Readjusting to reality 2: Transition

Earlier this year CITY published an article under the title of Readjusting to Reality (see the online excerpt on our website here), that analysed the growth in Urban and Peri-Urban Agriculture (UPA) around the world in the context of the emerging decline in fossil energy resources and the accompanying ‘fall of modern civilisation’. In Issue 17.5 (October 2013) the journal has published a sequel to this, focusing on the growing Transition Movement that involves local communities that are attempting to ‘relocalise’ life ahead of the decline in energy resources.

To be meaningful any revolution will need to address the issue of how humanity can live sustainably within the limits of the planet's biosphere. Painting: "New Pioneers" by Mark Henson.

The full article (Adrian Atkinson and Julie Viloria “Readjusting to reality 2: Transition?” (2013) CITY 17.5, pages 580-605) starts with a brief critical review of the current debate on ‘fracking’ that is being presented as a route to continued availability of fossil energy (1) and then goes on to analyse the Transition Movement in terms of its growth, intentions and activities. However, the main body of the article is concerned with an enquiry into the present ‘tumult’ that is spreading around the world in the form of Protest Movements and demonstrations. The issue is: are these a prelude to Revolution that will address what are felt to be the contemporary social, political and economic woes of the world? The analysis reflects on the Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement and related manifestations, the anti-Globalisation Movements and finally the anti-Austerity Movements that are arising particularly around the countries of the European Union.

The article expresses concern that these Movements have not yet produced much by way of significant improvements in the political and social consequences of the directions in which the modern world is moving, with indications that the results may in some cases actually be worse than the situation ex-ante the advent of the Movements. This discussion leads to broader consideration of whether the Movements are likely to be able at all to achieve improvements, particularly in the face of the decline, in the coming decades, of energy resources.

The paragraphs below, that comprise the conclusions of the paper, present a discussion that looks deeper into the causes of the Movements as cultural phenomena and what at a deeper level they might be striving towards. Finally, the article returns to consider the Transition Movement in this context, indicating that perhaps this is the real Revolutionary Movement that has genuine promise to address the ills that we are facing today and, increasingly, into the future.

Excerpt from Adrian Atkinson and Julie Viloria

Is ‘revolution’ a meaningful phenomenon ‘if things get worse’?

Standing back to review the turmoil, the protests and the longer events of occupation with the multifarious activities that developed in the places occupied, one is in the first instance at a loss when trying to answer the question of the meaning of these events if, as is clearly the case, they eschewed making concrete demands and in the end had no significant impact on the outcome of the formal political process (2) in the supposed direction of changing the way that the political system is working in its impacts on the health of societies and economies. And if the dysfunctionality of the present contemporary neo-liberal mentality and system with respect to its impacts on the ‘common people’ continues to deepen, furthering inequality and thence, post peak oil, spreading poverty, what might we expect from continuing protest movements?

It seems that still in the back of the radical Occidental consciousness there remains the Marxist scenario of global revolution, brought about by a broad uprising of the ‘working classes’ or, more rhetorically, a ‘class that has nothing to lose but its chains’. The recent debate in City around what we might consider to be the working classes in London—namely, Mark Davidson and Elvin Wyly debating with Tim Butler, Chris Hamnett and Mark Ramsden (3) —seems to be underlain by such a notion although nowhere overtly referred to. The issue of class antagonisms is asserted and Davidson and Wyly (2012, 401, 4) note that

‘… the point is to continue a concern with class relations, given the incontrovertible evidence of widening inequalities and regressive politics of (public) austerity in recent years’.

There is an argument about the growing ‘middle class’ but at the same time that within this ever complexifying phenomenon there are also losers, whom we might think of as at some stage siding with the more obviously working class to form a revolutionary force.

In fact this goes back to a lively debate on this issue starting with Castells (1972) and Poulanzas (1978) in the early 1970s, with the revival of Marxism in academia, and it seemed to die out again by the early 1990s.(5) Perhaps the reason was that, as is clear from within the CITY debate, whilst in the 19th and early 20th century the working classes, easily identified, comprised the majority of populations of the burgeoning cities of Europe, today they have declined substantially in size, with a melange of occupations that may or may not be defined as ‘middle class’ having become a majority over the ‘classic working class’ and a small, exceedingly rich, class (that one is loath to call an elite).

