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A critic replies to Chris Knight

Cautiously Pessimistic | 12.07.2011 09:28 | Analysis | Culture | Repression

A response to Chris Knight's recent article "In Defence of Activism".

As a general rule, I try to keep an open-minded and non-sectarian approach, in order to avoid getting sucked into one of the many poisonous feuds that plague the anarchist movement. (In fact, one of the reasons why I write anonymously is because I want people to judge what I say on what it says, not who I’m mates with and what groups I’m involved with.) I try to respect the fact that, even if other people’s priorities are different from mine, what they’re doing can still be useful. But at the same time, some things are so counter-productive that it feels as though it would be irresponsible to just ignore them. A few examples of these things: anything that encourages people to trust politicians or the union leaders to sort our problems out for us, the kind of mindless repetition that leads a small minority of activists to call for a black bloc (or, worse, set up a facebook event for a black bloc) for every single demo, no matter what the context is, and anything involving Chris Knight. To be a bit clearer, I mean anything initiated by Chris Knight, not any of the otherwise worthwhile activities he attaches himself to in order to promote his bizarre ideas, as with his disgraceful attempt to hijack Network X.(1)
So, when I saw Chris Knight had written an article responding to his critics, it seemed like something worth reading and replying to.(2) Predictably enough, almost everything about it pissed me off, starting with the name. Maybe it’s just me, but the title “IN DEFENCE OF ACTIVISM“ makes me think of a decade-late reply to the classic article “Give Up Activism”, which criticised activists as “experts in social change”, which “means defining our actions as the ones which will bring about social change, thus disregarding the activity of thousands upon thousands of other non-activists”.(3) If Chris Knight wants to defend that, that seems pretty problematic. Or maybe I’m mis-reading it, and he just means activism in the broader, non-ideological sense of any political activity, in which case he’s being totally dishonest – no-one’s saying that anyone should give up political activity altogether (although if Knight wanted to do that, I certainly wouldn’t complain), just that there’s other forms of activity that are much more useful than stupid stunts designed to attract media attention that don’t even make any sense.
So, having been pissed off by the title, the next bit I disagreed with was the introductory paragraph, which stated that “Chris Knight’s approach to revolutionary politics is very controversial. However, it is also thought-provoking, whether you agree with him or not.” This is technically true, but only in the sense that literally anything can be thought-provoking for someone with a functioning brain. When I have to miss lunch, that provokes me to think a lot about when I’m going to get a chance to eat, and what I’ll have, but that doesn’t mean that skipping meals is a very useful contribution to revolutionary strategy; equally provoking lots of people to think “God, that bloke in the paper sounds like an embarrassing tool, if he’s an anarchist I’m glad I’m not one” does nothing to challenge capitalism.
Most of the first few paragraphs of Knight’s article are fairly uncontroversial, although I’m not convinced about his claim he makes about “the relevance of hunter-gatherers to revolutionary politics today” – I understand that he finds anthropology interesting, and everyone should have a hobby, but I firmly believe that our politics should start from our own lives and the problems that affect them. Since I’ve never met a hunter-gatherer, I’m never likely to, and I don’t think anyone I know has ever met one either, I’m not convinced that they’re really that massively relevant.
The real problem starts when he starts talking about his activity with the “Government of the Dead.” To start with, just look at that name. They’re obviously not a government, and I’d bet good money that none of their active members are dead either, so when you can’t say your own group’s name without being wrong twice you’ve got serious problems. This isn’t just me being pedantic, I really can’t work out how that name’s relevant to anything – after all, it’s not as though being a government, or dead, is something that they actually want to achieve. He seems to think that getting the Sun to write about “a so-called ‘anarchist leader’ who looks like a top-hatted zombie making a complete clown of himself, apparently on purpose” is a good thing. I don’t. I think that a lot of people see anarchists as crazy people with ideas that don’t make any sense, and I really can’t see how making a complete clown of yourself is a good way to convince people that you’re not crazy and your ideas really do make sense.
He claims that his project is “to help break through the wall of censorship erected by the mainstream media. Our project is to break out of the middle class bubble altogether and reach the working class.” I have a limited amount of sympathy for this – I’ve argued that anarchists should engage with the mainstream media more in the past, although I also think it’s worth being aware of the potentially life-ruining effects the media can have. But, at the end of the day, I think there’s only one way that’s really effective for reaching working-class people: actually talking to them. And by that, I mean talking to people about their lives and things that are relevant to them, not hunter-gatherers in the neolithic era or top-hatted zombie clowns.
He claims that getting the Evening Standard to run an article titled “anarchist extremists plan to hi-jack TUC march” should be seen as a triumph, since there’s no way they’d ever print anything more straightforwardly positive. I might have some sympathy for this idea, if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s demonstrably untrue, since the same paper also ran an article with the headline “Anarchists are students, NHS staff and union members”.(4) Equally, while they’re not an anarchist group as such, it’s worth noting that UK Uncut have managed to get papers as far to the right as the Daily Mail to write fairly sympathetic reports of (sort of) direct action against the cuts.(5) So, the idea that Chris Knight’s style of interaction with the media is the only one that can get positive results is nonsense, since others are managing to do it without coming across as maniacs.
