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(I wrote this for a book some comrades were doing with Word Power in Edinburgh, but when the business changed hands in 2017 the book never happened, so I’ve stuck it up here.)

At a recent book event in Preston, an audience member showed up in a pair of red dungarees and a Russian army ushanka. Afterwards, he asked me to sign a copy of each of my novels, and told me I was the finest writer of my generation. Obviously, he was completely insane.

Still, I’ll take my critical appreciation where I can get it. And while the guy’s theory about the CIA and Ebola remains unproven, while I’m unconvinced that the Hadron Collider is even partially an attempt to awaken ancient gods, he did explain my writing better than I’ve ever been able to: everything you write, he said, is about bathos.

This is true. All my fiction is about contrasting grand exalted themes with the mundane and silly. The young workers in my first novel, Peace, Love, & Petrol Bombs, dream of changing the world, but their attempts to do so involve throwing snowballs at a burger bar and drawing cartoon phalluses on their employer’s corporate posters. My second effort, The Deconstruction of Professor Thrub is, if you take it at all seriously, a grand debate on free will, revolutionary agency, and 20th-century European history, but the book’s pompous narrator and his historical subjects worry more about bodily processes than historical ones. Even in my psychological thriller, The Secret Baby Room, the drama’s undercut when the rescued baby needs her nappy changed.

This isn’t a conscious literary choice so much as it’s a reflection of the world as I’ve experienced it. In particular, it’s a reflection of my involvement with autonomous politics. For instance, I remember a meeting at the Autonomous Centre of Edinburgh, sometime around the turn of the millennium, when within a minute we moved from discussing our plans for global-scale democratic decision making in a post-revolutionary anarchist-communist society, to debating whose turn it was to order a new gas canister for the heater.

Or how about this. In 2004 I was living in France, and my partner and I were following news of the Thessaloniki hunger strike with growing alarm. The hunger strikers were five anarchists who had been framed on explosion charges following the anti-EU riots in July 2003 (all were eventually acquitted in 2011). By this stage their hunger strikes had lasted for nearly two months, and their doctors were warning that they imminently faced irreparable health damage or death. Clearly, we had to do something. We had to do something to pressure the Greek state. But what? We lived in a small town in Brittany, where the only Greek target was a falafel restaurant.

When somebody learned there was a Greek consulate in Nantes, a two hour drive away, we rounded up some friends and crammed into a Renault. The plan was simple: w’d pretend to be Greeks in need of assistance, but as soon as the door opened we’d force our way inside, barricade the entrance, and refuse to leave until they telephoned Athens to communicate our outrage. Had we done a wee bit of research, we’d have learned that it was an honorary consulate, and that an honorary consulate is usually someone’s home. In this case, it was a family home, and the door was answered by a 12-year-old girl wearing pyjamas. For a moment, none of us knew what to do. Eventually someone asked the girl if her mother was in. No, she replied cheerfully; it was just her and her friends and they were having a slumber party. Realising that occupying a 12-year-old girl’s slumber party could never be a progressive act, we retreated to the car to compose a strongly worded letter, reflecting that this sort of thing probably never happened to Durruti.

But maybe it did. (OK, not exactly that, but maybe something similar) One of the best books about the Spanish Revolution is Marth Ackelsberg’s Free Women of Spain. In the 1980s, Ackelsberg interviewed women who had been young revolutionaries in the anarchist group Mujeras Libres during the revolution of 1936. The women are impassioned and nostalgic, but sometimes they’re amused to recall how their young lives intersected with these tumultuous events. For instance, Soledad Estorach was fascinated by literature, and so she spent much time collecting books to stock the library of a new People’s University, even though she had read little and was totally undiscerning in her selections: “I would have taken them all!” she recalls. This is a funny anecdote when juxtaposed with the grand historical moment that was the revolution in Catalonia; and yet, what was that revolution if not just many such acts?

And that’s the thing – bathos isn’t some problematic offshoot of revolutionary politics, nor is it a failure of revolutionary politics; rather, it’s the essential feature of revolutionary politics. Think about it: a politics that focused only on local, mundane issues and had no interest in grand plans of global revolution would tend towards reformism and NIMBYism; a politics that focused only on grand plans of global revolution and had no interest in local, mundane issues would tend towards centralisation and despotism. It is only the bathetic combination of the two that offers the hope of a genuine revolution. In the phrase coined by Patrick Geddes, the Scottish geographer and urban planner who befriended and hosted both Prince Kropotkin and Élisée Reclus, we need to think global but act local.

