Feeling our way forward

Hilary Wainwright maps structures of feeling and resistance

August 29, 2011 · 13 min read

Where there is oppression there will always be resistance, sometimes overtly organised, sometimes deeply buried and undefined. Moreover, where there is resistance there is invariably a sense, however implicit, of values contrary to those of the oppressors, although these can be ambivalent and fragile – oppressed people often accept the prevailing values that sustain the social order because the vulnerable often feel they need order.

It follows, then, that strategies for change should pay attention not only to overt resistance or refusal, not simply to fully articulated opposing values, but also to feelings of unease arising from the tension between official discourse and practical experience. Here can be alternative values and institutions in formation.

I want to map contemporary trends of this kind. They concern values of solidarity, co-operation and fairness, and organisational logics of openness, plurality and mutual inter‑connection. These trends – and all I can offer is an impressionistic snapshot – undoubtedly involve only a minority of the population, certainly in the UK. But the feelings from which they are emerging are shared by a large proportion of the public, across many different social spheres.

I want to argue that they are fundamental for – among the many challenges faced by the left – overturning the widespread public acceptance that there is no alternative to sacrificing public services to deal with debt; and for countering the persistent racism and scapegoating of immigrants and claimants, a perverse sign of unease, often expressed alongside revulsion with the political class, its dishonesty and its self interest.

To understand the emerging practical consciousness that could be a basis for meeting these political challenges, I recommend a conceptual tool from the work of Raymond Williams. An influential socialist theorist, from the late 1940s until his death in 1988 he used critical cultural inquiry to write about society.

Social and personal

One of Williams’ concerns was to overcome the way that ‘relationships, institutions and formations in which we are still actively involved are converted into formed wholes rather than [understood as] formative and forming processes’. Linked to this, he argued, was a separation of the social from the personal that tended to equate the social with fixed and explicit wholes, while all that is moving and unformed – and to some degree unknown – is described as ‘subjective’ and ‘personal’. Williams was trying to capture the process of change in the physical present, to understand the social and material character of the process of emergence, implied by the idea of ‘forming and formative processes’. He arrived at the idea of ‘structures of feeling’.

It is a deliberately contradictory phrase to convey that there is a pattern recurring across social spheres and cultural forms – hence a structure.

But the structure is not of finished, articulated thoughts. Rather it lies in the processes of creating ‘meanings and values as they are actively lived and felt’ – summed up in the concept ‘feeling’, which combines emotion, intuition and thought. Williams uses ‘feeling’ to emphasise a distinction from the more formal concepts of ‘world view’ or ‘ideology’.

Williams differentiates between dominant and residual social formations that are already formed and manifest and the emergent, which is where structures of feeling come in. Here he distinguishes between ‘oppositional’ and ‘alternative’, the former posing an unassimilable challenge to the dominant order, the latter restyling or otherwise inflecting it. He adds that the latter can very often look like the former at first.

Williams recognises, therefore, that structures of feeling might never entirely emerge but rather might be absorbed, incorporated into the dominant social formation – sometimes, I would add, as a new, ‘outside’ source of innovation and renewal. This was, in significant part, the fate of much of the undoubtedly distinct structures of feeling of the late 1960s and 1970s. These were appropriated, and partially absorbed, by the credit‑driven capitalist revival of the 1980s. Through its idea of the ‘big society’, the government is attempting, crudely and so far unsuccessfully, to carry out a similar appropriation of long-established but now vulnerable traditions of radical community organising.

It is clear that Williams’ concept, or something very like it, could be useful in understanding today’s ‘forming and formative’ processes of new social and political institutions. The concept seems particularly useful at a time when there is widespread opposition and unease around different spheres of capitalism, but no coherent ideological or institutional framework for going beyond it. ‘Structures of feeling’ can help us to understand the renewed unease at the social consequences of the rampant free market system on daily life, and provide insight to the lived experiences of co-operative, solidaristic values and open, anti-authoritarian organisational logics that are in a process of formation. Maybe, too, it can help us to ground new strategic thinking.

