We are not arguing that anyone is actually outside the system; that is impossible given that everyone is affected by the international capitalist framework. By inside and outside political action, we are referring to two types of politics: traditional forms such as through party politics, bureaucratic and governmental structures (inside), alongside direct action, pressure groups and social movements (outside). Together, these forms of political action are essential for us to break in the system with alternative forms of knowledge that challenge myths, ignorance, injustice, and prejudice. It is with this ethos that Break-In Project leaders Jay Baker and Jane Watkinson will post podcasts and articles here on this blog.
Our time is now known for one great crisis. Not climate change, despite the fact we write this as record levels of rain falls in The People’s Republic of South Yorkshire amidst worldwide environmental chaos, exacerbated by unsustainable use of resources. No, it is the global economic downturn that has defined everything of the here and now, from the progressive surge of the 99% in the “Occupy” movement, to the right-wing, pro-privatisation preachers of TINA. Perhaps even as our ecosystems themselves collapse, all but the archaeologists and scientists remaining of our race will still look back upon the start of the twenty-first century as one of financial upheaval.
As is its nature, capitalism itself is in crisis, though now unlike ever before given intense globalisation. Like the environmental landscape, the economic system is suffering because of it. Left unabated, the ugly features of capitalism’s countenance such as profit-driven corporatism, the free market, and the flawed GDP barometer, look upon our world and seek more to consume. The capitalist system is all-pervasive, swallowing up everything in its path, and though the theories of Marxism understandably have us believe that this avarice will eventually lead the beast to even eat itself, until that time, we are left with an ever-straining, struggling socialist movement, splintered and fractured into minority groups derided by corporate mass media, and their countercultural weapons barely wounding the monster, who instead also swallows them up as sustenance.
In Jay’s book, Pissing in the Mainstream, he cites examples of this frustrating phenomenon:
The anti-establishment band Nirvana becoming a worldwide success and making millions; The Body Shop expanding before being bought out by L’Oreal…But beyond this, those that still went it alone, I realised, weren’t actually impacting society due to the fact that they were so adamant on remaining underground: deviance, rather than dissent. And it’s a difficult balance to gain: not ‘selling out,’ while still sending a message.
The evidence goes back further, offering additional examples of failings in movements and trends based on deviance instead of dissent, which is far more effective:
The countercultural trend proposed and promoted through the beatniks and the peaceniks, the hippies and the punks, the goths and the emos, and even the so-called ethical consumers has, admittedly, been all part of a doomed movement based on behaviour often driven by deviance, not dissent; meaningless and superficial rebellion getting us nowhere in the grand scheme of things.
Jane’s dissertation, Norbert Elias, the Politics of ‘Ideals’ and Interdependent Expression, focuses on how the way we relate with each other (interdependence) is shaped by capitalism, as restrictive ‘ideals’ associated with a high threshold of shame are constructed in line with capitalist relations (namely profit, exploitation and capital) – with ‘beauty’ ‘ideals’ used as an example. Jane talks about the problems of promoting new ‘ideals’, especially in terms of potential cooption, given the current interdependent capitalist relations:
There are problems with promoting alternative ‘ideals’, as many in the third wave feminist movement do, as they are often objectified. Riots Grrls are a good example of how resistance to ‘ideals’ can become an ‘ideal’ in itself. For instance, Jacques refers to how the Riot Grrls’, forming against a male dominated punk scene, resistance to mainstream media cooption failed. This illustrates the effects neoliberal relations, especially the market, have in undermining resistance to ‘ideals’.
Relating to this, especially the power of capital and profit, the dissertation also draws heavily upon the work of Naomi Wolf:
As Wolf argues, the economy relies upon these ‘ideals’ to justify the disproportionate economic hardship women experience. ‘Beauty’ is no longer a symbol of money, it is money! As Wolf argues, “the beauty myth generates low self-esteem for women and high profits for corporations as a result.”
Capitalism takes what is popular and co-opts it, folding it into itself, poisoning it with its own ethos – nothing is safe, whether it be charity, rock music, media, or make-up; whenever anything gains prominence and popularity, it goes up for sale automatically, because the system requires it to.
