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Thinking Through K02: Canning Kananaskis

This dispatch arises out of a double frustration: One is with members of the activist community who too quickly question the use of protests like Seattle, Quebec, Genoa and soon Kananaskis. The typical claim is that mass mobilizations consume scarce activist resource without seriously impacting global capital and the people and places it leaves behind. My sense, however, is that well-meaning analysts are mistakenly evaluating the impact of direct-action protests by the very state-centered criteria they put to stake. By focusing primarily on the immediate policy impact of direct-action protest, the political effectivity of these mobilizations will always appear questionable. Ends-based policy oriented evaluations should continue, but not by displacing the successes of social movement organizing and the incredible creative potentialities inhered within. One of these potentialities is potentiality itself. One of my foci is how social movement organizing, and direct-action protest disrupts temporal orders (discrete pasts, presents, futures) and puts potentiality in the material service of the present.

The second frustration fueling this dispatch, however, is the obsession with direct-action protest in social-movement and activist circles. If you think of alternative political activity in 2002, you think of the anti-globalization movement. When you think of the anti-globalization movement, you think of the embattled streets of Seattle or Quebec. The blunt implication of these associations is that if you are not in the streets sucking in tear gas and dodging rubber bullets, you are not seriously engaged in struggle. This may very well be true, but the anti-globalization movement’s conflation with in-your-face protest displaces other contestations comprising the movement and facilitates its own dismissals. Being too impressed by the benefits of DA protest leads to troubling over-estimates of the effects street-flooding and meeting-disruption has on capital. These over-estimates fuel their opposite: claims that flooding the streets and meeting-disruption have no impact on capital or progressive struggle. While few activists fit into these perfectly opposed camps, this dialectic’s remainders are not adequately accounted for. My aim is to help find a `Third-Way’ away from the related romanticizations and dismissals of direct-action protest.

My starting point in this attempt to develop a clearer evaluation of recent protests is the simple question: What purpose will G-8 protests in Kananaskis (K02) serve?

Answering this question requires some prior thinking on what protests are. Foremost, it is important to realize that protests are meaningless without audience. Thus integral to the question: What are we protesting for? is: Who are we protesting for? There are three obvious answers:

i) Firstly and most uncomfortably, is the contingent of World Leaders policy-making on the `inside’ of summits like the G-8. (Perpetrators).
ii) Secondly are constituencies empowered by economic globalization. (Beneficiaries).
iii) Thirdly are those disempowered but uncommitted and unconvinced that amelioratives are possible. (Victims).

Less obviously, but becoming more apparent in recent mass anti-globalization protests, with their decentralized (affinity groups, blocs ….) and diverse (green-labour-anarchist-socialist-nationalist…) organization and execution, is that protestors are an audience unto themselves. In diverse convergences the lines between spectator and performer are blurred. Protestors are agents of Dissent, but also witness to the multitudes engaging dissent in all its diversity. Protestors simultaneously consume and produce protest. This matters. By being their own audience, `anti-globalization’ movements mustn’t entirely rely on the interpretive and definitional power of the Status Quo they seek to disrupt. They can think more about the effects protests have on `the movement’ than the elites and non-elites they aim to educate. Given this, protestor audience can be carefully divided into two spheres – public and private. I begin with the public:

PUBLIC
________

The public audience is comprised of the aforementioned trinity. They are bewildered spectators at the summit/protest site, but primarily the black-boxers watching from home. The aims in engaging this audience are three-fold:

i) Suggest that present socio-political-economic organization (exemplified by elite trade and investment blocs/agreements) is alienating the majority of glocal peoples.
ii) Suggest that there are alternatives that can and should be acted upon.
iii) Convince spectators to: a) actively reconsider their thought/belief structures b) look for ways their everyday life can be transformed in liberatory ways; and c) invest themselves, in whatever available capacity, in progressive movement (join the private sphere).

Protesting is preaching the post-modern gospel (Does Jesus throw rocks, or are his hands too busy?); its a game of high-speed and high-stakes conversion; its a marketing war. Some spectators are `hit’ on site, but most get the message through mass corporate media. In the same way police (try to) control the streets(/forests?) at summit protests, the corporate media police the protestor message. How then can the above three goals be realized; how can the corporate media be hijacked for progressive ends? Ultimately it cannot – not on any meaningful scale. That said, Corporate Media is hegemonic, but not homogenous; it is replete with contradiction. Individual journalists, broadcasters, and editors still think critically and sometimes take risks. The anti-globalization movement is also becoming large enough to be treated as a feasible market. More true in print than television media, but some progressives are employed to satisfy the `socially-conscious’ reader. There is some space to maneuver. And the goal of using global corporate (news) networks to reach, and potentially radicalize a mass audience, should not be abandoned. This said, the movement must be careful, and mustn’t make it easy for the mass media to enact the opposite – assuring the masses that protest is hooliganry. Thus, necessarily, questions must be raised around the `diversity of tactics.’

