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Breaking Free of the Protest Mentality

by Marc Silverstein Sunday, Jul. 14, 2002 at 1:16 PM

Protestors are in the classic role of "protestors", people with no real power over their lives so they must demand it from the ruling class. Demonstrations also point to a lack of creativity; the only thing we can come up with is playing the song and dance of our rulers. How much longer will these protests go on for? If we could only get a few more tens of thousands to protest, will we be successful in overthrowing capitalism, the state and wage-slavery? Why do the state, capitalism and wage-slavery exist, why do the governments of the U.S. and Israel do what they do, and what are we actually going to do about it?

On the media's coverage of the Washington DC protests against the IMF and Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories, speeches were given by various activist and progressive groups, such as Palestinian and African-American nationalist groups, the AFL-CIO, the International Action Center (IAC), and A.N.S.W.E.R. (Act Now To Stop War And End Racism). Both IAC And A.N.S.W.E.R. are Stalinist front groups for the Workers World Party, which supports the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 and the Soviet invasions of Hungary 1956 and Czechoslovakia 1968. Many of the speakers chanted "Free, Free Palestine", held portraits of Yasser Arafat, and the audience began repeating the chants with fervor and enthusiasm. The rhetoric in the speeches was typical Leftist drivel, entirely non-rational and endemic of mob mentality, ingrained authoritarian mindsets, and the complete absence of rational discussion and argumentation, critical thinking skills, and non-violent communication.

A "co-leader" of the IAC made the statement that "this is the largest march in U.S. history". What this statement was intended to convey, what effect another mass demonstration would have, and what they actually wanted were questions to be evaded. Sure, the Israeli army is terrorizing the region and committing genocide against the Palestinian people, and the U.S. government is an authoritarian war machine which routinely massacres, represses, brutalizes, imprisons, tortures, oppresses, exploits and starves people all over the globe - there is no question about that. This is nothing new, and has been going on for many decades.

But it seems that if a "movement" is going to be built, it needs a rational, comprehensive, holistic analysis of the current situation, and a fleshed-out, detailed, practical strategy to achieve whatever it is that happens to be its goals. The means must be consistent with the ends. This analysis and strategy would give direction to a movement and would act as a vehicle for personal and social transformation. What is alarming is the complete lack of any serious analysis or strategy, or even any concern over a lack of analysis or strategy, and the crowd's willingness, even eagerness to shout slogans, hold signs, and regurgitate the rhetoric of the speakers.

Estimates for this march were put at 10-15,000 by the mainstream media and 75-100,000 by the independent media (both of whom exaggerate numbers to serve their particular agenda). Regardless, the march was in the tens of thousands. It seems that 50,000 people would be able to gather together and deliberate on a grassroots level, based on free association, through networks of affinity groups and spokes-councils, their strategic and organizational plan of action. Instead, those same 50,000 people chose to walk around as an amorphous mass, chanting, holding signs, letting the government know how bad and inhuman it is and how it should stop funding murderous states, and basically putting themselves in a humiliating position of powerlessness.

Protestors are in the classic role of "protestors", people with no real power over their lives so they must demand it from the ruling class. Demonstrations also point to a lack of creativity; the only thing we can come up with is playing the song and dance of our rulers. How much longer will these protests go on for? If we could only get a few more tens of thousands to protest, will we be successful in overthrowing capitalism, the state and wage-slavery? Why do the state, capitalism and wage-slavery exist, why do the governments of the U.S. and Israel do what they do, and what are we actually going to do about it?

One of the speakers, from a Muslim rights group, appealed to President Bush to warn Ariel Sharon that if he doesn't stop his war crimes, then immediate action will be taken. It is unbearably painful to witness such utter naivety. It is quite apparent that genocide and "war crimes" are normal functions of any state, that they are not doing anything irresponsible. The state will do anything to maintain its power, whether legal or illegal. Leftists and progressives point out that Israel has violated the Geneva Convention, and that their activity is "illegal". By accepting the false dichotomy of "legal"/"illegal" we are accepting their frame of reference and their world-view. We are viewing the situation from a liberal, idealistic perspective, of how the state is supposed to behave. Radicals and revolutionaries over a hundred years ago recognized the essential purpose of the state and capitalism, they weren't fooled by it, and they weren't sucked in by reformism. It seems we are a long way to go to reach the same logical conclusions that were reached in the 1870s!

There seems to be a lack of prefigurative politics, or even an understanding of what that means. Prefigurative politics is based on the notion that the "future society" is how we act in the present, what kinds of interactions, processes, structures, institutions, and associations we create right now, and how we live our lives. The notion that we just need more people, more resources, and more money to be channeled into these protests is utterly nave, because it mistakes the problem as being quantitative, when in fact it is qualitative. The qualitative component deals with how we treat each other, the quality of people's lives, meeting individual wants and preferences, strengthening our ability to clearly and honestly communicate with each other our concerns, needs, feelings, and requests, in the context of a small-scale face-to-face environment. On the other hand, protests are mostly concerned with numbers, masses, and large, bureaucratized organizations, concerns which all too often ignore the crucial individual and inter-personal aspects. The protests against the G-8 conference last July in Genoa, Italy included up to 200,000 demonstrators, yet the only outcomes of the protest were a militarized police state bordering on fascism (or perhaps fascist), one dead, and many imprisoned and seriously injured. The strategy of protest doesn't seem to be getting us anywhere, so it is a wonder why people continue to engage in this failed tactic. If a methodology is proven time and time again of not being successful, then the rational response would be to critically examine the inadequacies of the unsuccessful methodology, and creatively and collectively think up and experiment with new methodologies.