But the greatest dominance lies in pure politics itself. They who have the gold have the power, and corporate news calls the shots and sets the narrative, so is courted by those in high position. While progressive leaders strike a chord with the working class mass majority, so in turn mainstream media mobilise quickly to marginalise them, sensationalising and scaremongering.
The clever progressive politician knows how to exploit her populism while still being careful to present herself friendly to powerful interests, even though her achievements will still be minimal in the global framework in which she operates – a move away from the right by even a few reformist degrees can amount to millions of pounds, or euros, or dollars more for people in disadvantaged communities even while more affluent academics and revolutionaries leaf through their books, sat in their studies, awaiting the great insurrection that is always expected “tomorrow.” Even shifts across the centre-ground from centre-right to centre-left cannot be trivialised to people who experience more employment opportunities, lower bills, or greater community facilities.
Venezuela was used as a case study to analyse and critically evaluate these themes throughout Jane’s dissertation, especially given the country’s obsession with ‘beauty’ – relating to its colonial past, and the neoliberal association of ‘beauty’ with ‘success’. To undermine ‘ideals’ through challenging the capitalist relations that shape how people relate with each other, the dissertation critically analysed women’s political development within Venezuela, considering ‘inside’ political action (such as through political parties) alongside ‘outside’ political action (such as communal organisations and trade unions) and the ways these two types of action relate, concluding that:
It is essential for women to build ‘outside’ traditional political forces/movements to counteract the detrimental gender/power relations that have been prevalent throughout Venezuela’s history. However, whilst there are damaging negative relations that constrict ‘inside’ traditional gender political organisation, this can still help advance women’s rights and challenge the existing interdependent relations. What is required is a complementary ethic of ‘outside’ and ‘inside’ traditional political movements to challenge the interdependent relations.
The trick, of course, is – again – to strike the balance; not to sell out, or even to buy in, but to break in. This voracity of the beast can be used against it, because it is the monster’s Achilles heel. As French musician Camille Dalmais said, “The work of an artist is to make something popular that is not popular.” And that achievement can often truly be an art form: to find ways of penetrating the mainstream, locating chinks in the monster’s armour so as to truly occupy this strange man-made creature from the inside, and, ultimately, control it; guide it into different, more humane machinations.
It can be done. It is not easy; it is a rough road, a long one, and it takes action of all kinds: Legitimate dissent outside the system through peaceful protest, pressure groups, and campaigning, in addition to action inside the system via party political pragmatism. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal transformed the lives of millions in the United States, but it would be the civil rights activists who won African-Americans the right to vote. In turn, while the suffrage movement saw Britain give women the vote, it was Clement Attlee’s government who in a time of economic devastation gave his people a strong welfare state and a National Health Service. The Vietnam War that Britain refused to be a part of saw massive opposition by America’s own people, and eventually ended. And the invasion of Iraq proved so damaging to both Tony Blair and George Bush, the second most unpopular American President on record, that even the media narrative shifted with it, and administrations became more reluctant to try the same again. Time moves on. Things change. And history is on the side of the progressive. That’s why they call it progress.
Essentially, alternative media and knowledge circulation/distribution is crucial to challenging hegemonic constructions and ‘ideals’, but is heavily restricted by powerful vested capital, profit seeking interests – this is where accepting the need, alongside contextual limitations, to work within established structures such as political parties, to help in the short term especially, whilst working outside through new organisational forms, protests and direct action – spreading knowledge and challenging myths and negative constructions is central to changing the way we relate to each other as people; alongside undermining the damaging pressure placed upon people to meet restrictive, capitalist defined ‘ideals’.
The art form of making unpopular ideas popular is important; to have them break in to the mass narrative. Sometimes, you have to be in it to win it. As Laurence Fishburne’s character Edward Robinson says of racial discrimination in the movie Bobby,
White folks ain’t trying to keep you down. White folks just don’t like to be pushed into a corner. They’ll come around. You just got to make it look like it was their idea, like they’re the ones that thought of it. They need to feel like they’re the great emancipators. Like it was theirs to give in the first place. Let ’em have it. I mean, if that’s all it takes, let them have it.