Public Protest and Political Solidarity
Tuesday, August 29 2000
Most of the time the public arena in a capitalist democracy such as America is dominated by a predictable political routine. Corporate media outlets greedily pursue ratings and advertising revenue by stuffing the airwaves with sensationalized accounts of murder, natural disaster, and political scandal. The political elites — frothing with rhetoric, spitting sound bites — vie for the citizenry's attention, working hard to organize political loyalty or conjure up an aura of legitimacy on behalf of their policies and programs. And special interests, who lobby first and ask questions later, strut upon the public stage in an attempt to cloak their narrow, partisan positions in the mantle of public acclamation. During these times, the public arena is a one-dimensional space dominated by the powerful, the media savvy, and the selfish. Protests are rare. Dissent is anemic. And movements that attempt to disrupt the routine and introduce spontaneity into the predictable political games find themselves relegated to the wings.
Yet the hegemony of the well-heeled and the well-placed is never total. At key moments the pattern of manipulation and domination is interrupted: movements, associations, and civic groups mobilize and fight their way into the public arena where they compete with the established political actors to shape the political agenda and public opinion. At these times, the public arena comes closest to fulfilling its democratic potential as the location in society for the free discussion of issues of concern to all, not just to those who pay the bills.
Arguably, America currently finds itself in the midst of one such moment of public mobilization. Part of the public arena's newfound vitality can be traced to the presidential campaign. Locked into the high stakes competition for power, the political parties and their members are raising issues and engaging each other and the broader audience of voters in the kind of intense and wide-ranging political discussions that are reserved for special moments like presidential elections.
But it isn't just the big political machines at the center that are generating political heat, the periphery is also fired up, ready to take a new message to the streets. The recent resurgence of the left has increased the liveliness of public debate. Like the mainstream organizations they have raised new issues and themes. But importantly they have done more than just add to the diversity of issues under discussion: they have taken the next step and questioned the cultural and political hegemony of neo-liberalism. Plopping a fundamental critique of the status quo onto the political boards, they have challenged the dominant patterns of legitimation, suggested imaginative, far-reaching reforms, and indicated that there is no easy consensus about our present political and economic course.
This is a heartening political development. From the left perspective, it signals that the twin shocks dealt to the left by the collapse of communism and the swift, powerful ascent of neo-liberalism have abated. The progressive movement has obviously adjusted to the realities of the post Cold War world and developed the alliances, organizing techniques, and clusters of political themes necessary to address the wider audience of citizens with renewed vigor and success.
And the mobilization of the public is also heartening in terms of what it indicates about democracy and its institutions. The renewed activity in the public realm demonstrates that, even though the public arena is often fragile and susceptible to manipulation, it nonetheless still remains accessible to political impulses and initiatives of a more genuinely democratic, participatory kind.
All of which makes the actions of law enforcement agencies and the courts in Philadelphia and Los Angeles during and after the Republican and Democratic National Conventions that much more despicable. In both cities, although perhaps more blatantly in Philadelphia than in image conscious LA, a concerted effort was made not only to disrupt the protests, but to undermine the very possibility of protest by disrupting the organization and leadership structures of the various groups participating in direct action. Deploying the time tested arsenal of spying, harassment, the exaggerated show of force, and the swinging baton, the police attempted to seal off access to the public sphere.
As many in both the mainstream and independent press have rightly pointed out, these actions by law enforcement agencies amounted to the criminalization of free speech, the denial of rights, and the creation of a hostile, repressive political climate. But this list is incomplete. We need to make another addition. We need to highlight how by undermining the public arena of free debate, the police and the courts denied citizens access to the political solidarity that debate, discussion, and dissent produce. Like the others this is a harm that tears at the fabric of democracy.
The public arena is one of the few locations where strangers can come together and discuss, discovering in the process where they care about common issues and where they wish to remain strangers to one another. It is one of the few spaces where citizens can negotiate how they want to live together, where they want to draw the line between individual freedom and public power, and which values they want to hold dear. It provides citizens with the opportunity to become allies, partisans, friends, or simply people who know each other well enough to agree to disagree.
Such a complex web of political solidarity cannot be produced at the end of a police truncheon.
But how can citizens defend the public sphere? How can they keep the public sphere open to new political impulses? How can they maintain and enhance its potential as a hothouse of solidarity? How can they resist the return to the flat political landscape of managed publicity and political spin? As the current mobilization of the public sphere continues, these are the questions and these are the stakes.
John Brady is co-director of Bad Subjects.