Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Turn Spectacle In On Itself?

SO what if ten thousand climate activists gathered in one symbolically potent location to commit a mass act of non-violent civil disobedience? Basically the opposite of the annual School of the Americas protest, where thousands of people show up to wave signs and listen to speeches, while only two or three get arrested. The rest applaud themselves, go home for another year and nothing changes. In other words, the "old playbook" that Occupy "co-organizer" (as he never fails to remind us) Micah White rightly questions in his new book The End of Protest. Deeming Occupy Wall Street "a failure" he asks lots of good questions. Unfortunately his answers reflect the same "ideological rubble" that many of us found so incredibly frustrating at Occupy General Assemblies. But the real point here is The Playbook. We can't deny that an effective climate movement has been built and has made some gains; but as with the anti-globalization movement before it, the question is: how can this disparate "movement of movements" build the kind of mass support needed to stop fossil fuel production in time? We have the intersectional Flood the System, the Divestment Campaign, Shell No and No Coal Export, RAN, Friends of the Earth,and Earth First along with 350.org and other mainstream environmental groups, all running separate campaigns under the banner of de-centralized, localized autonomy. Yes there are cross-organizational alliances and sporadic coordination, but nothing like the coordination behind the Fossil Fuel Giants we are challenging.If we are honest with ourselves we can see that all the direct action organized by scattered local groups in the run up to COP 21 have fallen short in terms of capacity building and movement growth. That is, there will need to be some intense scaling upward for the climate movement to prevent emissions from crossing scientifically established "red lines". Going back to Micah White,one of his more pointed criticisms is aimed at the 2003 gathering of millions of people around the globe to prevent the invasion of Iraq. He correctly highlights this example of protest failure, but then extrapolates to claim that therefore ALL mass protest is now obsolete. But what if the failure was tactical, was a failure of imagination and expectations? Suppose the organizers had asked all those gathered to demonstrate their commitment by risking arrest? Estimates vary but I was on the Mall in Washington DC with between 3 and 5 hundred thousand people. How might the peaceful arrest of even one tenth of those protesters changed the equation? Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter has written that social processes are driven by our thresholds- defined as the number of people who need to be doing some activity before we agree to join them. His study focused on the dynamics of riots but can be applied to other mass social phenomena. It is my belief, borne out by my experience as an activist for many decades, that US society has reached a point where the threshold for joining mass dissent, especially acts of non-violent civil disobedience, is very high. But the threshold none-the-less exists. I also believe that society loves a good spectacle on a grand scale and many good people wish to be part of something big, something collective and something historical. If they can find participation an antidote to modern "spectating", to the estrangement and alienation and cynicism and apathy which capitalist culture excels in re-producing, then the project of the Left can be re-vitalized and extended to goals beyond emission reduction. Wouldn't this type of project require a huge amount of effort and resources and dedication? Doesn't it risk putting all of one's eggs in one's basket, so to speak? Yes, precisely.

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