Walking in the right direction?

How do we engage with existing social struggles without falling back into empty sloganeering? Ben Trott suggests the idea of directional demands might provide a way out of the impasse


Neoliberalism is in crisis. It began, at the very latest, ten years ago with the collapse of the so-called Asian ‘tiger economies’ (Indonesia, Thailand, South Korea…). The protests surrounding the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Ministerial in Seattle two years later reflected its continuation and deepening. They not only catapulted the global movement into the limelight, but coincided with (and partly induced) the faltering of talks within the conference centre. For the neoliberal project, almost every round of multilateral trade negotiations that has followed has been similarly catastrophic: the Central American Free Trade Agreement, the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), the Doha Round of WTO negotiations… Further indexes as to the depth of the current crisis include: the ‘No’ vote on the EU constitution; the series of recent election victories in Latin America and beyond won on an anti-neoliberal ticket; and the response to the events of September 11 2001, where the threat of an open-ended global war has finally demolished globalisation’s promise of a more harmonious, inter-connected world.

Yet crisis is not necessarily cause for celebration. The East Asian financial crisis caused millions to fall below the poverty line and did little to strengthen the hand of labour. The collapse of multilateral trade talks have largely been the result of alliances between nation states (like the ‘Group of 21’ led by Brazil and India, formed at the WTO Minsterial in Cancún), acting in their own economic self-interest – or rather, that of their elite. Moreover, their demands have tended not to be anti-neoliberal per se, but rather for ‘fair play’ and the reciprocal opening of barriers in the North. Similarly, the anti-neoliberal credentials of some of Latin America’s newly elected presidents could be called into question. And the onset of a global state of exception, with the suspension of legal rights (supposedly, and paradoxically, in order to defend them), in the name of counter-terrorism certainly represents a particularly worrying turn. It is nonetheless important to recognise the role that the cycle of struggles which found its most prominent articulation in the events of Seattle and Genoa has played in bringing about the current crisis, and thus the role we have played as active subjects (rather than mere passive objects) in the making of the present.

Simultaneously, the ‘movement of movements’ finds itself in crisis too. We would seem to have run up against our own limits. The current cycle is drawing to an end; entering a ‘downturn’, if not necessarily quantitatively, then certainly qualitatively. The movements’ beginnings (the time when ‘we were winning’) were characterised by a tremendous celebration of our ‘unity in diversity’. Steelworkers were facing off riot cops, together with environmentalists dressed as sea turtles. Nuns were taking part in street protests alongside queer activists. Two slogans summed up the sentiment of the day, one coined before Seattle, one after. ‘Walking,’ the EZLN’s ever-poetic Subcommandante explained, ‘we ask questions.’ A few years later, as if directly replying to Thatcher’s T-I-N-A (There-Is-No-Alternative) maxim, the World Social Forum declared ‘Another World Is Possible’. Notable about both slogans was the extent to which (despite rather ‘orthodox’ tendencies that remain within both groupings) they departed from the previous certainty of Marxist-Leninism. Whilst both implied the need to ask What Is to Be Done?, neither claimed to always already have the answer. However, a movement as broad and contradictory as ours was always going to have to ask (and try to answer): ‘Walking where, actually?’ and ‘What sort of world?’

To the same extent that the crisis of neoliberalism should not necessarily be cause for celebration, the movement’s own crisis should not – necessarily – be grounds for despair. To recognise the limits of a particular moment or phase of struggle does not have to imply an inability to move beyond them. Doing so, however, requires a willingness to engage in critical reflection, and an openness towards different forms and methods of political practice.

Beyond Unity

If the challenge, then, is to move beyond a relatively uncritical celebration of unity in diversity, without slipping back into the ‘old’ (tried, tested and failed) ways of doing things, surely the question is as follows: How do we set in motion a process by which one group (most often, but not always, a party) is no longer able to dominate all the others, seeking to remake them in its own image; and where, at the same time, we are able to move beyond merely existing indifferently alongside each other? This, of course, is not a question of internal movement organisation (although it is that as well): it is far more fundamental. How do we create what the Zapatistas have called ‘a world in which many worlds are possible’?

Discussions have been taking place within the radical left in Germany around precisely (if not exactly explicitly) this question. One possible solution which has begun to be formulated is the development of a set of so-called ‘directional demands’ (Richtungsforderungen). There is no single, unified position on what do or do not constitute directional demands. What follows should be understood more as an intervention into an ongoing discussion than as an introduction to a completed debate.

