again tens of thousands prepare to descend on major metropolitan areas to
march in circles through empty streets. We will exercise our legs and our
lungs and our egos and then go home again. Nothing will change and nobody
will be surprised at that. As usual, exorbitant expenditures of time and
money will add up to exactly zero. Meanwhile, people and animals and
ecosystems in Iraq and elsewhere will continue to pay the price for our
failures of courage and imagination.
The French have a word for it: spectacle. Back in the 1960s, Guy Debord and
other Situationist theorists and activists described late capitalist culture
as “the society of the spectacle.” Long before the advent of reality shows
and ring tones for disposable cell phones, Situationists were already
chafing at the degree to which the lively variety of everyday life had been
reduced to a deadening array of things to watch and buy.
Today, consumer culture extends to extremes beyond the most most jaded and
surrealistic dreams of the political theorists of earlier eras. Only
fictional nightmares such as Karel Capek’s War with the Newts, Aldous
Huxley’s Brave New World, or George Orwell’s 1984 approximate
the sinister absurdity of the sociopolitical atmosphere in which we now must
find ways to effectively create change.
In the society of the spectacle, there’s no business like show business.
Image is everything. Even those who actively participate in the events of
the day do so as spectators of their own lives, with one eye always looking
back at a real or imaginary camera. All actions, including and especially
political acts, become performances. Creative resistance is quickly
suffocated by incorporation into the show.
Sound familiar? It should. Troubled teens write in weblogs rather than
private diaries while television network NBC (owned by military-industrial
behemoth General Electric) literally makes a mockery of subversive ideas on
comedy programmes like Will & Grace and Whoopi.
We must live in a democracy if people are allowed to mock the president on
tv. That’s what they — including “the president” — want us to think. Do you
remember how Bush portrayed the biggest US peace marches before the invasion
of Iraq? He said that such demonstrations illustrated the difference between
the United States and Iraq, thus turning the protests into one more reason
why the people of Iraq needed to be “liberated.”
By then it should have been manifestly evident that symbolic demonstrations
of dissent no longer shake up the system to any significant degree. Instead
of challenging the spectacle of democracy, our protests are incorporated
into the spectacle, making it stronger and more compelling. The more
spectacular our demonstrations become, the more drums and puppets we deploy,
the easier it is for average citizens to see protesters as merely the cast
members of an ever-more-colorful reality show.
This bears repeating: The big demonstrations that have become so popular are
not only ineffective; they actually make matters worse. By channeling the
time, energy, money, and creativity of so many activists into an exercise in
futility, these demonstrations and their preparations deflect activist
attention from the urgent task of fashioning actual (rather than symbolic)
challenges to the corporate world order and the military power that sustains
it. Moreover, these demonstrations leave people — activists and regular
citizens alike — more rather than less comfortable with the existing order.
Watching or reading news reports about the event, citizens feel good about
living in “a free country.” Mollified by making the news, participants go
home feeling like they have done their part. Indeed, judging from the
comments they make to reporters, personal comfort appears to be the primary
reason many people attend these events. “I know we can’t stop the war,” goes
the usual litany, “but I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t show my
disagreement.” Thus, the performance of dissent becomes an end in itself
rather than the means to an end.
When we start from the premise that we can’t make a difference, is it any
wonder that we don’t? When we choose tactics that are spectacular rather
than substantial, should we be surprised when we are simply incorporated
into the show? Is it true that the best we can hope for is superficial media
coverage of the mere fact that some people disagree with the policies of the
Bush regime? Might we dare to dream more extravagantly? Dare we risk
disappointment by trying to actually stop the crimes that Bush is
perpetrating in our name, rather than simply signal our disapproval of them?
What might we do to really make a difference?
The first thing we need to do is understand the distinction between direct
and indirect action. For too long, too many activists have mistaken drama
for direct action. For the record, direct action includes only tactics that
have an immediate impact on some element of the problem at hand. Indirect
action seeks change via more circuitous routes, such as seeking to change
citizens’ minds in the hope that they will, in turn, change their voting
behavior and that this will, in turn, lead to changed national policies.
Rent strikes, boycotts, blockades, sabotage, and demonstrations that
substantially interfere with business as usual are direct action. Petition
drives, letters to editors, community education, and demonstrations that are
limited to symbolic expressions of opinion are indirect action.
