Friday, March 13, 2009

Reflections On Protest

At the protests I go to I rarely take part anymore and instead I usually take photos or talk to people I know. Its not that I doubt the urgency of the causes we fight for, the vital need to take action like never before or the conviction of everyone on the march or picket. Its just I find our actions unbearably depressing, as the world burns all we can do is march down to the US consulate for the tenth time this year. Most of the time even the cops are bored. Members of the self styled riot squad chat amongst themselves and stroll down the street beside the marchers.

While we are getting hot and angry working up a good self righteous sweat most of the public walking down the street are either bemused or confused by our action. Most simply snap a photo on their cellphone to show to the family later and turn to their friends puzzled as they try and work out exactly what we are protesting about. The hundred or so angry people escorted by police move in a revolutionary bubble down queen street leaving little wake behind them and eventually dispersing to the pub to swap stories about that march when the flag got lowered at the US embassy.

Our pickets and smaller protests seem to offer a better chance to engage the public but the story is the same, a small microcosm of misfits amidst a swirl of shoppers. When a member of the public does come over to talk to us most of us tense up expecting a verbal barrage and are shocked when word trickles over that someone actually supports us.

We seem to be stuck repeating these tiresome actions over and over again knowing that the best possible outcome of our march is 40 seconds of critical coverage on the six o clock news and only then if one of us decides to punch a cop. Most of the time we simply go home and check indymedia to see photos of ourselves and to read an over inflated account of our protest.

I know this is a dark picture of our protests that I have portrayed but its only because I feel stuck. I was still a teenager when queen street filled with 30,000 people marching against the release of Genetically Modified organisms into the New Zealand countryside. I remember standing at the top of queen st and looking down to see it completely filled with people literally as far as the eye can see. We had widespread public support across the entire country, this was a domestic issue not some war in a third world nation or some US backed regime massacring an indigenous minority. Despite all this we lost the GE battle, whilst we aren’t yet growing GE crops in Aotearoa field trials of GE crops are becoming widespread. That movement melted away and despite a lot of training and a lot of work most of the people involved seem to have disappeared.

So as the world economic system is crumbling and tent cities are springing up I’m left wracking my brains as to how to make our opposition to the current system felt. And more than making our opposition felt how do we build a counter culture that rejects individualist capitalism. Surely marching and protests should come from a body of people opposed to the current system rather than being our way we try and build and opposition.

I’ve got no answers but this is something I’m interested in so I might try and work out what’s going on in other countries to resist the current recession and how they are building and organising.


James said...

Hey Sam,

I guess this reflects the necessity of shifting away from the antagonistic nature of traditional protests to a form that is more inclusive and open to participation to a wider range of people.

The power elite actually prefer that the antagonistic form that traditional protests takes, because 1) it marginalises not only our groups, but our messages in the eyes of mainstream society thus ensuring that the changes that need to be made, won't be regardless how obvious and critical they are and b) they prefer that we vent our well-deserved resentment and anger about the issues at hand and therefore redirects our energy from activities that would otherwise yield substantive and lasting changes that we struggle for.

I've read a book called Do It Yourself: A handbook for changing our world. Amongst the volumious material contained in the book, it contains a chapter entitled, "Cultural Activism" which examines methods of raising awareness of topical issues such as capitalism, climate change, sustainability, social breakdown, environmental degradation and inspiring action in a manner that overcomes the psychological and social barriers that become ingrained in us in this "post-modern" materialistic society in the form of parody (Yes Men, Rebel Clowns), symbolic actions (culture jamming, guerilla theatre) social (Block Parties, inclusive guerilla theatre, concerts, Food Not Bombs, community gardens).

I'd highly recommend the book to everyone in the movement to read and take inspiration from the book and translate their theory and righteous theory into action AS A UNITED FRONT as soon as possible. Perhaps even forming loose alliances with other groups with similar aims and perspectives. For example many churches have a strong social justice bent. I mean after all Jesus was one of the first (intentional) communists after all. I've read several articles in religious publications about the Financial Crisis one of whose critique didn't depart markedly from that of such atheists as Marx and Kropotkin.

The comment box doesn't like the characters in the URL for some reason, but if you want to read the above article google Catholic Worker and Sins of the Wallet. I appreciate that you're probably an atheist (I'm an agnostic myself), but I'm sure that it wouldn't hurt to hear perspective from a religious source that perhaps you aren't used to encountering.

Another group that I've become involved in and plan on getting even more involved in is the Transition Towns where many members display at least a communitarian bent and perhaps would be receptive to a form of anarchism such as Murray Bookchin's Social Ecology.

Perhaps the Transition Towns movement could form an umbrella organisation that encapsulates individuals and groups from diverse backgrounds, which the Anarchist could contribute to in the form of political theory, organisation theory, and potential models of alternative production. I'm planning on printing and disseminating, Peter Kropotkin as its the pinnacle work in that area.

What do you think? Feedback would be appreciated.

Sam said...

Hey James I really appreciate the comment and completely agree about the need to shift towards a more inclusive movement.

I agree that those in power dont feel threatened by most of our forms of protest and that a large part of what we do is function as a valve to let up steam and anger in a fairly safe way. I do think that the govt and corporations are worried about us transforming from a powerless group of activists working within the framework of our current society to a revolutionary movement which does not recognize or feel compelled to operate within the bounds normally placed on us.

So I dont think that antagonistic protest is inherently bad but I do think it needs to be part of something much bigger and more powerful. Our protests on the streets should be rooted in a counter culture which is engaged with wider society and which is working to fill peoples needs.

I do think there is a place for more creative forms of protest such as the yes men and that tactics like the clown army have a place but often I see these as little more than stunts which everyone finds funny. If I had to choose between dressing up like an animal and playing out being killed in front of a scientist while he laughs at us or wearing a mask and getting in his face then for me the choice is simple.