The real point, however, is that the solidarity of the working class that made it seem as if one day it would revolt against the condition to which its members were being subjected—in the extreme as set out by Engels (1845; 1969) in mid-19th-century Manchester—has long subsided. The 19th-century British working class felt their class as it had been created after the French Revolution as so well documented by E. P. Thompson (1964, 6) and this was lived in their workplaces and their conditions of work. In the years of the forging of the class as a political force, the summit, in terms of organisation in Britain—which was, of course, Marx’s focus on the issue of class evolution—was the Triple Alliance of coal miners, railwaymen and dockers that, although not present in the form of any organisation in the post-First World War era, was nevertheless a strong ideological force—or threat—to ‘the Establishment’ evident in high levels of unionisation with a direct link to the Labour Party.

Thatcher’s ‘counter-revolution’ focused precisely on the destruction of the very notion of working-class solidarity through the destruction of the three foundational industries—regardless of economic rationality.(7) In any case, the productive economy was no longer a place of mass employment and even the social housing estates where the working classes might have seen their neighbours as a source of solidarity were privatised and broken up—again as a conscious policy to destroy the very notion of working-class solidarity and to recruit all to the ‘middle-class’ mentality and lifestyle (a property-owning democracy).(8)

Social antagonisms there undoubtedly still are (unfortunately the more obvious urban antagonisms these days relating to race rather than class). But how these might gel again into ‘class solidarity’ in a situation where inequality turns into mass deprivation, if not impossible, is extremely difficult to imagine in the current ambience. Above all, we might not like to admit that the ‘middle class’ does exist, not as a well-defined class, but definitely as an ideology, where Thatcher did win and where ‘we are all middle class today’ in our orientation to, put simply, possessive individualism—or consumerist ‘commodity fetishism’—and the struggle for individual status and wealth (however modest this may be in practice for the broad middle class). And then when we fail, rather than adhering to class solidarity, we succumb to what we might refer to as the ‘American disease’, of blaming ourselves as individuals for our failure rather than making common cause against the super-rich elite and their political agenda.

Assuming, on the other hand, that radical economic decline could lead to ever more violent and insistent protest movements, let us conjecture (from history) what the results might be. Although in the Greek and more broadly European events this is not yet evident, Lila Leontidou (2012, 301, 9) notes that:

‘In fact, though spontaneity may emancipate people and make a success of movements without leaders (and we might add, without any concrete idea of what they want), it may also sometimes breed monsters.’

She then goes on to quote Gramsci as writing:

‘It is almost always the case that “spontaneous” movement of the subaltern classes is accompanied by a reactionary movement of the right-wing of the dominant class.…’

She then continues by asserting the need to find the right leaders to forestall the rise of—in the then Italian case—fascism or in any case tyrants who proceed to keep the people in subjection. Peter Marcuse also, in the context of the CITY debates, asked in passing whether we really want revolution when we look back at the historical record and see the outcome of the great European revolutions: culminating in Cromwell, Napoleon, Lenin/Stalin. Can we have any confidence that Marx’s ‘old mole’ as one of the characters in Bob Catterall’s (2012–13, 10) ruminations about where we are going, which refers to the idea of the periodic manifestations of revolution as expressions of progress, is in reality nothing more than a series of random events along a contingent, serendipitous path of history?

This takes us right back through European history with our first stop with Plato (1974, 27–30, 11), whose discourse on political systems in The Republic led him to a scepticism of democracy due to the relinquishing of responsibility where ‘people can do as they please’ that inevitably ends in the rise of tyranny. We needn’t agree with him that this is inevitable, nor in the solution he proposed of creating a class of warrior-philosophers bred to rule. However, we are seeing everywhere around the contemporary turmoil, the response of governments to unleash police forces to ‘keep the peace’—and maybe we should listen carefully to Stephen Graham (2010, 12) in his warnings that below the surface, the means to implement tyranny are growing everywhere.