So, onto the Royal Wedding. As Knight acknowledges, virtually the entire anarchist movement decided to ignore this spectacular non-event (I can’t claim any direct credit, but I am proud of the fact that I was arguing against engaging with this nonsense way back in January.(6)) He asks “if the monarchy is irrelevant, why did the state resort to such an unprecedented clampdown, arresting dozens of us for merely thinking of doing something on the day?” This sounds tempting at first, but in fact, measuring effectiveness in terms of repression is a very dodgy road to go down. Taken to its logical conclusion, it would suggest that we should be imitating Islamic fundamentalist terrorists, since they’re the ones who attract the hardest state clampdowns. I’ve been part of rubbish actions that achieved very little, but still managed to attract heavy police repression; in contrast, the police didn’t directly attack the strikes on June 30th, but it seems hard to deny that they were infinitely more disruptive than Knight’s street theatre. He sees the monarchy as being “vital to the maintenance of capitalist class rule in Britain”, which is an exaggeration: certainly, they make a useful contribution to it, but so did the News of the World. If we followed France and the US by becoming a republic, it seems unlikely that capitalism would collapse overnight.
He also defends himself with the argument that “Humour, dance and theatre maximise the difficulties for the media in portraying us as thugs. Anyway, liberation should be fun”, which falls down on two levels: a) If you want to make it difficult for the media to portray us as thugs, you might want to think about not using a fake guillotine to represent killing someone, or using slogans like “EAT THE BANKERS”, and generally trying to associate yourselves with “a Rabelaisian carnival of bloodshed and dismemberment, ruthless slaughter ‘transformed into a merry banquet’” (phrase lifted from this terrible article: which I’ll come back to). And b), if you’re going to base your strategy around humour, it helps to be funny. Generally speaking, the Government of the Dead aren’t very funny. To give just a few examples: DSG, LulzSec, SchNews, Josie Long’s “David, all artists hate you. Except Tracey Emin and you’re welcome to her” banner, the anonymous kid with the “Yo-Ho-Ho and a bottle of sort yourself out you fucktard” placard, the dance-offs that emerged from the student occupations, the American anarchists who put out a communique after a riot saying “De Beers, Prada, Coach, Tumi, Wells Fargo, Longchamp, Macy’s, Armani, Crate and Barrel, Montblanc, Urban Outfitters and Guess were all targeted for all kinds of boring ass political shit, but primarily because fuck them.” – all these are much, much funnier than anything Knight’s ever come up with.(7) Most of the time, the Government of the Dead’s contribution to humour is about as helpful as Stalin’s contribution to communism.
Knight then goes on the offensive against those serious, “worthy and boring” anarchists who’ve criticised him, insisting that workers don’t need them, “they” need “information about their own solidarity, their own unity in action, their own ability to stand up to the bosses and liberate themselves, their own human creativity and potential.” Again, I have some sympathy for this sentiment, but what do the Government of the Dead have to offer?
In their own words, “it’s about the human right to ritual participation… I’ve worn silly costumes, devised ways to hang and decapitate effigies, spilt fake body fluids, committed cannibalism, cast spells, bodypainted, sung and danced badly… witches cast an opening ceremony amid a circle of pumpkin candles, summoning the Horsemen from four directions to gyrate wildly to a samba band… Those who live in the world, eating, drinking, having sex, are susceptible to the temptations of the flesh; only once dead, as ancestors, can they be trusted. To join the Government, you must be dead. We agitators are mere agents, our comings and goings governed by lunar time and tide. The Government of the Dead seeks to restore lunarchy – rule by the Moon – to humanity, with ritual, sexual and economic exchange switching by lunar phase. Let the shadow world Government take the power for one phase, say waxing moon, the official world in waning… Dark moon conjures menstrual blood, kinship, witchcraft – all antithetical to marriage. Mayday is the time of popular fertility rite, not sex between newly weds, but group sex of the lads and lasses in the woods and fields. The Government realized it had a cosmic duty to supply the necessary erotic elements to avert this threat to fecundity.”(8)
That is to say, literally nothing with any relevance whatsoever to the life of any worker I’ve ever met, just a load of mystical pagan bullshit developed around the hobbies and research interests of a few oddball hippie academics. Knight claims that “anything which fosters the impression that the ruling class is invincible is reactionary”. I think he has a point here, but the effect of his attempted Royal Wedding protest was not to make the ruling class look weak: instead, it was given at easy chance to demonstrate how good it is at repression, and its victims appeared powerless to fight back. Unfortunately for him, those moments when the ruling class really do look weak, and we start to win, usually come out of campaigns that engage directly with everyday life, the sort of activity that Knight seems to regard as “worthy and boring”: for instance, the campaigns which have saved care homes in Nottingham and Sheffield, and saved free travel for the disabled in Reading.(9) If we’re going to have any relevance at all, anarchists need to be a part of these campaigns – we need to be funny, and interesting, and creative, but we also need a deadly serious desire to win. Anything which fosters the impression that anti-capitalists are incoherent nutcases with a shaky grasp on reality is reactionary; and this, as far as I can tell, seems to be Knight’s main role.

Finally, to pre-empt one obvious criticism: yes, it’s true that at least Chris Knight is proud enough of his ideas and activities that he always uses his real name, whereas “Cautiously Pessimistic” is just some anonymous coward. It’s also true that Chris Knight has lost his job for taking part in political activity using his real name, whereas I haven’t. Worth thinking about.


Cautiously Pessimistic
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Display the following 5 comments

  1. Anarchist criticism of Knight — Blood on the scapegoat
  2. speak for yourself — unrepresented
  3. not sure why my comments keep being hidden... — anon
  4. The Truth will out — Freeda
  5. he's not an anarchist — S