Lived mentalities

Two such recurrent lived mentalities strike me as especially important.

First, there are a number of trends clustered around resistance to, or unease over, an expansion of commodification, or to what David Harvey terms ‘accumulation by dispossession’. These mentalities, or feelings, involve a common rejection of the official discourse of efficiency, choice and competitive success justifying the privatisation of public services, the casualisation and degradation of labour and dominant forms of development, and with it patterns of consumption and control over our cities. We must now, happily, add the way that anger at the driving, predatory control of the media by corporate interests has turned the concerns of a persistent campaigning minority into a dramatic glasnost of the politics of the past 30 years, whose consequences and depth are uncertain.

Let’s consider each in turn. In struggles against privatisation it is increasingly common to find a shift away from economistic trade unionism focused only on jobs and conditions. This is being superseded by a trade unionism shaped by public sector workers, who organise in a way that draws explicitly on their knowledge and feelings about the value of their work to service users and the harm that will come from outsourcing to private businesses.

A current example is the particularly sharp conflict over Barnet council’s ‘easyJet model’ of public services. Unison’s ability to resist – so far – is rooted in a determined insistence that there is a public path to reform, based on improving the quality of services rather than maximising contractors’ profits. This is guided by the knowhow of citizens and staff. The Association for Public Excellence reports workers across local government resisting outsourcing with public alternatives. And anyone listening to delegates at this year’s Unison conference would have witnessed trade unionists concerned simultaneously – and integrally – with their jobs and with those whose needs they were serving.

Here are workers acting as citizens, mobilising their organised strength to insist, against marketisation, on the use value of their work as public servants. This structure of feeling is apparent beyond the organised movements and experienced in day-to-day interactions between patients and medical staff, pupils, parents and teachers and other interactions on the front line, out of sync with the messages coming over in the dominant media.

The defence of meaningful jobs in the public sector is also a rejection of casualisation and work without a future. This is a theme with far wider echoes. It is another sphere of unease in the disjuncture between the experience of degraded labour and the official discourse of responsibility and empowerment.

Corporate consequences

A concern with the concrete consequences and often negative use value of capitalist production is evident in campaigns against the destructive environmental impact of corporate – and state – driven modes of development. With regard to consumer products such as GM food and the products of agribusiness more generally, petrol-driven cars or clothes made with sweated labour, popular campaigns are in effect challenging the profit-driven decision-making processes of capital accumulation. And here again, as Kate Soper points out in relation to dominant models of consumption (page 28), there is tension and unease experienced beyond the world of campaigns, and an attraction to greener, more sustainable patterns of consumption and development.

Similarly, consider the kinds of struggles and alliances emerging in relation to the cities. These are challenging the kind of class-biased and speculative development that denies the mass of people the opportunity the city provides for conviviality, accessibility and a good life (see Red Pepper, Jun/Jul 2011). They are implicitly – and increasingly explicitly – using whatever spaces can be won to experiment with visions of how to organise a city to realise these values.

Again, here are cases of lived experience out of sync with the official claims of ‘world’ cities. And again, this practical consciousness is echoed less politically but more broadly in all kinds of complaints and objections to prestige, commercial developments that disregard civic life.

In all these spheres, newer values – for example, autonomy, cultural diversity and harmony with nature, influenced by feminism, anti-racism and green movements – are coming to the fore. They are often emerging in combination with the enlivening and transformation of older values, such as solidarity, public ethics, co-operation and things held in common. These trends, pressing questions of social purpose and relations with nature against the predatory forces of the capitalist market, are frequently associated with innovations towards more democratic, participatory forms of organisation.

New organising

Here we can discern the second cluster of under-the-surface trends: around new organisational values and forms. These recur across strikingly diverse spheres. Picking up where the rebellions of the 1970s left off – cut off in their prime by Reagan and Thatcher, and failing to produce much by way of lasting institutions – these new forms are founded on a rejection of authoritarianism and hierarchy.