First and foremost, the deployment of directional demands represents the desire to constitute a social actor, movement or counter-power capable of intervening in, and influencing, social and political developments. The objective is the generalisation of common anti-capitalist struggles. In other words, to bring about a class recomposition – with class here defined not in the traditional narrow sense of (male) industrialised workers, but as the irreducible multiplicity of singular subjectivities involved in creative, productive social activity. It is an effort to contribute to the process of breaking with capitalist social relations, through engaging and connecting with social struggles – rather than remaining on the level of abstract, sloganeering radicalism (‘Smash Capitalism!’, ‘Fight the Power!’, …)

Money and Movement

One example of such a directional demand would be the demand for a guaranteed and global ‘basic income’ or ‘social wage’. In many ways, such a demand would be timely. Similar proposals are currently being discussed across an enormously broad spectrum, from the socially conservative libertarian Charles Murray, based at the American Enterprise Institute, to Andrea Fumagali, an economist at the University of Padua often associated with the Italian Marxist tradition of (post-)operaismo. However, whilst Murray and Fumagali come from almost opposite ends of the political spectrum, what they share in common is a belief in the implementability of the basic income – at least on a national or regional level. Both have gone to lengths to explain how this could be done.

Understanding the call for a global basic income as a directional demand, however, means recognising its ultimately utopian character. It is a call to undo one of the most basic tenets of capitalist social relations, namely, that the ability to reproduce oneself should be conditional upon the selling of one’s labour-power on the market. It is the articulation of a desire to re-appropriate social wealth.

Precisely because of the discursive space opened up by Murray, Fumagali and others who have made (a restricted version of) the demand sound reasonable, there is an implicit flirtation with Realpolitik here. Most likely it is this very fact that presents the demand with its greatest chance of being taken up by a broad movement, whether that be around (un)employment reforms, against lay-offs or by ‘really existing’ social movements around the issue of ‘precariousness’. At a time when the Keynesian promise of full employment (or at least the safety net of the welfare state) is long dead, and when the theory and practice of neoliberalism are entering a deep crisis, the generalisation and taking hold of such a demand could have tremendously far-reaching consequences.

Further examples of directional demands could focus on migration, its movements and struggles: ‘For the Right to Remain’, ‘For the Right to Legalisation’, ‘Close All Detention Centres’, or even ‘For the Right to (Equal) Rights’.

To many with a background in radical social movements, these demands may seem limited. Some might understand them as little more than a humanitarian plea for sympathy with those fleeing oppression or seeking a better life, leaving the causes of flight unchallenged. Others may interpret the recourse to a ‘rights’ discourse in particular as a tacit acknowledgement of state/sovereign power, thereby reinforcing that power. This hugely underestimates the radical essence of these demands.

Despite ongoing processes of globalisation and what Hardt and Negri in their book Empire have called the scrambling of worlds, ‘so that we continually find the First World in the Third, the Third in the First, and the Second almost nowhere at all’, the world remains stratified. Empire, as a completely ‘smooth space’, has yet to be fully realised. The global political economy remains organised in such as way that it depends upon labour-power sold in different parts of the world being differently remunerated. Migration and other forms of resistance to border control and illegalisation undermine this stratification which is one of the primary bases upon which capital accumulation is organised on a world scale today.

Migration currently constitutes the world’s largest social movement. It is a form of antagonism in itself. Over the last few years, however, it has taken a more overt, obviously political form. In October 2005, for example, coordinated groups of 200–500 migrants stormed the border fences of the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. Spanish and Moroccan border guards opened fire and mass deportations commenced. In March the following year, over a million migrant workers took to the streets of the US, protesting against the Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act, demanding legalisation. In France, in November 2005, the banlieue erupted after two teenagers (a 15 and 17 year old whose parents came from Mali and Tunisia respectively) died from electrocution whilst attempting to evade a police ID control on the border of the Parisian suburb Clichy-sous-Bois. Most recently, in November 2006, detainees at Harmondsworth ‘removal centre’ on the outskirts of London rebelled to try and prevent their deportation.

The articulation of demands such as the right to legalisation necessarily implies a recognition that the global border regime is resisted, as well as lending this resistance political and practical support. At their base, such demands articulate our common desire to re-appropriate control over space from capital; for all of us to become the cartographers of another possible world.

