Published on Wednesday, March 17, 2004 by CommonDreams.org
“Let’s Put on a Show!”
Spectacle versus Reality in the US Peace Movement
by Pattrice Jones
Yet 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 programs 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 than parades.
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 action.
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.