Autonomous politics is bathetic because a revolution is a macro event that exists only in micro events, and these two ways of thinking about the same thing can’t easily be reconciled. This is a problem that exists in many fields of enquiry; perhaps the most angst is experienced in social science, where academics spent the whole 20th century trying to understand the relationship between structure and agency. All the answers were inadequate because the question was based on a false dualism. Trying to decide whether it’s structure or agency that makes a thing happen is like trying to decide whether the tide is the movement of water or the movement of H2O molecules.

What does this have to do with writing fiction? Novelists face the challenge of working in an art form that arose alongside the dualistic understandings of Cartesian philosophy – an art form that was inspired by individualising social and economic forces. But many of the best novels poke away at this dualism, making us see it as strange and problematic. Often they do so by deploying some form of bathos. Maybe, if it’s not too much of a stretch, this might explain why so many of western literature’s most innovative novels have been written by authors who’ve also been interested in some form of autonomous politics.

Like, take Tolstoy. Tolstoy, a Christian pacifist anarchist, places Bathos at the heart of War and Peace. His study of ‘the forces that move nations’ often gives a starring role to the confused and silly actions of seemingly insignificant individuals: European history and the course of the Napoleonic wars is shaped, not by the grand plans of generals, but by the panicked reactions of confused and disorientated soldiers, all of whom are hopelessly caught up in history.

Then there’s Kafka, who was a regular (and famously silent) attendee at anarchist meetings in Prague. In Kafka’s The Trial, K confronts a power that is everywhere and nowhere. K’s struggle throughout the novel is to confront the source of the power that accuses him, and the absurd tragedy of his story is that there is no source to the power – or, if you prefer, he’s at the source all along.

James Joyce’s biggest connection to autonomous politics came through a particular interest in the individualist anarchism of Benjamin Tucker. If K’s quest is to find the source of power, Stephen’s quest in A Portrait is to develop a stable and independent self. In Ulysses, such a quest seems as doomed as K’s search for the source of power, for every subjectivity is shown to be inseparable from a range of outside forces: from the structures of language to pornographic images, from the history of western literature to needing the toilet. Such juxtapositions ensure that much of the comedy is bathetic (I admit it’s rarely laugh out loud stuff): it’s about trivializing the grand and making the trivial grandiose.

This takes me back to where I started: the necessary bathos of autonomous politics. In Scotland and the rest of the UK there’s recently been talk of a new political mood. In Scotland, this mood has been associated with the independence referendum; in England, where I now live, it’s associated with “the Jeremy Corbyn Effect”. Since I don’t follow the news, and have no interest in parliamentary politics, my experience of the Corbyn Effect is limited to unsolicited conversations with colleagues – I’m usually perceived as lacking enthusiasm.

“OK,” someone will say, “what’s your alternative? Just put up with the Tories?” No: abolish wage labour and create an environmentally sustainable global communist utopia based on direct democracy and mutual aid, in which we can live without dead time and enjoy without restraint.
For some reason people don’t take this very seriously. “How are you going to do that?” they ask, either irritated or amused. At which point I mumble something about a collective kettle we’re going to store on the filing cabinets outside Joe’s office.

I try not to be too upset by the laughter that my political analysis invariably generates. I mean, what makes us laugh? Schopenhauer thought humour arose from the incongruity between a concept and the real objects to which it was thought to relate; we laugh when the particular facts of a case do not tally with our intellectual expectations. For instance, Schopenhauer’s favourite joke was “What is the angle between a circle and its tangent?” (He must have been great at parties.) The joke works (OK, it doesn’t really) because the intellectual expectation is that there must be an angle between two intersecting lines, but in the case of a line that only just touches a circle, the question is by definition unanswerable. Or something like that – I don’t really get it.

But the point is that the humour comes from the inadequacy of the concept in the face of reality. So when people are amused that grassroots political activity is incongruent with their conception of macro political change, what they’re laughing at is the inadequacy of their conception of change. They’re laughing at the inadequacy of top-down politics when confronted with the real business of transforming social and economic relations at a grassroots level. They’re laughing at Kafka’s man from the country as he waits to gain access to the law. They’re laughing at the crazy idea that how we relate to each other can be transformed by Jeremy Corbyn or Nicola Sturgeon or anyone except ourselves. They’re not laughing at me, are they? Right?


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