The few instances when these mass demonstrations are critiqued, they are rarely ever rejected in toto; instead the solution is to have protests on the level of local communities and neighborhoods, rather than mass convergences to large cities. Their argument is that this would bridge the gap between activists and "regular people" and get more people active and radicalized in their local communities, and to have a more secure base of resistance. But the size of the protests are not the real problem, the real problem is the protest mentality itself, which remains qualitatively the same whether it's in a working-class neighborhood or in a major city.

Most of the corporate media reported that the protests were overwhelmingly "peaceful", and many of the protestors were quite content with this. Both sides accept the dichotomy of "peaceful"/"violent", just as they accept the dichotomy of "legal"/"illegal". This traps them into a moralistic, Statist mindset. Even the militant black bloc in past protests has never failed to mention that "property destruction is not violence", which indicates that they still accept this basic duality. The media are our enemy, their interests are antithetical to ours, and to hope for any kind of "positive coverage" is pie in the sky. We should not be surprised if the police beat and arrest us, if the media defame us, and if the general public hate us. That is to be expected, and we should start to recognize this and move on.

There doesn't seem to be so much a "movement" as there is a collection of divergent tendencies and ideologies, many of them incompatible with each other. With every protest, there has been very little attention to what we hope to achieve, and the claim that all protests, demonstrations, marches and rallies are useless and counter-productive is a new and shocking concept for most activists. The reason that the vast majority of "ordinary people" view us with fear and contempt is because we have nothing to offer them. The power of capitalism and the State does not exist in the streets, in blocking and shutting down major intersections. It exists in the everyday lives of people, more specifically: in their homes, workplaces, and communities. If we don't work on creating practical alternatives to the capitalist system, then it is no wonder most people won't join us - we don't offer them anything, and our petty squabbles are totally irrelevant to their lives.

The strategy I propose is of creating spheres of autonomy and self-sufficiency based on free association and common preference finding: bolos, temporary and permanent autonomous zones, counter-institutions, popular assemblies (see: http://www.ipsnews.net/interna.asp?idnews=8614 for a contemporary example), small-scale decentralized agriculture, community gardens en masse, guilds, kibbutzes, worker-owned cooperatives, squats, local barter clubs (which have been popping up throughout parts of Argentina, see: http://www.infoshop.org/inews/stories.php?story=02/03/02/5676701, communist stores (based on the principle of "take what you need, donate what you can"), co-housing, urban and rural intentional communities, alternative and sustainable technology, computer-linked networks for co-ordinating and making decisions on a large-scale basis. Computer-linked networks may in fact supercede entirely the need for popular assemblies. The reason that creating these types of anti-authoritarian structures is a much more worthwhile strategy than protest and direct confrontation with the State is because it hits the State and capitalism where it hurts. Food Not Bombs, Independent Media Centers, micro-radio and the like are also important, but they don't provide people with food, clothing, and housing - that is, the real necessities of life.

The Black Panthers' Party in the 1960s and 70s set up free breakfast and lunch programs for neighborhood kids, community medical clinics, and self-defense classes. The fact that these counter-institutions triggered so much State repression, sometimes more so than armed struggle, shows how effective and threatening they were to the State. Keith Preston, in "Anarchism or Anarcho-Social Democracy?", writes: "Strategically, we need to follow the example of the most successful anarchist forces of all time- the Spanish anarchist revolutionaries. Our revolutionary agenda should be to develop an alliance of community organizations, unions, cooperatives, enterprises, service organizations, youth clubs, study groups and other popular associations".

What I've sketched above are just a few outlines of a strategy, described abstractly, which embodies the kind of direction I think we should be going in. The protest mentality is getting us nowhere, it is a strategy of powerlessness - it is not "what democracy looks like". If we are serious about doing away with this rotten system and living in a new way, we have to know what it is that we don't want, what it is we do want, and how to go about getting what we want. What we need is a new, radical, concrete, utopian praxis, free of the failed methodologies of Leftism, activism and protest.

Note: This article was originally published as a forum post at http://www.dualpower.net

If you are interested in seeing the discussion occuring around this article, you can discuss it at http://nhss.mahost.org/modules.php?op=modload&name=phpBB_14&file=index&action=viewtopic&topic=70&4
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Technopeasant JPB Sunday, Jul. 14, 2002 at 3:07 PM
It's got to be widespread, well-organized, and aggressive dunbar Sunday, Jul. 14, 2002 at 7:39 PM
Excellent Article! 000 Sunday, Jul. 14, 2002 at 8:29 PM
Mindless Anarchist Blather uncircled A Monday, Jul. 15, 2002 at 2:38 PM
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