, ineffective and paternalistic. New means urgently need to be exploited in order to draw out the obvious links between a group of individuals drawn into unanticipated conflict with their circumstances and a wider world in turmoil and in desperate need of fundamental transformation. It is not enough to call for fair play, or to campaign for the rules of the game to be changed – instead we must seize control of the game and change them ourselves.