So why and from where does the apparently ultimately fatal phenomenon of revolution arise? We note that other major Eurasian cultures have not so readily produced revolutions as has been the case in Europe. Indeed, it is difficult to image revolution in Indian caste society where the subordinate nature of the lower castes is so deeply ingrained and kept in place by tacit contempt and everyday violence on the part of the superior castes. However, we can certainly see revolution emerging from Christian traditions, particularly associated with the notion of the millennium and the Second Coming. Throughout the Middle Ages, millenarian movements, some on a massive scale, arose again and again, always orchestrated by some religious leader or through some biblical exegesis (Cohn 1970, 13). The English Revolution, generally thought of as the first truly secular revolution, was nevertheless transfused with religious interpretation and movements that seemed to be the energy behind the revolution (Hill 1975, 14).

Perhaps we have the religious dimension behind us today—we have lived through the Enlightenment: Lenin was certainly definite in proposing rational ways forward for the Russian Revolution. The sad thing is firstly that he had several programmes, pre-revolution—particularly as set out in What is to be Done? and State and Revolution (Lenin (1902), 1973, (1917), 1965)—that were contradictory in ways that allowed many alternative things to happen. Moreover, in the end, his insistence in the second of these publications written on the eve of the revolution on ‘smashing the State’, on implementing a true democracy with ‘all power to the Soviets’ and the ‘withering away of the (by then worker’s) State’ were simply shelved once he and the Communist Party had attained (absolute) power. Nor did any of these ever reappear on the Soviet agenda.

So maybe we should understand the European penchant for protest demonstrations and revolution as an extension of millenarian sensibilities yearning for the Second Coming. In detail there is also the idea of achieving a (momentary) sense of solidarity and community in such manifestations. Given how modern society has systematically instilled the notion of ‘Possessive Individualism’ in what has become the norm of the ‘middle class’ (almost a definition of middle classdom) and in so doing has progressively subdued the aspiration for solidarity and community and even any very meaningful notion of society—as so well analysed by Zygmunt Bauman.(15) Such events where people come together in common cause—even if extremely ill-defined—is a very general revolt against the mental and social predicament and Weltanschauung in which we find ourselves. Whilst the contemporary protests seem to be ‘against’, perhaps we should see a more forceful dimension as their being ‘for’ in the image of ‘Senseless Acts of Beauty’ (McKay 1996, 16). The festive atmosphere amongst the occupiers, if antagonistic towards established forces, nevertheless insisted on direct democracy and consensus decision-making and then performed ‘cultural’ manifestations to encourage such a conclusion.

But there are other, we hope effective, traditions and ways to overcome the political and social problems of our day and at the same time recreate—maybe as the main issue—solidarity and community on a permanent basis. In the wake of the European Enlightenment and throughout the 19th century there were rich debates as to what kind of society we should be creating. Of course, in the end we got two—in retrospect equally horrible—competing models that slugged it out over what Eric Hobsbawm (1994, 17) called The Short Twentieth Century. However, whilst Marx had a penchant for belittling the many ‘utopian’ ideas, proposals and experiments of his day as being small-minded and ‘impractical’ in contrast to the grand vision of revolution, perhaps if we turn this criticism on its head, we can say that, on the contrary, many of these were intensely practical where what Marx was encouraging by way of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat was not only impracticable, as genuinely answering the desires and needs of the proletariat, but also, evidently, extremely dehumanising.

It is not necessary here to run through these ‘utopian schemes’ with some kind of evaluation, but we should be sensitive not only to the fact that some of these did improve matters for the subaltern classes—for instance, Robert Owen’s many ideas and schemes sowed the seeds both of modern trade unionism and cooperativism (Harrison 1969, 18). Indeed, there is a vast wealth of utopian writing that isn’t all fiction—indeed much of even the fictional could be turned into fact to greatly improve the world—with good examples of the genre even in recent times.(19) By picking and choosing one can certainly come up with an alternative world that is both intensely practical and addresses comprehensively the problematic of the one we have now.

