Activism today seems caught in a stalemate with itself. While the Battle of Seattle founded a generation of direct-action, anti-organizational chaotic intervention against neo-liberal world government meetings, they’ve failed to gain mass public support. For reasons which have been understood for decades, the media is excellent at not getting messages through which are damaging to corporate power in general, media organizations themselves being private tyrannies. And since liberals are scared to death of any acts which might provoke disorder (they are followers of Burke rather than Rousseau), there is little hope in convincing them through rational argument (although I’ll continue to try). But on the other hand, purely peaceful protests seem increasingly ineffective, and geared towards the personal satisfaction of those involved, rather than social or political transformation. Zizek holds something like this position with regards the 2003 anti-war in Iraq rallies:
The massive demonstrations against the US attack on Iraq back in 2003 were exemplary of a strange symbiotic relationship, parasitism even, between power and the anti-war protesters. Their paradoxical outcome was that both sides were satisfied. The protestors saved their beautiful souls – they had made it clear that they did not agree with the government’s policy on Iraq – while those in power could calmly accept it, even profit from it: not only did the protests do nothing to prevent the (already decided upon) attack on Iraq, paradoxically, they even provided additional legitimaization for it, best rendered by none of than George Bush, whose reaction to the mass demonstrations protesting his visit to London was: “You see, this is what we are fighting for: so that what people are doing here – protesting against their government policy – will be possible also in Iraq!”
Quite clearly, Bush had no interest in allowing the popular demonstration to affect his government’s policy. The public are allowed to have their say precisely because their say is meaningless. Compare this to a dictatorship – this kind of huge public display is not allowed (and is in fact violently suppressed), not because a dictator hates free speech, but because in that context free speech is actually a danger to his power. In the US, the overwhelming mores of civil obedience means the state does not have to worry that such a huge public demonstration will move towards the kind of insurrection which would enable actually changing the government’s policy.
Now, a caveat – Chomsky has made an important point which in a sense responds to Zizek’s dismissal of these protests: that there were no Anti War protests during the first several years of the Vietnam War – and that these anti-war protests and the political consciousness they reflect at the beginning of the Iraq war severely hampered US ability to commit atrocities in Iraq. In fact, this inability to commit atrocities perhaps lost them the war, and has ensured that a stable US backed dictator will not be installed – and when the US eventually leaves the Iraq-Iran alliance the US fears will probably still happen. However, the fact that these protests have in some sense improved the geopolitical situation by limiting the US’s ability to commit atrocities does not make the protests adequate to the demands placed on civil society today (which include not only colonialist wars, but also environmental crises, and the repression of indigenous, women’s, and minority rights).
So, protesting today is stuck between two ineffective sides – either it is non-violent support for the policies one is attempting to oppose, or it is unorganized violent “anarchist” outbursts which the state has no problem marginalizing and demonizing. Zizek points out the same apparent two alternatives were present in Europe, and resulted in the French riots of 2005:
The celebration by people like Habermas of the pan-European movement against the Iraq war was thus perhaps a little bit misplaced and facile: the whole affair was rather a supreme case of fully co-opted acting out. Our predicament is that the only alternatives appear to be violent outbursts like those that erupted in the French suburbs a few years ago – l’action directe, as one of those post ’68 Leftist terrorist organizations called itself.
Between these two ineffective alternatives, what is there? Zizek’s suggestion is characteristically dense and un-useful:
What is needed instead is the act proper: a symbolic intervention capable of undermining the big Other (the hegemonic social link), of re-arranging its coordinates.
What can we salvage from this expression? Well, we can say that the “act proper” will not be co-optable, like the 2003 anti-war marches. Also, it won’t be sideline-able, like the Battle of Seattle style, or French Banlieue (even more disorganized and principle-less!) riots. It will have to “symbolically undermine” the current circulation of power and authority. What might count as this? What might be empirically effective at re-arranging the logical structure of power?
Zizek’s mistake here is the standard philosopher activist’s mistake – and one I am constantly guilty of. This idea that there is some perfect intervention, some lever in the machine which a very smart person can find, and then be able to make a big difference with a small amount of activity. This is probably just false – in fact, power is incredibly good at adapting to the different ways it is distorted. And actions which throw it into turmoil are not easy. That said, I can think of a few examples which might count as “undermining the big other” in Zizek’s sense.
I wrote a post a few months ago for BuryCoal about the Gaza flotilla raid, and what it might mean for climate activism. In it, I argued that the flotilla raid pushed the issue of the occupation of Palestine and the West Bank to a point where it could no longer be largely ignored by the mainstream press. While the IDF tried with all its might to own the narrative of the events, it could not maintain 100% mainstream opinion on its side, and this breach in Israeli PR has importantly damaged the mainline liberal account of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Perhaps this is best illustrated by Margaret Atwood’s change of position – from “there was bad behavior on both sides”, to recognizing Israel as the primary agressor, and marking Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians – she calls apartheid (or “Hafrada” to use the Hebrew term) “Israel’s shadow”. In short, this event was important because of its throwing the symbolic Zionist machine into disarray – Israel could neither call the activists anarchists (well, they could not do so with the effectiveness that Canada has dismissed the G20 protestors), nor could they say “Exactly! This is why we oppress the Palestinians – so you can fight for their freedom!”.
A similar, although less dramatic event, might have taken place recently in Washington D.C. James Hansen has been arrested along with other activists at a protest opposing mountaintop removal and coal mining. The arrest of such a prominent and intellectually respectable public figure could spark the kind of civil disobedience which the US state can not simply dismiss as terrorist, or as anti-American. It is heartening to see this disobedience spreading to effective direct actions which obstruct the free flow of carbon intensive economy, like this protest in Newcastle, Australia, which disrupted activity at a coal port.
In a sense, anti-coal or anti-oil and gas acts of civil disobedience may be more effective at jamming the current political order than activist activities based on social justice. Every particular social justice issue must be argued on its own merits, and there is a whole industry of detractors who are paid to de-legitimize those who fight for the rights of the oppressed. This industry is certainly operative against climate change – in fact its success has significantly lowered the proportion of Americans who believe climate change is caused by humans. But the universality of this issue, and the breadth of respectable intellectuals and scientists who recognize the absolute need for policy action on climate change, makes this issue much more difficult for corporately funded PR firms to sideline, or for States to dismiss as anarchist hooligans.