The Turbulence Collective’s What Would It Mean to Win?

What Would It Mean to Win?

By James David Morgan
November 18, 2010

The wonderful folks at Turbulence were gracious enough to send a review copy of What Would it Mean to Win? our way.  What follows is a much delayed review of the book.  Should you want to spend some time with the text yourself, which we recommend, PM Press has copies.

To ask what would it mean to win, as the Turbulence Collective has, is precisely to avoid stating what it would mean to win. There is no coherent articulation of victory in these pages, and Turbulence does not want to proscribe a teleology to the movement of movements from which they draw. What Would it Mean to Win? stays true to the interrogative form used in its title; it presents a series of propositions and visions, each offering an opening, a new possible direction for movement. The results are rewarding, productive, and graciously aware of their own limitations.

What Would it Mean to Win? is a book about the counter-globalization movement, though it aims to contribute to anti-capitalism more generally. Its players are happy to participate in the kaleidoscopic recomposition of social life, and Turbulence raises the question in order to cajole them beyond what the collective sees as a potential impasse. In recent years, the movement has slowed, even stagnated, or at least morphed into something unrecognizable. Counter-summit mobilizations are frequently the subject of criticism, referred to as a coalesced, predictable, even routinized practice, rather than the rupture they once were. It’s possible to tell a history of these events, which Turbulence does, that begins with the acceleration of the counter-globalization movement and the affect of winning that characterized that time.  The history moves through the movement’s fits and starts, minor successes, defeats, and cooptions, eventually landing in the present, where that momentum is fraught with ambiguity, and feels more tired, much more like defeat.

This change in affect is Turbulence’s call to action. The group first noticed it in 2007, and brought the issue to the fore with their essay Move into the Light?, also reprinted in the book. Appropriately, the essay surfaced at the mobilization to shut down the G8 meetings in Heiligendamm, Germany, and prompted us to probe the dark corners where the movement had overlooked a potential turn (or, alternately, potentially overlooked a turn it could have taken, or still ought to take.)

Turbulence’s new book asks essentially the same question as then. It shouldn’t be seen as a criticism to point out that the question is being repeated; the editors themselves anticipated that they’d have to revisit it periodically, and they eloquently describe the necessity of addressing historical contingencies that shape our ways of making movement today. In short, it’s important, maybe even imperative, that we take up these questions regularly, that we test the bedrock assumptions on which our actions lie.

The text, for the most part, sticks to the time period between the publication of Move into the Light? and the printing of the book in 2010. There are obligatory references to the happenings in Seattle, 1999, and to the Zapatistas and New Left, but unlike so many of their contemporaries, Turbulence isn’t interested in turning their question into a historiography. As such, there’s no quibbling over the movement’s slowing, over who or what was responsible. In fact, there’s a flat out rejection of that kind of consequentialism and a poking fun at “those strange political groups of yesteryear, arguing about history as worlds pass by.”
The project also succeeds in avoiding a common pitfall of not writing a history, that of being a temporally-bound survey, a snapshot (to use Turbulence’s word) that would be irrelevant as soon as it was published. With the complexity and momentum of a movement of movements behind it, the fragments chosen to be included here comprise a wide conceptual frame, and the play (or discord) that happens between them is where we can learn, and what the book emphasizes.

If there is a temptation to which Turbulence submits, it’s a general one that can characterize many attitudes about social movements. If a linear history isn’t desirable, then its most viable alternative, a sort of networked version of the same, might be better. It has been assumed that taking this form, since it provides the most flexibility and fluidity, even if it is subject to overcoding and other weaknesses, is the best possible shape of resistance.

It’s surprising to find the same glorification of the network form in these pages because Turbulence is aware that the acceleration of the counter-globalization movement was concurrent with, and even contingent upon, the global expansion of capitalist communications networks. What’s more, they are clear, even insistent, on the point that we may not yet have found a workable organizational form for anti-capitalism. But the word that comes repeatedly to the fore is network. Perhaps it’s just an abuse of rhetoric, a shorthand way of describing the nebulous micro-politics in question, but an essay near the end of the collection takes a step further and makes a metaphor of complexity theory. Describing how scientific understandings of dynamical networks can offer insights into social organization doesn’t help to reveal new ways of being together in the world (even if it does make a fair bit of sense and may help us to anticipate them.)

Ultimately, What Would it Mean to Win? does justice to the question mark. A popular Zapatista phrase is repeated throughout – caminar preguntando – to walk while questioning – and this is precisely what Turbulence does. It may typically be victories that offer a chance for the political imaginary to expand, but with What Would it Mean to Win?, Turbulence proves that the same can happen at moments of deceleration, or at any other strange moment in the life-cycles of social movements.

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