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The Free Association, Moments of Excess: Movements, protest and everyday life

PM Press, 2011; 128pp; £10.99

I suspect many activists struggle with the bigger political context outside their immediate areas of concern and engagement – I know I do. An insidious feature of current mainstream political culture is that sense of “this is how it is; this is the only way things can be”; that capitalism, of a neoliberal variety, is the only game in town. Hence for activists the choice can feel like either doing single-issue politics, or none at all. This book can change all that.

Moments of Excess is a relatively short book that packs in a tremendous amount: an analysis of anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist politics and action over the last ten years, from Reclaim the Streets and Seattle, snowballing into the “movement of movements”, and taking in recent UK phenomena like the Camp for Climate Action, anti-cuts and student demos; a lucid description of the current state and vulnerability of global capitalism, specifically the financial crisis originating in 2008; and an accessible historical political analysis that weaves together the likes of Marx, William Morris, and punk rock. The authors, The Free Association, are a collective of folk mostly from Leeds with a shared political history and friendship dating back to the 1980s.

Recurrent themes that emerge include the idea of social movements as processes, literal “movements” in social relations; the paradox of capitalism’s abject failings and near-collapse, yet its ability to grind on zombie-like and apparently unstoppable; antagonism and conflicts as drivers of social change; and the co-option and smothering of movements by mainstream assimilation.

In short, this book makes sense of the world, and our role in it as agents of change, in a way that nothing else I have read in recent years does. The crucial point for me was the book’s accessibility and readability, partly due to the fact that it is a collection of essays, arranged chronologically but each standing on its own.

The book strikes the right balance between academic and popular approaches; only very rarely does arcane language obscure the ideas (overuse of the term “problematics”, for example), and the footnotes were excellent, throwing up lots of additional insights and inspiration. It also mixes personal narrative with political analysis in a very engaging way, and deftly synthesises UK, European and global perspectives.

I recommend this as the ideal book for any activist seeking to get back in touch with “the big picture” and tool up intellectually for the showdown with neoliberalism. A great holiday read. Seriously!