Interview with a Plane Stupid Activist
On 1st March 2010, after a successful campaign to stop airport expansion at Heathrow, a group of activists swooped on a abandoned market garden near the airport. They transformed the site into a community garden and created a space to build local resistance and resilience.
STIR: After your initial success in resisting airport expansion, you decided not to leave and were able to maintain this ‘local victory’. Your current occupation of this previously unutilized site (near Heathrow), and the process of making it productive, appears to be central to the alter-globalization movement. Your actions seem to share an expression with the Argentinean Recovered Factory Movement whose slogan is a strategy: “Occupy, Resist, Produce”. In 2009, five years after the first occupation and resumption of production at the Zanon ceramics factory (now called Fabrique Sin Patrones, or factory without bosses) they have received the definite legal titles. Is this the process that you are engaged in?
PLANE STUPID: It is a similar one, but what we have been talking about recently is the notion of ‘occupy, create, resist’. You have to take space in order to create; and if we are going to create a movement that is for something then we are going to have to create that something. When you create something that does not fit with the state or global capitalism or any other similar configuration then you will come under attack. [The market] will either attempt to co-opt you, or if this cannot happen through a legalization process, [it] will attempt to formalize your creation and bring it under [its] supervision. So it is a case of either co-option or attack where they will try to crush what you have created if it does not fit with the ideology of the state or capital.
This means that you will have to resist. For us this is really important because we have something to protect and defend. We are not just fighting for the sake of it; and it is here where I think there is a powerful nuance between the form of action we’re taking and other movements where resistance is glorified to the point where it becomes a ‘good’ in itself. ‘Resistance to what?’ That is resisting a system but without positing an alternative. I think if you’re running is a newspaper, or a community garden, or a free school, or a free party or a pirate radio station then you will have to take that space, occupy it and be creative to the point where people care about what you have done. Someone has to care about your creation. And if it is one that does not fit with capital and the state then you will come under attack. You have to have a politics that decides what to do at that stage. Are you going to make a compromise and potentially risk certain amounts of co-option for strategic victories? Or are you going to resist all co-option and maybe resist being destroyed? That is the choice.
At the moment we are not dogmatic about what we do. We want to keep our principles and values, and if we can come to an agreement with the legal owner of the land that would satisfy the values and aims of the project, then we would probably do that. One strategy we have discussed is raising money to buy the land, since it is cheap agricultural land, so we can form a community ownership structure that allows us to do a lot more stuff around the Heathrow site. However, we haven’t been given that opportunity because the landowner is not taking any offers and will not negotiate with us.
STIR: Your decision to occupy the disused site near Heathrow is part of a tradition that is not only a simple articulation of what it is against, but also demonstrates the possibilities and productiveness of spaces and land when put into the service of the community instead of capital. For me, this enables us to surpass and move beyond critique and allows us to begin to act.
Do you think this form of activism has overcome the static theoretical approach that is still largely used though limited by only being capable of describing the problem?
PS: Yes. I think [this form of activism] provides space for discussion. In the action of taking space you have certain eventualities to consider and political decisions to make such as co-option and resistance, but are not as simple as that dichotomy. In the act of creating a space, things will then come to fill it. What we found at the site in Heathrow is that when people come to have breakfast, or a cup of tea, or dig the vegetable patch, we have conversations about cutting edge political issues that are both theoretical and practical. I think that this is true of spaces that have a political consciousness; or they come to have one by virtue of the fact that they are antagonistic to the current ideological and political systems, and out of this antagonism comes political discussion. Personally, I have found it very nourishing to do something that is practical and that has also enabled the development of ideas.
It is important to remember that you cannot have non-valued space in capitalism. You can for a time but capital has to grow into that space. I think what we are seeing at the moment is that are some real limits to the space that capital can grow into. As with every limit that is reached, capital has been met with resistance and has only ever overcome that resistance at a cost. It has had to make concessions, be it the welfare state, representational democracy or the short working week. These have all come about through people resisting capital’s advance. However, what we have failed to do as a movement is not to put forward a theoretically coherent alternative, but to put forward an actual and material alternative. In John Holloway’s Crack Capitalism he locates the real antagonism in a different place. Capitalism creates value by turning us into abstract labour and into something that can be quantifiable, and that can in turn be exploited. Holloway’s argument, and it is something to which I am sympathetic based on my direct experience, is that the Marxist tradition and the broadly anti-capitalist tradition has located the site of resistance in abstract labour – the proletarian. However, the more significant antagonism is the point at which the things we do out of passion, need or desire, are transformed into work that can be quantified and exploited.
The reason this is significant to me is because it helps to crystallize some of the feelings towards work that I have had during the current project at Heathrow and in previous projects. No one at the Heathrow project is paid because we want to maintain our passion for the project. This means that we have to find ways to make money. This sometimes means we will have to work — which is our compromise — and sometimes we will have to claim benefits — which is our compromise (i.e., permitting control to the state). What I am realizing, though, is that there are ways of living where you do not have to go to work and earn money in the traditional sense. And if there are a lot of people doing this, then we will also find that there are many experiments that will enable us to build a different kind of economy which we might later theorize. Maybe this will be based on a gift economy, a solidarity economy, a groundless affinity economy, or mutual aid (there have been various terms for it over the years). But right now I have been able to think about this a lot more because I am living it, partly with my friends and other people who want to join in such experiments.
