It’s cold in San Francisco right now. Seattle weather I call it. And of course a number of folks I know here have had Seattle on their minds lately. We are all graduates of the class of ’99, and like a lot of alumni, we get called upon on symbolic occasions to share our memories. Or we call upon ourselves, which is what I’m doing. I tend to distrust the uses to which political anniversaries are put, although anything which helps people fight the Twitterization of their historical attention spans is probably not a bad thing. Perhaps the main reason I decided to add my reflections to the many that have been shared on the meaning of the Seattle World Trade Organization protests is that the movement that produced them has before it another and potentially even greater flashpoint in the Copenhagen conference on climate change now underway.
Moments of mass militancy in the long march of human history, most of whose span is made up of voluntary or involuntary accommodation to power (if it were not, of course, we would not have the world we have), are inevitably romantic. Every person with any semblance of a social conscience should know, at least once, what it feels like to fight the good fight and win a collective moral victory against the odds, however provisional that victory. A lifetime of compromise and submission can be redeemed by such an experience. There is no doubt that Seattle offered that to many of us who were in the streets there in 1999. It was one of those very rare occasions when a mass protest actually had an almost immediate impact upon its target, and even more extraordinary that it was a target with global significance.
I remember a more subjective, even metaphysical effect. Early in the morning of November 30, before the Darth Vader-geared cops were deployed and rioted, before the tear gas began to fly and choke the streets, the physical space of downtown Seattle, like most northern cities a glossy, upscale testament to the power of money, a space which on that day as every other should basically have been dedicated almost entirely to the making and spending of money, to the display and consumption of goods—that space was transformed. The stores were closed and shuttered, there were no cars, and there were thousands of people in the streets, but they weren’t rushing by, faces blank, heads down, making a daily beeline for offices or stores. They (we) were all intensely awake and aware.
Most of us weren’t, at that point, confined to strict “protest” posture either. Those who were going to blockade the convention center were deploying, but the rest of us were an enormous, diffuse crowd. Some people were singing together, some performing for small groups of onlookers, many talking. No money was being exchanged, many thoughts and ideas were. There was a carnival atmosphere, not because what we were about wasn’t serious, but because we could feel on that morning that the capitalist spell cast so deeply upon these city spaces had momentarily been broken, and it was suddenly evident that they could be inhabited in a completely different way. Our society had been constructed, like a stage set; like a stage set it could be changed.
Then the system had a nervous breakdown. Like Napoleon unleashing the dogs in Animal Farm, Seattle showed us at a single stroke where all that tax money that our cities don’t have for schools and hospitals and libraries had gone all these years: into thousands and thousands of cops costumed by George Lucas and be-weaponed by the NSA. That underneath the “everything’s fine” mask of the liberal state was the deadly face of organized violence that the middle class majority almost never see, and the scale on which it could operate was truly overwhelming. But that day it wasn’t as ready as we were and so we still “won.” The size and militancy of the street protests, especially when the large, if rather docile presence of organized labor was thrown in, woke the global south delegates to the WTO from their own capitalist dreamspell – if there was this much resistance here in the richest place on earth, how would their own really desperate masses respond if they sold them out?
So much for the historical moment, which should rightly be seen as significant. But what about what’s happened since? I’m feeling less hortatory than others I’ve read. Committed activists, particularly direct action proponents, remain convinced such moments are infinitely replicable, according to some sort of rational calculation which apparently has nothing to do with imponderables like the state of state power at a particular historical moment, its level of awareness of where and what the resistance to it looks like, the depth and breadth of the crisis, the depth and breadth of real organization that the resistance has, and the amount of room most people have to do what most people historically do if they can, which is simply to turn the other way.
I would say rather that substantive and direct impacts from public protest really only occur in two situations: when the target has become so complacent and/or distracted that it doesn’t know or care anything about the level of opposition to it, and is caught off guard, or when the level of opposition is so militant, persistent and widespread (all must be true) that power must finally concede. Seattle, to my mind, was an example of the first instance, while the mass demonstrations in France against the dismantling of the social security system a few years earlier were an example of the second.
The US actually has few historical examples of either moment. While public protest has undoubtedly been an essential component of reform in the US, and has given elected officials the cover they needed to enact reforms that are generally some belated and watered down version of what has been demanded by some organized sector of the public, massive public protest, since our earliest days as a nation, has never caused a US government to fall and be replaced by another more responsive to social concerns (as in Bolivia or Ecuador, for example), or even to announce the abandonment of a given administration’s stated policy and the adoption of another (as in France). At the local level in this country, of course, public protest certainly has had direct effects on public policy, although not always to the benefit of a progressive agenda. The insurgent protests against teaching about sex education, evolution or gay rights are prominent examples.
The large public demonstrations that have a critical impact in other societies are often attached to a type of mass direct action which almost never happens here, that is, the massive withholding of labor from entities that private and state power both need to function. That is to say, people in large, well-organized numbers, walk off the job.
But of course when organizers and many participants are employed by some aspect of the movement itself, as they often are here through the myriad issue-oriented non-profit organizations that have become what passes for a progressive movement in this country, then of course, walking off the job to protest really doesn’t stick any thumbs in the eye of the state.
My concern is that in the US, a lot of what has happened in the ten years since Seattle is an accelerated version of what has been happening for a lot longer: the professionalization of dissent. We may now have the best educated, most tech-savvy, most grant-worthy, best-staffed progressive movement in the world. But that and three bucks will buy you a coffee at Starbucks, as the saying goes. If you have a situation where the comfortable are directing the struggle far more than the afflicted, then you have a pretty toothless movement.