`Violence’ and `aggressive protest’ are tricky issues, but mustn’t be skirted. By reading mass-mobilization as anti-oppressive advertising for the home-audience, violence (non-plush hurling, window smashing, and excessive [use your discretion] property damage) cannot be condoned. Were this simply a moral question I’d advocate pin pulling from little green eggs, but morals are bourgeois; the `diversity of tactics’ is a tactical problem. `Violent protest’ gives the media the spin they want. Descriptions of demos as `riotous’ and `violent’ effectively contain protest and its message. The non-protesting public knows that non-state violence is opposite to the virtuous pursuits of the Good, True, and Beautiful and thus understand protestors (whether grannies, anarchists, or `Black Shawls’) as ignorant and brutish unprogressives. This branding reinforces the normalcy of non-resistance living, and dissuades the Public from skewering the scatalogics of suburbia, hitting the streets, or at least questioning the righteousness of privilege. Violence TM also legitimizes the state’s increasingly organized and violent response to direct action protest. The mass media helps the public understand how police violence is a necessary response to the brutishness of unprogressive protest. Put simply: `violent protest’ is poor marketing.

The prominent sides in the `diversity of tactics’ debate are both guilty of puritanism. There is the purity of stinky patchouli pacifism, and the matching puritanism of self-righteous `super-radicals’ lacking the imagination to read `Smash’ as anything but literal. This debate cannot be about purity and principle. Instead, it must engage the politics of audience – who we perceive our primary audience(s) to be, and how they perceive us. If good arguments can be made for the futility of reaching the Public through mass media, and for the minimal effects of our mass-mediated containment as an unprogressive fringe, then more `diverse’ tactics might be tactically ok. Ultimately, and regardless of one’s position, the diversity of tactics debate must continue re-framed by questions of marketing and audience targeting, not the a-historical righteousness of Starbucks Smashing vs. Peacefully taking truncheon blows to the head. Who is (y)our target audience?

PRIVATE
——————-

This dispatch, along with most present analysis, suffers from abject pronoun poverty. We lack the vocabulary to realistically account for the multitudes comprising the Royal We of the anti-globalization movement(s). This confusion, of course, is rather inspiring. Like the early Internet, a US military informatics network organized de-centrally to prevent all-out destruction from a missile strike, the movement’s resilience is in its diversity. This said, there are points of affinitive commitment that while they might not add up to a definitive identity, they lay the track for like directions. We are a World Wide Web – moving at the speed of business.

If we congeal enough to form a mobile and contingent WWWe, what do these protests accomplish for our web beyond infotain and infomert the Public? 1 possibility:

They are a convention, a meeting of the (un)Fortune 500 when/where different stripes of activists can meet, relate, debate, transform, share stories, strategies, fluids and information. They are a time where commitments are realigned, reaffirmed, and interrogated. While the experience is felt most deeply by those in physical attendance, its effects are widespread amongst virtual and worldwide attendees. One of the most important developments emerging from these protests is IndyMedia. Without having to rely on their neighborhood corporate media, activists [with computers and decent internet connections…] can see, read, and hear more `privileged’ versions of the story. This is of utmost importance. Instead of being depressed, and even swayed, by the misunderstandings propagated by the mass press, activists can be impressed and inspired by their people dancing, screaming, hurling (plushly of course), smiling, bleeding, coughing, running — living a liberatory future in the present – and living to post/mass email about it. IndyMedia also provides a space where off-site activists can critically engage varied versions of the spectacle and participate in vital and ongoing debates around tactics, purpose, and what/who the hell WWWe are. These protests are an impressive flare, an intensity shooting through our Web. They introspectively inspire and question, but most importantly, they propel.

Like all conventions, people leave at the weekend’s end. This should be a banal point, but still needs reinforcement: particular protests end, the movement, does not. Or: direct action protest and mass-mobilizations ARE NOT the anti-globalization movement. Similarly, the G-8 summit IS NOT global capitalism; it is an impressive flare, an intensity shooting through their Web. Summits and counter-conventions are both embodiments of their respective movements, but must not be mistaken for the movements themselves. This point has two primary implications.