My interest is in economies where we determine value, as opposed to the market [determining value]. But obviously we live in a capitalist economy and because these different forms of value do not fit with it, they will attempt to capture my value and find ways to make me go to work or find ways to make me submit to the control of the state. This is a powerful mythology: everybody has to go to work and everybody has to make a living. Growing your own food, making your own energy and doing community work does not count unless you are being paid.
STIR: What is most striking about these emerging and established political and social movements is that they exemplify the process that Vaclav Havel described “When organizations are supplanted by communities”. This seems, to me at least, to describe most of the political encounters that have accompanied globalization, where those who have resisted the market, have not subscribed to prefigurative political programmes or hold any particularly strong political inclinations.
In your experience of working with the people of Sipson against airport expansion, is it the case that these groups are more identifiable as communities than as particular political groups?
PS: They’re certainly not particular political groups. I subscribe to the idea that everything is political and that there is politics in everything but this depends on how visible you make it.
STIR: The reason I ask this question is because it was explicit in Naomi Klein’s ‘The Take’ that the workers at the occupied factories were not waiting for interventions by theorists to direct their actions but were actually deliberating and deciding their own course of action.
PS: I think this comes from the democracy aspect and this is where I think direct democracy is interesting. It is the space where theory and practice come together. We had a Transition Heathrow meeting last night and we used consensus process and direct democracy — we facilitated and rotated minutes, we collectively set an agenda and people sent items in from the outside. This is a process we have gotten used to over the last few years during our involvement in activism. But if you go outside of these kinds of projects and into mainstream decision making institutions, you find that these practices are not standard but actually really radical.
One reason that I think many people are right to think of consensus process as radical is because the process of deliberation has really opened up a deliberation on questions that have a material impact. You have to bring your own theoretical perspective, your own values, and your real judgments in a situation. This produces an interplay between everybody in the room who contributes. This is a very empowering, educating and compromising experience. You are being sensitive to the emotional needs and ideas of everybody in the room because you want to reach an agreement. You are hearing many different perspectives — not just one or two — and you are working towards a collective position that everyone can live with. This gives a space to this kind of thought and reflection that, at the same time, is making significant decisions. This is why the key to all resistance movements is the practice of direct democracy. Take the Zapatistas. Without the indigenous Mayan people and their traditions of democratic processes, which are almost semi-spiritual, the Zapatistas could be just another Maoist guerilla group in Central America. So, I think this is at the heart of what is really radical in these current alterglobalization movements because it offers a major alternative to previous political movements and capitalist organizations.
I have just been at a significant meeting about climate camp where it emerged that we are at the end of a phase of the movement and that politics had changed, meaning that we will have to invent new tactics and strategies for a new phase. There were a couple of things that they wanted in order to start anew. Firstly, they wanted a new idea that would excite and inspire people. A new sort of dream about what climate camp is attempting to achieve. The crucial idea, in reference to the question, was the need to readdress our democratic and organizational structures so they cohere with the values that we have upheld so far. But it also needs to operate at a larger scale because this is a barrier that is being pushed against. The question is whether we are going to retain the process and only use it with a few thousand people or are we going to implement what they do in South America that is directly democratic and which consists of millions. We haven’t seen this yet and there are small examples from history, and even small examples now, but once that happens we will see a lot of change and a significant departure.
STIR: The Zapatista Marcos famously said “I shit on every revolutionary vanguard on the planet”. This is a forceful description of the resistance within certain political and social movements to analysis and critique from above or abroad, and one that promotes the sovereignty and self-determination of those who are directly involved in transforming their own circumstances. It appears that the role of the intellectual as someone who would direct political movements has been eliminated. How dominant do you think self-organization — or what has been called revolution ‘from below’ — is in current movements?
PS: I think it is a defining feature of what is different in the alter-globalization movement. You can pick a date when it starts — it has many beginnings but certainly began with the post-Soviet era when the state socialist strategies seemed to become obsolete. What unites the new radical and anti-capitalist politics is a commitment to direct democracy in a much more meaningful way than in previous movements. This development has been fundamental to it and it is only going to develop in our practice. If you have a meeting of ten thousand people, or hundred thousand people, you are going to have to find a way of making decisions that fits with your values. If your values are consensus decision-making and direct democracy, you are going to have to experiment to find ways of achieving them. The more we do it, the better we will become at it, and people are doing this on a daily basis. In the past five years, at least, I have increasingly used consensus process to direct my activities and the projects that I am involved in, and other aspects of my life that require collective decision-making. As a result, I feel more comfortable in that space. The more comfortable we collectively become in that space, the more powerful the movement will become.
Transition Heathrow aims to bring to light the environmental damage and misery future airport expansion at Heathrow will bring to local residents and businesses. Their objective is to build permanent and sustainable communities within threatened areas to offer and show a viable alternative to the bulldozing of green spaces, houses, lives and history. They aim to promote, green, living, working fellowships – equipped to deal with the impacts of climate change and peak oil – controlled by those directly affected by expansion plans – the Heathrow workers and residents.
For more, read Seeds of Hope: A Journey to Reclaim the Fields by Trevor Golan on the Grow Heathrow Blog
Grow Heathrow welcomes visitors & volunteers. For more information visit the Transition Heathrow website.