I am really heartened by the transition towns movement and the sudden burst of awareness which has occured over the past few years. I think alliances and people getting together to look at the long term picture and how we can work together is vital but I cant see how that could happen easily. Perhaps the Climate Camps and Transition Towns meet ups could provide a space for this.

Its funny you mention working with churches as I directly and indirectly find myself working with christians and christian activists a suprising amount.

Revolting said...

Oh how I feel that. It's such a fitting time for you to post this, during a time when I find it hard to move from my bed as teh weight of the world is crushing my soul.

I used to believe that cultural revolution would take generations, and that this was ok. That we had time to work things out. Yet I have this feeling of time running out. Our world burns while the powered elite rub their hands above the flames. I can only console myself with ideas of a planet which survives and (re)generates long past our days.

< /rant> - lets cut that off before it gets too long ;)

I thought transition towns was great, and in some ways it is, but so much I'm finding people with new programs, rather than changed visions. And I don't think new programs is going to do it. So many getting into working bees building this and that and showing films etc, but so often eagerly working with counsels and establishing heirarchies (often subconsiously, but with no active desire to challenge these heirarchies they inevitably form), and we end up with some people working around the collapse, seeing edges of the collapsing model, but very little are they challenging the ideas that brought this along. I mean, we've had neighbourly communities a lot in the past...

Maybe I'm being too pessimistic. Maybe not.

I'm sick of protests too. Even protests that leave a wake of destruction behind them result in very little dent in the system, and a wave of repression and jail time for everyone involved.

Godo day, and good luck :) Here's something on a more positive note:

Sam said...

Yea its fucking painful to watch the world fall apart and be completely powerless to do anything.

Thanks for the link it made me smile :)

George said...

I reckon that where possible, things should come from the community - rather than a protest march, a community meeting against an issue that affects them directly. I want to see people have power over their own lives, and the decision making given back to them. And when the decision making has been taken from their hands, showing people that they've got a right to take it back.

These don't have to be issues that are entirely local in scope either. I'm going up to protest at a major coal port this weekend, but this is a community led protest, by and of people from that port. Outside support is welcomed, but the local activists determine the direction.

Where there are large events like the GE march you mentioned, these should be fed into by local groups. One of the reasons the GE march was so successful was that it had a large range of areas feeding into it. The Greens and Greenpeace informed their membership, expensive paid adverts were put in major newspapers (funded largely by Greenpeace), people were handing out thousands of fliers in central Auckland on the weeknights before, and local and interest based organic/green/anti-GE groups all brought their own supporters and friends and family.

Just a few thoughts. These are things I've dealt with before (without resolution), and I'm glad to see you dealing with them.

M. Hayes said...

Dear Sam,

Without intending offense, I believe that the Anarchist movement as it is in New Zealand and around the world, is inherently flawed as a means of building a lasting, equal society. There are numerous reasons for this.

The first, and overwhelming, reason, is the public perception of Anarchism. The word alone bears extraordinarily negative connotations in the minds of most people. If you took me aside two years ago, before I took an interest in philosophy, and asked me to describe a typical Anarchist, I would have said the following:

"A typical Anarchist is someone who hates the government and destroys things"

Unfortunately, a large proportion of the public would agree with this statement to some extent. Now, the only way that a more than superficial amount of people will ever follow a message as negative as this, is if the condition of society descends to a level where the middle class become unemployed and desperate, so turn to what they would in good times have perceived as an extreme movement.

This is not what we want, and this is not what will work. The notion of rebelling, hating, insulting those who oppose, and generally using the force of violence (be it physical or non-physical) to achieve a means, can only, at best, result in a temporary, fractured, and violent system.

Anarchy is the ideal and natural state of the world, if morality reaches its highest point in humans. Anarchy without this moral structure is doomed to fail. Using violence (I am not saying that all Anarchists use violence) to oppose a system, Capitalism, which can itself only work provided a certain degree of violence and immorality in society, is a double standard which I think must be addressed if we are to move on. The violence that I speak of is not limited to the physical violence of burning police cars or spitting in the face of a GE scientist, which few Anarchists agree with, but also the use of aggression, insults, and any other method that may make an enemy more of an enemy.

I apologize for to write so much, but I do believe these are important issues that need to be addressed by Anarchists in the pursuit of attaining their goal. The second problem I see with the Anarchist movement today, is that there is far too little emphasis on the intellectual, philosophical argument of Anarchism, and far too much on the activism, protesting, and opposition of the current system. Many see Anarchists as people who are not particularly bright, and do not like working, therefore form protests with the idea that they should have the freedom to not partake in work. I am sure that we can agree that this perception is absolutely wrong, but it is not difficult to see why such a perception of Anarchism exists.

This perception, however, must be changed. It cannot be changed by another protest; another angry young man dressing up as a cow in the name of animal rights; or another murderous riot as seen recently in Greece. It must, and can only be changed, by a stronger affiliation with philosophical argument. People must be exposed to the arguments of the likes of Tolstoy and Chomsky; if they disagree with all of the rational, intellectual arguments in the world, then there is no persuading them. Violence will not persuade them. A depression may push them to the extremes, but for the wrong reason - opposition to the way things are, not hope and faith in the way things should be.

I would like to talk more on the subject, but I would first like to hear what your opinion is on my points made so far. What do you believe?

"Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself." - Leo Tolstoy

Sam said...

Hey salient points george, pretty much the conclusion I have come to.

M Hayes I dont really care if an anarchist utopia is ever achievable. Anarchism is a philosophy I ascribe to not because I think it will get us into power (pun intended) but because I think it is right. I'm open to organising along many lines and I'm not going to force my anarchist viewpoint onto others.