The emerging forms of collectivity are collaborative as well as deliberative in their decision-making. Their methodologies stress solutions drawing on the computer software metaphor of ‘open source’ – opening up the process of problem solving. Their notions of co-ordination stress enabling platforms and facilitating centres and above all the democratisation of the means of communication. Such features are common to the movements resisting corporate globalisation since the late 1990s – from the anti-capitalist mobilisations at the end of the last century to the World Social Forum and the networks it spawned and encouraged, through the ‘free culture’ movement in its self-consciously plural form to the movements now reaching a high point in Spain and Greece against the imposition of austerity (see page 33).

These structures of feeling also have a wider reach, producing an everyday refusal of authoritarian behaviour and hierarchical institutions, and a positive desire for co-operative and egalitarian relationships.

The concept of structures of feeling stresses the formative, emergent or pre-emergent character of these lived values. They are experimental, problematic and unfinished, mostly unconsolidated in completed institutions. How then can they be strengthened in the face of the political challenges outlined earlier?

Beyond the

traditional left

A first suggestion is stimulated by the way that applying the concept of structures of feeling draws attention to potential allies way beyond the organised movements of the left, even in its broadest terms. Here we can learn from modest but effective initiatives such as UK Uncut. These tap into and give material expression to such structures of feeling. And it’s important to note that they combine culture and politics in ways that relate to masses of people’s everyday lives.

How can such initiatives at every level be more widely supported, enabled and multiplied?

Here the positive support of the PCS and Unite, both for the campaigns of UK Uncut and, learning from initiatives of their own branches, to encourage more decentralised forms of organisation, reaching out to communities, opens up hopeful possibilities. In particular, it raises the question of whether and how far organisations that have been part of an older, previously dominant and to a significant degree defeated or exhausted institutional framework can leap – or be pushed – into an emerging institutional frame. As social democratic institutions fracture and weaken, this issue’s interviews with Len McCluskey and Mark Serwotka (page 16) indicate that something in this new direction is stirring. This is a result of both the imperatives of organisational survival and a recognition that the interests of working people require unions to remake themselves as agencies of radical change.

The importance of this new openness in the unions and elsewhere – in the co-operative movement for example – lies in the possibilities for promoting and linking up otherwise isolated and marginal instances of collective democratic initiative. So many of these exist but as yet are almost invisible.

Some emerge in the course of resistance. One example is the speech therapists in South London who, with no experience of strike action, brought together a whole community by organising their strike in such as way as to involve everyone from grandparents to children to defend a service valued by all. Others struggle to create spaces, in schools or community centres for example, for co-operative projects that provide a daily challenge to the forces of competition and austerity. The new spirit of practical alliance‑building needs to extend in a generous-minded way to include the full range of those working to create inclusive, collaborative and democratic forms of collectivity.

There is an impressive variety of sources reinforcing the new structures of feeling associated with alternatives to commodification and exemplifyng open, co-operative forms of organisation. This points to the importance of a democratic infrastructure of communications as a condition for the emergence of new social formations. Here I’m thinking of the ways in which the burgeoning media initiatives associated with these structures of feeling, online and offline, blurring traditional divisions between culture and politics, can reinforce each other and be supported by unions, radical NGOs, student and community organisations.

The objective is to improve collaboratively our ability to reach a wider public and also to strengthen our arguments and vision through the creative debate that can accompany collaboration. This process is already underway; we need to make it more concerted. The means are there without having to come under anyone’s umbrella.

These trends are taking place in a context in which the institutions associated with the state – and hence political parties as we have known them – have failed as the prime agents of change. As a consequence, new forms of unity are being built from below, with organisational hubs or centres acting as means of facilitation and support – and posing for the future new questions about how to engage with states. Here, communication is central in building cohesion out of plurality and diversity.

In this way, the spreading of the lived experience of alternative values – presently fragmented and dispersed – will help structures of feeling to develop. These, in turn, can prepare the way for new institutions and breaking points in the old institutional order. n

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