Perhaps, as something of the culmination of the 19th-century alternative to Marx’s Communism as its ‘arch-rival’ Anarchism, should be given a pitch. Piotre Kropotkin, exiled from Tsarist Russia and participating in late 19th-century movements, agitating and pamphleteering, settled in later years in London, where he became part of the rapid growth at that time in various leftist movements, becoming the heart of the then Anarchist Movement (Miller 1976, 20). Besides copious journalism, pamphleteering and many invitations to speak before audiences of thousands in Europe and across North America—with a vast following including, but not exclusively, much of the working-class movement—Kropotkin had time to write a series of books that even today say much about what the great 20th-century revolution, that never was, could have yielded.

In a series of essays published under the title of Fields, Factories and Workshops of Tomorrow (Kropotkin (1899) 1985) he analysed—not unlike Marx’s copious researches that underlay Capital—the early phases of mass industrialisation and what has become economic globalisation. However, he noted that this never totally killed smaller scale local industries which, if pursued with imagination, could continue to satisfy diverse local needs, and what the revolution should be about is the ‘withering away of large-scale industry’ and not just the State. Nevertheless, local industry would need to be developed in concert with local intensive agriculture—what we are now calling UPA—and he included the need to use urban waste to improve soils and levels of production. Unfortunately, with time, the scale and complexity of the global production system has grown to a magnitude that Kropotkin could hardly have imagined. This is, of course, courtesy of fossil energy and can be expected to retreat down the other side of the peak oil curve.

This should open up the possibility—indeed the necessity—of local revival of diverse small-scale production. Kropotkin set out three important dimensions that revolutionaries should try to promote in the context of such an evolution. The first is the need to continue invention of appropriate technologies (which in future will be needed to replace the energy-intensive technologies of our day) not only as the basis of local production, but also to enhance the beauty of the products; the second is to reform the education system to ensure that, even if there were some specialisation, everyone would be encouraged to learn various skills, both practical and theoretical and thence contribute to farming, work in production and participate in theorising and planning; the third is the organisation of all such activity in the form of cooperatives. In fact in his last years, returning to the emergent Soviet Union, Kropotkin worked tirelessly in his local area, in the countryside north of Moscow, to establish cooperatives—having once the opportunity to discuss this with Lenin who, unsympathetic, asserted Marx’s insistence on centralisation of the economy that as things progressed, undermined the autonomy of the cooperatives that had been initiated in the early days of the Soviet Union, essentially disempowering and disillusioning the people.

Concluding Remarks

Whilst in the first instance circulating around the difficulties of weaning themselves of the contemporary ideological mindset, it seems that all this is exactly what the Transition Movement is trying to do. Over the past decades, there has been a steady formation of what are, these days, referred to as ‘intentional communities’ that have experimented with all kinds of mechanisms for recreating community and for re-localising life generally, turning their backs on Possessive Individualism.(21) Although not seeming to know—or at least to discuss—their own pre-history, the Transition Movement picks up on this experience and insistently ‘re-educates’ the participants in Transition Initiatives in being community, regardless of class background and insistent on classless anarchist relations, living alternative lifestyles aimed at surviving the deluge ahead, that is emergent now and can be expected to accelerate into the future, created by the perversities of modern society. As things progress, more imagination and action will certainly be needed to go into local economic reconstruction and Kropotkin still has things he can teach, or at least inspire us with.

So what does this have to do with the protest demonstrations discussed at such lengths in this paper? Simply, with the trajectory of the mass-industrialised, consumer society running into increasing problems, increasing numbers of people—qua Transition Movement—are seeing that there is a way out. Maybe there needs to be increasing discussion of the ‘direct democracy’ called for by OWS and other protesters not just abstractly in the piazzas, but in terms of practical ways to implement it in the context of rebuilding local economies to give us jobs and incomes, but much more importantly to recreate community where we can enjoy being together all the time and not just in the ‘time out’ of Senseless Acts of Beauty. Maybe this is the real revolution, with results that not only change our lives in a positive way, but more urgently these days, to save us from the terrible indignities and hardship of poverty and dispossession that are currently the lot of relatively few, but may be expected soon to become much more widespread. Instead, jettisoning the illusions of what is cool in life supported by incessant movement, handphoning, Facebook, Twittering, video-gaming and hanging out—even living the quiet suburban life surrounded by a cornucopia of stuff—and thence protestations in the streets and the piazzas. Coming again instead, face to face with our fellow humanity to do meaningful things in a modest way: ay, there’s the rub!

