21 March 2012

drugs and radicalism: it was ever thus (part one)

The Occupy movement in London was the subject of significant negative publicity which related to drugs. While some of the allegations made were undoubtedly made by those with a vested interest in denigrating protesters http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/nov/21/occupy-london-camp-eviction-bid other, first-hand information confirms, to my satisfaction at least, that drug and alcohol problems were an issue amongst some of the people staying at the protest site.

This is not a new development. It's an old, old problem. It's probably a century old problem, but it's certainly one that has dogged radical politics in the past half century. And it's one that we have yet to engage with successfully. The creation of autonmous spaces - or what Hakim Bey termed Temporary Autonmous Zones - can be a time of positivity and constructive change. But the energy and creation of temporary autonomous space has, all too often, been negated by the arrival of significant drug problems, including problematic alcohol use.

This has been a very obvious issue for several decades. The issue for Occupy London is only the most recent manifestation of the same problem that dogged road protest sites, especially the M11 campaign, land-squats such as Pure Genius and squatted venues such as Kentish Town's "Rainbow Centre."

Here's the problem: create autonmous safe space outside society's normal rules, and a collection of people arrive to fill that space. Included in this rich mix are those for whom society's strictures are problematic, including those with prodigious levels of substance use. the TAZ may represent a safe space, free of judgement. It may also represent a place where there may be food, tolerance and opportunities to use a lot.

The presence of problematic substance use in TAZs is a problem, and one that has never been adequately resolved. As a manifestation of radical politics, those within the TAZ seldom want to involve forces of law and order to address their problem. But the issue left unaddressed almost invariably causes problems for the TAZ. At its most prosaic, it may be the draining of energy, where time and effort that should have been spent on radical action is instead spent trying to resolve internal problems. The tensions between the activists and the "lunch outs" at protest sites like the M11 were the stuff of legend and highlight the energy wasted over these issues.

The ability of substance use to undermine radical movements isn't limited to TAZs. We could look to at the way that amphetamine and barbiturates chewed through punk, or alcohol and smack through the 'new age' Traveller movement. We could probably look further back - wine and hashish during the Paris Communes, psychedelics during the Summer of Love? At each stage the fine edge between liberation and creativity in acts of rebellion grates uneasily against the way that radical movements are undermined and ultimately sunk by their proclivity for substances.

Those involved in TAZs have yet to develop a credible response. There is an understandable unwillingness to involve the Police. This is perfectly reasonable given that any embryonic radical movement needs to develop its own responses independent of the powers of the system Individuals may try and refer the person to support and treatment agencies but these often meet with limited success. The day centres and treatment agencies can offer some interventions but don't mean that they can resolve an issue rapidly or even successfully.

So what is the TAZ left with? Threats? Exclusion? Demanding the person leaves the site? Is all we are left with hand wringing on the one hand, or the time-honoured vigilante response of the boot and fist to that we cannot incorporate? All these things sit uncomfortably with the politics and morality of a Zone that declares itself outside the normal rules of the system. But the alternative - to accommodate and tolerate - doesn't always seem feasible.

This is a problem that those with an interest in radical politics have to engage with and resolve. A cohesive, practical and workable set of responses to problematic drug use are essential for a radical movement which seeks to carve out autonomous space. Do we tolerate? Treat? Or do we replicate the same responses that the state has followed - to exclude and criminalise.

I wish I had an answer to this. One solution - the utopian one - is that on the other side of the TAZ is a place where such problems just cease to be. This is an issue I want to come back to in a later blog. But on the journey to these sunny uplands, we still need to make the TAZ workable whilst addressing problematic substance use. And we haven't yet.