Choose strife

17 May 2024
Jerome Small

Review of 12 Rules for Strife by Jeff Sparrow and Sam Wallman, Scribe publications, 2024

From the first pages to the last, the hero of 12 Rules for Strife is: ourselves.

Cartoonist Sam Wallman’s work is a regular feature of picket lines, protests, and union and radical publications in this country. In 12 Rules for Strife Sam teamed up with well known left-wing author Jeff Sparrow to create 128 pages of illustrations and argument, exploring how ordinary people collectively create and share thought, work, movement, controversy, and transformation—in other words, how we go about creating the “strife” needed to win a better world.

Sam’s work, as always, is wonderful—both in the sense of “really great” and also “full of wonder”. The collective of strife-makers he portrays in this book is no mere accumulation of automatons. Human frailty, contradiction and uncertainty, as well as strength, well up out of every page.

Sam somehow manages to capture the risk that each “ordinary” person bears in taking a single step on the path to extraordinary, history-making actions. His drawings capture that combination of nervousness and keeping our nerve when we take our first step to contradict a manager; the challenge in finding the courage (and the right approach) to start a conversation about workplace issues with a workmate; and how these individual acts flow out of and feed back into a bigger whole.

Changing the world is no walk in the park. A monstrous three-headed dog, recognisable to fans of Harry Potter and Greek mythology alike, makes an inconspicuous cameo in chapter three being walked by a (literal) cartoon capitalist. This horror then reappears in later chapters—off the leash, roaming at will, and on occasion being fed by some of our fellow workers.

This gets to one of the central political arguments of 12 Rules for Strife, which will be familiar to readers of Jeff Sparrow’s 2018 book Trigger Warnings: Political Correctness and the Rise of the Right. In Trigger Warnings, Jeff argued that the decline in the level of struggle since the 1970s is intertwined with a political degeneration within the left.

It used to be common sense on the left to view workers as having a vital interest in combating the oppression and division that capitalism creates. Workers could challenge that oppression, and overcome those divisions, through a combination of struggle and political argument. By contrast, much of the left today effectively treats the mass of workers as irrelevant or even an obstacle to social change, due to their contradictory and sometimes reactionary views.

In 12 Rules for Strife Sam and Jeff, in word and in illustration, take aim at this elitist conception. The chapter headed “Reject smug politics” is a direct and very welcome attack on the idea that struggle and politics should be reserved for those who have already passed some test of political clarity or purity.

The “direct politics” that Sam and Jeff advocate puts the actions of ordinary people, and especially workers, at the centre of any project for social change. They contrast this with “delegated politics”, where we’re relegated to the status of passive observers.

This is a useful distinction. It’s also one that leaves plenty of room for argument, given that “direct politics” could encompass the contending approaches of socialism from below, syndicalism, and the muscular do-it-yourself reformism of many progressive trade union militants. The role of “strife” in the sense of polemic between these various approaches isn’t explored in this brief book.

Perhaps a more consequential omission is the role of political organisation: after all, throughout history it has been organised political forces that have played a crucial role in determining how far waves of struggle and radicalisation can go. No doubt the argument can (and no doubt it should) continue about which rule or rules we might like to add, or to tweak: 12 Rules for Strife is an intervention into an argument, not the final word.

12 Rules for Strife is a wonderful political manifesto, released at an extraordinary political moment. The book came out on 1 May, just as student encampments in solidarity with the people of Palestine were spreading from Columbia University in New York to campuses across the US and around the world.

In the week or so since I read Sam and Jeff’s book, I’ve been able to visit several of the student encampments around Melbourne. In a time of horror, it’s been a wonderful experience—again, in both senses of that word.

At each of the camps, whatever was going on, there was an electricity in the air that came from the awareness that many thousands of people around the world were doing precisely what we were doing at that moment: putting up a tent, defending an encampment either physically or politically, leafleting and chalking, or engaging with students to draw more people in and to discuss the politics and history of the Palestinian struggle and the importance of solidarity.

More than once, I’ve felt what Sam portrays as a recurring motif in this book: the tendrils of thought and human connection, energy, and purpose that bind us to each other, and to a bigger whole. Many thousands of us, perhaps many millions, are joining each other in strife.

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