Alain Badiou argues that we can’t recognize a true event as such as it occurs, but I’ll be damned if the student attack on Tory headquarters in London last week didn’t look like one. There has been a large amount of quality writing on the subject within the past few days, the truly indispensable piece I read was Laurie Penny’s beautifully written account of the day from inside the Tower. In the rush to explain, it’s been interesting to see the words media outlets use to describe what was done and by whom. ‘Riot’ comes up a lot, and I’ll venture that the noun/verb’s relationship to its collective subject is part of what makes it appealing to headline writers. A riot is conducted by rioters, individuals whose inclusion in the group is based on a relation to the occurrence rather than to each other. An attack, on the other hand, requires not necessarily a plan, but an internally related collective subject acting on a direct object. Attacks have targets and those who target. Yet attempts to identify a scapegoat sub-group (“It was the Anarchists!”) as those responsible have been undermined by the reports from Millbank, where reporters saw students of all types joining together in raucous mayhem. Millbank Tower didn’t get trashed because it happened to be around, the building got wrecked because it’s the enemy’s fortress. The question then becomes: whose enemy?
There is a piece up at Mute by Heidi Liane Hasbrouck about how the official student union (NUS) responded to the attack: “We are not only fighting a battle with the government, we are fighting against the very people that are supposed to represent us … My run-ins with the NUS at the protest and their official post-protest statements criminalising the direct action by attributing it to a few infiltrating anarchists who ruined a peaceful demonstration exceeded my previous suspicions … When a union no longer represents its members, and is a corrupt source of power, what do you do? The ultimate question becomes, do you change the union from within or do you scrap it and start afresh?” The critique here reminds me of Antonio Negri’s 1973 pamphlet “Workers’ Party Against Work” in which he argues against the representative collectivities of unions and traditional parties and for something quite different in its constitution.
In an unorthodox reading of Lenin (some would say revisionist) , Negri produces an idea of “party” that is unfamiliar in its rejection of any pretensions of representation.”Too often,” he writes, “in defending the traditional concept of the party, we forget that the party is always an institution, that the institution mediates the class struggle, and that the mediation of the class struggle is a necessity for capital. At times, historically, the party mediated as an offensive function, as an agent of development. Today, the working class no longer recognizes the possibility of this function. The party of refusal of work can therefore be nothing but an organism of labor and struggle linked to the necessity of the clash.” Negri casts representative unions like the NUS in with reformist parties as “filthy mystifiers, shady operators who are reproposing the law of value in mystified ways.” It’s easy to read this nebulous unrepresentative party as simply a step toward the subject “multitude” which dominates Negri’s later work, but I want to propose an enduring place for the party in light of the Millbank attack.
In my defense of my undergraduate thesis, one of my advisors asked me for an example of a political action by an unrepresented (and as I argued, unrepresentable) collective subject, I responded with the first thing off the top of my head which happened to be the “electro-communist” dance parties that served as integral parts of the UC Santa Cruz occupations last year*. My advisor responded by reproaching me for being “morally unserious.” Unserious (and morally!) though I may be, I can’t help noticing similarities in the descriptions of the Millbank attack. Here’s how Penny paints the atmosphere in her New Statesman piece: “There are twice as many people here as anyone anticipated, and the barriers erected by the stewards can’t contain them all: the demonstration shivers between the thump of techno sound systems and the stamp of samba drums, is a living, panting beast, taking a full hour to slough past Big Ben in all its honking glory. A brass band plays the Liberty Bell while excited students yammer and dance and snap pictures on their phones. ‘It’s a party out here!’ one excited posh girl tells her mobile, tottering on Vivienne Westwood boots while a bunch of Manchester anarchists run past with a banner saying ‘Fuck Capitalism’.” It seems to me there’s a lot to be gained from projecting a number of different meanings onto the excited posh girl’s utterance. We have the celebratory occurrence object noun, the celebratory verb (e.g. “Come party!”), the contingent collective subject noun (as in a raiding party) and even the institutional object noun (“It’s the party out here!”). We can do the same interpretive violence to Negri. When he writes, “The party must reveal the given class unity, the recomposition that has taken place within the proletariat, from within and below, not from outside and above,” what would it mean to change “party” to its celebratory occurrence meaning? This revelation, of an organic unity from within and below, is exactly where we find the Millbank party’s value. This party, although unserious, has begun to do its job as formulated by Negri. Since the representative parties have nothing left to offer, no helpful mediating left to do, the term “party” is most useful in the present moment in its multiplicity, as varied noun and verb, subject and object. We can see the party in London moving fluidly through these forms, from dance party to war party until the distinction collapses and people boogie through windows.
This unhosted party is not a means of mediation, but a molecular organism of insurrection. I am tempted even to see smashing windows as an act of appropriation by the party, turning the enemy’s property into resources for collective enjoyment. The crack of glass is a beautiful music, the only fitting soundtrack. The morning after a destructive rager, isn’t “the party” the responsible party? With the unstable meaning, we gain a properly descriptive flexibility and contingency for a collectivity whose internal composition shifts unceasingly.
Any endorsement of the mob form yields the valid objection of pogroms and lynchings, where the party differs is in its inspiration. As Negri writes, “We draw our reason to hate the bosses and our inflexibility in struggle not from despair but, rather, from desire, from satisfaction, from wealth.” The party is a realization of that common wealth, and it finds itself in mortal conflict with barriers to its enjoyment. It is as yet unclear whether Millbank marks a turning point in a domestic and/or international student movement away from Negri’s mystifying representatives, but look at the picture above, does it look like those kids are protesting for cheaper education? It’s something else, the joyous necessity of clash, a gyrating unity from below and within, shattering appropriation. In the words of Penny’s posh girl, “It’s a party out here!”
*For more on electro-communism, I strongly suggest friend and comrade Kyle’s presentation “What is ‘electro-communism’ and what is it good for?” at the Beneath the U conference last April. The archived video is here.