Only organizing based on a urgent sense of necessity ever enables real social progress. Only people who have become convinced that it is not possible for them to do otherwise will participate fully, for the long term. While it may sound like heresy to say so, the real strength of public protest actually has little to do with how many news outlets pick up on it. Public protest should literally be only the tip of the iceberg of organized opposition. Overall, we need to look at protest as a by-product of the increasing organization of those not-already committed to (or employed by) a movement, and judge it in the degree to which it foments or exemplifies a real crisis in the structures of power. We desperately need to stop seeing it mainly as a PR tool, however nice the pictures look on our non-profit’s website afterwards. Otherwise it risks becoming a defanged ritual just as devoid of any larger transformational significance as, say, the Catholic Mass.
Rituals are legitimate and important things deriving from our species’ deepest cultural history. But their function is to sustain social norms by repeating propitiatory or expiatory actions, not transform or even reform them. Rituals overcome chronological time and bring all actions into an eternal now, which gives them a transcendental meaning. Protest may include ritual elements as a nod to the deep roots upon which it draws, but it only actually has a hope of catalyzing social change if it is fully a function of the historical moment and the effort to make something in the future radically different from something in the present. This is always what the people who participate in public protest think they are about, but it is not always the effect protest actually produces in our society. Ironically, in some circumstances, we may be doing nothing more than ritualizing a seemingly eternal relationship of the relative powerlessness of the majority to a power elite.
In the meantime reality, ever the joker, continues to gallivant ahead of both the US left and the power elites. The WTO never recovered from its meltdown in Seattle, not because of continuing protest against it, but because it was outrun and run over by the logic of its own paradigm: capitalism without brakes. Does anyone still want that snake oil now? Protectionism, if you want to use the Wall Street Journal’s term, is understandably on the rise again, in both the global north and south. The fact that the WTO is at this inopportune moment still trying to push deregulated financial markets on poor countries is almost laughable, it’s a kind of Marx (Brothers) –ian “Who ya gonna believe, me or your own eyes?” situation, and global south nations are rightly betting on their own eyes.
Basically, global capitalism crashed its own car, with very little help from protest movements, less than ten years after the last regulatory shackles were removed from finance capital in the US, twenty years after capitalism’s ideological bogeyman melted away like the Wicked Witch of the West.
A superb French noir film, The Wages of Fear, comes to mind here as a nice example of self-induced crash as capitalist metaphor. It is often described as “existentialist,” which utterly denudes it of social relevance; in my view, it is straight ahead, two-fisted anti-capitalist noir, perhaps the finest example there is. You should see it. But having said that, a spoiler alert: I’m about to describe the climactic final scene.
At the end of the film, Yves Montand has just become the last survivor of a grueling contest to drive a load of nitroglycerine through the brutal back country of the Honduran mountains to an oil company that wants it quick and cheap. The human cost of the trip is the story of the movie, but Montand’s cynical, charismatic and ruthless character makes it through, collects his wages, and heads his empty truck back over the mountains to his girl. The sheer exhilaration of his complete freedom, of having overcome every obstacle and being the last man standing, causes him to drive with a kind of mad abandon on the same precipitous roads he had just been inching along, but faster and faster now, howling with glee until the moment the truck heads off a cliff, and he only has time for a few seconds of terror before he’s lying at the bottom of a ravine with a broken neck, his pay envelope beside him. The End.
Director Henri-Georges Clouzot, who went through the Nazi occupation and saw and told the unheroic, but general story of collaboration and accommodation instead of the hero saga of the Resistance, was not an optimistic man. This film is his, in my view, perfect metaphor for capitalism’s triumph, the nightmare that the hallucinatory Ayn Rand presents as the ultimate human fulfillment: this is the life unfettered by any kind of responsibility, any sense of obligation to anything other than pure self-interest. You want total freedom? I got your total freedom right here. At the bottom of a cliff.
And now, with corporate-induced climate chaos the left’s next challenge, ironically (again) earth’s climate has been done more of an immediate favor by capitalism’s internal contradictions than by all the protest and advocacy actions in the last ten years. Because of the financial meltdown and the recession, per capita global energy consumption is actually projected to have dropped significantly in 2009, for the first time in almost 30 years. But lest that all sound too cynical and defeatist for a card-carrying radical, I hasten to add that only advocacy movements (let’s dump the fetishist “protest” moniker, shall we?) can actually posit, articulate and fight for real and long-term alternatives to the toxic logic of prior investment that pervades the thinking of global elites. In a power vacuum, those ideas can be decisive. The fact that the increasingly desperate tactics of climate change deniers have done little or nothing to slow what momentum there is among global elites for reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a testament to the emergence of a stewardship movement that has actually been able to envision and articulate alternatives to the status quo that have to be taken seriously.
Anyway, as a couple hundred folks called out by the Mobilization for Climate Justice were heading up San Francisco’s Market Street on N30 + 10, bearing bright, attractive banners, and a handful blocked the revolving doors at Bank of America for a little while before being led away, as if they were in the SFPD’s version of a catch and release program, I was walking up my street to a neighbor’s house, where I help her tend a newly dug vegetable garden, whose surplus produce is given away each week at a local free (as in no-cost) market. I can never really begrudge anyone’s desire to join a street protest, but I felt that in this time, in this place, there were many actions people could be taking in collectives as small as two or as large as a thousand, that I thought would be equally worthy of the spirit of Seattle.
This week in Copenhagen, discussions about how to deal with humanity’s biggest challenge ever: the consequences of its own gargantuan tendencies of greed and aggression, are underway. The elites seem to have acquired a vague sense of urgency while still looking desperately for ways to keep their own nests feathered. What role will mass protest play in these talks? With all there is at stake, one hopes it is a role more modeled on the example of the general strike than the professionalized ritual.