Study of successful social change movements reveals that success is most
likely when both direct and indirect tactics are coordinated. Needless to
say, these must be effective tactics, which means that they must be rooted
in accurate perceptions of reality and smart strategic analyses. Want to
change the hearts and minds of your fellow citizens? Then you’d better have
a clear sense of what they’re really thinking and feeling along with at
least a rudimentary working knowledge of the factors that lead people to
change their attitudes and behavior.
If peace activists feel a little daunted by that list of prerequisites,
that’s good — they should. Like people in every other field of difficult
endeavor, activists are forever making mistakes due to unspoken, and
inaccurate, assumptions. Because marches and rallies were so effective
during the civil rights and Vietnam protest movements, we assume that they
will have the same effect on public opinion today. We forget that times have
changed; we forget that people are no longer shocked by the sight of
thousands of their fellow citizens marching in the streets; we forget that,
for both observers and participants, protest marches have become little more
We also forget that direct action was an essential element of many of the
most effective protests of the past. In the USA, civil rights protesters
deliberately got arrested en masse in order to overwhelm the criminal
justice systems of small southern towns, thereby literally preventing them
from conducting business as usual. Similar tactics had been used in
anti-colonial movements elsewhere in the world including, most famously, in
South Asia. The leaders of the US civil rights movement learned from what
activists in other countries had done, correctly adapting the tactics to
suit the circumstances.
In contrast, the current US peace movement functions like a closed-circuit
television system, repetitively broadcasting the same old message to its own
members. Protest events are highly scripted, with the emphasis on style
rather than substance. Activists signal dissent but do not actually rebel.
Demonstrators and police officers often engage in highly stylized
cooperative ballets wherein a handful of people are voluntarily arrested.
The point of such dramatic scenarios entirely escapes me; certainly, they do
not in any way constitute direct action. Direct action is not necessarily
dramatic and, in these days of the spectacle, may be most effective when it
is not part of any show. Direct action against war must, by definition, in
some way impede the march of the war machine. Withdrawing one’s financial
support from the military-industrial complex is direct action for peace;
shouting “Whose streets? Our streets!” on a sunny Sunday afternoon is not.
Emergencies call for urgent action. Killing continues in Iraq and is likely
to commence somewhere else soon, if the Bush Doctrine of preemptive warfare
remains the foreign policy of the United States. That dramatic violence
plays out against the backdrop of everyday environmental mayhem perpetrated
by the Bush administration. Now is not the time to indulge our taste for for
the spectacular or our wish for self-satisfaction. Now is the time for
effective direct action. Specifically, now is the time for economic direct
The Industrial Workers of the World used to say that the workers of the
world could stop capitalism just by crossing their arms. In today’s late
capitalism, where few workers are unionized and the franchise is
increasingly illusory, our greatest power may be as consumers. The consumers
of the world can bring the military-industrial complex to a crashing halt
just by keeping our hands in our pockets.
The two ways to withdraw one's financial support from the war machine are to
stop paying war taxes and to boycott the corporate profiteers that
constitute the industrial side of the military-industrial complex. Both of
these strategies ensure that we are not supporting war with money at the
same time as we oppose war with words. At minimum, these forms of economic
direct action subtract funds from the war machine and its corporate
supporters. At maximum, such direct action may impact the foreign and
domestic policies of the Bush regime.
Is it possible to make such a sufficiently significant dent in corporate
profits? Yes. The majority of people in the world opposed the war in Iraq
and continue to resent the current foreign and environmental policies of the
United States. Many organizations around the world already have joined
together to call for a boycott against war. All that remains is for the
mainstream US peace movement to stop marching in circles and get on the
peace train. If we agree that everyone should, insofar as possible, shun the
shoddy consumer goods of evil corporate behemoths in favor of substantial
and sustainable local products, then we will be supporting the regrowth of
healthy local ecosystems and economies at the same time that we are
weakening the war machine.
If you want peace, don’t buy war. There’s nothing spectacular about that.
For future reference...
Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle is
online here, or may be purchased from Black & Red press of Detroit.
The Global Boycott for Peace offers a clearinghouse of information about
boycott initiatives around the world. Visit
learn how you can stop supporting the war machine and start taking
nonviolent direct action for peace.
Tax resistance is a complicated undertaking. Visit the War Resisters League
http://www.warresisters.org or War Resisters' International at
Pattrice Jones previously taught a
University of Michigan course on the theory and practice of social change
activism. A former tenant organizer and anti-racism educator, she now lives
in rural Maryland, where she operates the Eastern Shore Sanctuary and
Education Center and coordinates an international coalition of nonprofit
organizations opposed to factory farming.