1) It suggests a de-literilization of protests. Activists cannot, in any impactful way, access the monopolies of capital and violence enjoyed and deployed by corporations and states. But activists CAN access the powerful structures underpinning the physical organization of the New World Order: Symbols. Symbols might seem flaccid compared to the virility of guns and capital, but language, ideas and stories are global capitalism’s viagra. In the minds of most Westerners, the workings of the NWO are perfectly legitimate. This popular legitimacy is grounded in theories and stories of human nature, sovereignty, and progress that guarantee an air of righteousness and necessity to the play of global capitalism. WWWe must interrogate this legitimacy and its symbolic shoring; we must render it the stranger it truly is; we must invoke a kind of collective Erectile Dysfunction (`dead babies, dead babies’) whereby the (up)righteousness of the New World Order is softened, shrunk, and pacified. This mustn’t mean all activists must become painters, poets, graphic designers, novelists, musicians, cinematographers – artists waging symbolic warfare against the stories of time, space, and identity legitimating the NWO. Deliteralizing direct-action protests means understanding and capitalizing on their incredible symbolic potential. Direct-Action is powerful because it materializes a liberatory future-present; it realizes our creativity. But direct-action is more RealityTV than Reality. Actions don’t physically last, they practice `Revolution,’ and practice makes perfect, but they are not `Revolution’ itself.

Liberation enjoyed at the moment of protest evaporates post-protest, but lives on as a statement haunting those engaging AND witnessing the liberatory moment. The next time an activist or audience-member passes a once reclaimed street, s/he can allow memory propel imagination, as nostalgia for the fleeting festival of resistance can fuel a progressive longing for the past. Direct-Action materializes liberation, but until WWWe become Multinational Corporations and weapon manufacturers, its ultimate power is symbolic, inspiratorial, and propellative.

On a more practical note, deliteralization means direct-action activities mustn’t be measured as material assaults on the NWO’s present power, but must instead be evaluated for their symbolic effect. Which tactics best communicate, to both public and private audiences, the present alienation felt by millions of glocal peoples? And which tactics best haunt our collective memories, propelling more protest incarnate?

2) That protests are not the `anti-globalization movement’ and trade summits not global capitalism also implies a de-centering of direct-action protest. De-centering means taking the `diversity of tactics’ seriously. Direct-action protest is a vital component of the movement, but there are other protestations requiring attention. There is the everyday work of NGOs and community organizations moving to improve the immediate lives of people, and nurture more just personal/political relationships on glocal scales. There is also the vital work performed by the symbolic workers of the arts industry. Less obviously, there are the everyday acts of resistance performed by people questioning their inherited thought structures, engaging in unsanctioned and unscripted relationships across age/class/race/nationality/gender/species/commitment, reorganizing a home economy, running away from home… These acts generally occur without audience; they fall within the traditionally private realms of people’s lives. The future of the activist industry, I think, relies on our continued questioning of the Public/Private divide. WWWe must begin recognizing the multitudes of resistance intensifying the daily lives of glocal peoples. Witnessing the personal scale of struggle creatively explodes our understandings of protest by expanding our recourse to agency, and illustrating how people of all stripes and place are already implicated in active questioning of their constrictive conditioning. Carefully recuperating subtly scaled resistances into the realm of Protest has two impressive implications:

1) Hope:

Hope is not monopolized by idealism or spiritualism; it can also be understood strategically. Hope is inspiratorial. It propels further action that can disrupt the NWO’s symbolic shoring. Hope grounds alternative future-presents. Without it we are politically lost.

2) Affinities:

One thing we all do is things we shouldn’t. The results can be simply criminal. But moments of lawlessness (whether institutional or everyday conventions) also have connective potential. I am not suggesting that an investment broker who sings out-loud during lunchtime strolls, or the robber who picks his pocket are closet revolutionaries. But I think being mindful of small-scale disruptions can enable better activist connections with potential audiences or allies. Taking the `diversity of tactics’ seriously provides activists with motivation beyond tired human decency to recognize the worth (as unequal as it might be) of all peoples. It forces open the permanent possibility of Affinity. Recognizing small-scale disturbances lays the ground for a perverted instrumental universalism; it inspires progressive conspirings.

`Conspire,’ means to breathe together. It also means to join together unlawfully, or for unlawful purposes. The illegitimate sharing of breath across continents, communities, and commitments feels like an appropriate practice and thought-tool for our movement, for breathing potentiality into the present.

James Rowe is a member of the P&C Santa Cruz Editorial Collective

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