Transitions and Directions

The idea of building a coalition, movement, party or ‘class power’ on the basis of a set of demands is of course, in itself, nothing new. The late-19th and early-20th century, for example, saw social democratic movements develop the concept of ‘minimum’ and ‘maximum’ demands. Some, such as Kautsky and the German Social Democratic Party, saw the minimum programme as a means of improving the conditions of workers’ lives, until the inevitable collapse of capitalism. Others saw it as the most appropriate means of building a mass party capable of then moving on to a maximum programme of demands, aimed more directly towards the creation of the conditions for socialism. The social democrats, however, were widely criticised – by the Third and then the Fourth Internationals, amongst others – for consistently failing to move beyond their minimum programme. Famously, in The Death Agony of Capitalism, Trotsky set out an alternative series of ‘transitional demands’, taken up at the Fourth International’s founding conference.

It would be well worth asking, then, how (or if!) directional demands are any different. What is it about them that offers more potential than these previous strategies? Indeed, are directional demands anything more than old ideas in new packaging? Seeing as, at first glance, there would appear to be a number of similarities (and indeed, there probably are) between transitional and directional demands, it is worth proposing a number of theses as to where they differ.

I. The realisation of directional demands (either individually, or when combined) would necessitate a break with capitalist social relations. Whereas transitional demands (nationalisation, employment for all, decent living conditions), like the minimum programme of classical social democracy, may be realisable within bourgeois society, the demand, for example, for a basic income looks for a way out. As such, the demand needs to be for its global implementation, for it to be unconditional (e.g. not dependent upon legal status), and to be sufficient to ensure that income becomes permanently de-linked from productivity.

II. Directional demands do not privilege any area of the multitude over another. Whereas Trotsky’s transitional demands (along with much of the rest of ‘orthodox’ Marxism) have placed primacy upon the role of the industrial proletariat as political vanguard, under conditions of post-Fordism where production has spilled out of the factory and into society at large, the project for the self-constitution of an anti-capitalist social subject must do the same. Efforts towards class recomposition today must base themselves on the constitution of the common amongst the irreducible multiplicity of productive singularities through a constant process of becoming.

III. Directional demands can only be determined and decided upon by the movements themselves. Whilst transitional demands were both articulated by, and had as their goal the strengthening of, the Party, directional demands are those that emerge from, and are taken up by, the movement of antagonistic subjectivities. In this sense, there is no limit upon the number of demands which can be articulated, nor upon those who can articulate them, nor the form that this articulation can take.

IV. Directional demands constitute what Deleuze might call ‘a line of flight’. Transitional demands aim towards the sweeping away of ‘bourgeois rule’, with a clear – and closed – idea of what should come next; namely, ‘the conquest of power by the proletariat’ (Trotsky). Directional demands, in contrast, seek to open up unlimited and undetermined possibilities for another world. The teleology of Hegelian and Leninist Marxisms is rejected. There is neither a predetermined destination, nor any necessary stages through which we have to pass. Directional demands seek to bring about a deterritorialisation, an opening up onto a ‘plane of immanence’. As the name implies, they suggest a direction; nothing more, nothing less

Directional demands, then, aim to provide a point around which a potential movement could consolidate. Their realisation would necessitate not only a break with the present state of things, but open up the potential for (rather than have already closed down) possible future worlds. The articulation of such demands is the monopoly of no single social actor, but rather constitutes an expression of the material struggles of the multitude of productive singularities within a process of recomposition. And finally, it is not only key in which direction such demands point, but also where they come from. As with the condition for participation in the Zapatista’s Otra Campaña, this can only be from below and – like the heart – to the left.

This article draws upon discussions which have been taking place within the radical left in Germany, and in particular the theory and practice being developed by FelS (www.fels-berlin.de) and the Interventionist Left. For those wishing to read in more detail into the debate about directional demands, see in particular Rätz and Seibert’s chapter in Losarbeiten – Arbeitslos? (Unrast Press, 2005) and a number of articles published in issue 34 of arranca! magazine. Trotsky’s primary text on the notion of ‘transitional demands’ is The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, and the classic text detailing the social democratic strategy of the minimum and maximum programme is the so-called Erfurt Program, written by Karl Kautsky in 1891. Both are available online. The concepts of ‘lines of flight’, ‘de-territorialisation’ and ‘plane of immanence’ come from Deleuze. See in particular, ‘Many Politics’ in Dialogues II (published by Continuum). I would like to thank the Notes from Nowhere collective (www.weareeverywhere.org) for an insightful and inspiring exchange of emails on this and many other topics.

Ben Trott lives in Berlin and is active in the group FelS. He recently co-edited (with Emma Dowling and Rodrigo Nunes) a special issue of the journal ephemera: theory and politics in organization (www.ephemeraweb.org) on immaterial and affective labour. He is an editor of Turbulence.

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