  1. Readers might already wish to read Richard Heinberg’s recent book entitled Snake Oil: How Fracking’s False Promise of Plenty Imperils our Future. 2013: Post Carbon Institute, Santa Barbara, California
  2. There are, of course, some exceptions—such as in Istanbul, where the initial spark of the protests was to prevent the sacrifice of a park to a new shopping centre. What is meant here, however, is that no significant changes were made to the political conjuncture that might have set things on the course of either a more social democratic state or, more radically, towards significant steps to decentralisation and/or national autarky.
  3. Butler, T., C. Hamnett, and M. Ramsden. 2008. “Inward and Upward? Making Out Social Class Change in London 1981–2001.” Urban Studies 45 (2) : 67–88.; Davidson, M., and E. Wyly. 2012. “Class-ifying London: Questioning Social Division and Space Claims in the Post-industrial Metropolis.” CITY 16 (4) : 395–421.; Hamnett, C., and T. Butler. 2013. “Re-classifying London: A Growing Middle Class and Increasing Inequality. A Response to Mark Davidson and Elvin Wyly’s “Class-ifying London: Questioning Social Division and Space Claims in the Post-industrial Metropolis”.” CITY 17 (2) : 192–208.
  4. Davidson, M., and E. Wyly. 2012. “Class-ifying London: Questioning Social Division and Space Claims in the Post-industrial Metropolis.” City 16 (4) : 395–421.
  5. For two groups or respectively ‘less’ and ‘more’ radical readings from the debate, see: Giddens and Held (1982) and Wright (1989).
  6. Thompson, E. P. 1964. The Making of the English Working Class. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
  7. Obviously, this is a very swift sketch of things we all know but nevertheless need more discussion here: working-class solidarity ebbed away over the post-Second World War era and studies began to show how conservative values arose amongst the working class (Hoggart 1957; McKenzie and Silver 1968) as these were co-opted by the implementation of housing and welfare programmes. The significant working-class vote that brought Thatcher to power confirmed this.
  8. For the story of the Heygate estate in the London Borough of Southwark—once the crown amongst the social housing estates, which once housed almost 80% of the borough’s population—see: Sebregondi (2012).
  9. Leontidou, L. 2012. “Athens in the Mediterranean “Movement of the Piazzas”: Spontaneity in Material and Virtual Public Spaces.” City 16 (3): 299–312.
  10. Catterall, B. 2012–13. “Towards the Great Transformation (1–6).” City 16 (1–2) to 17 (2).
  11. Plato. 1974. The Republic. Translated and edited by H. D. P. Lee, 2nd ed. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
  12. Graham, S. 2010. Cities under Siege: The New Military Urbanism. London: Verso.
  13. Cohn, N. 1970. The Pursuit of the Millennium. London: Paladin Books.
  14. Hill, C. 1975. The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas during the English Revolution. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
  15. We could cite a long list of Bauman’s publications on this theme. Let the following suffice: Bauman (2001, 2002).
  16. McKay, G. 1996. Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance since the Sixties. London: Verso.
  17. Hobsbawm, E. 1994. Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century—1914–1991. London: Michael Joseph.
  18. Harrison, J. F. C. 1969. Quest for the New Moral World: Robert Owen and the Owenites in Britain and America. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
  19. For instance, readers may be familiar with David Harvey’s (2000, 259–281) sketch in the final pages of his Spaces of Hope.
  20. Miller, M. A. 1976. Kropotkin. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  21. For a perceptive analysis of the difficulties such communities have faced in a world where everyone else is encased in possessive individualism, see: Abrams and McCulloch (1976). Biennial accounts of the state of the intentional communities movement in the UK were published from 1989 to 2007 under the title of Diggers and Dreamers. See the most recent publication: Coates (2012). For the USA, see: FIC (2010) and for a Europe-wide directory, see: Eurotopia (2005) in English—an update in German is available for 2009.

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