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Introduction: Protest Cultures

As both year-ending and year-beginning, the issue looks at immediate pasts and futures of anti-war and anti-capitalist politics.
Cynthia Hoffman, Joe Lockard, J.C. Myers, and Scott Schaffer
Issue Co-editors

Issue #65, January 2004

This special issue of Bad Subjects arrives at the end of a tumultuous 2003 and the beginning of a 2004 that promises no less political tumult. As both year-ending and year-beginning, the issue looks at immediate pasts and futures of anti-war and anti-capitalist politics. These politics may manifest themselves critically in public protest, but events immediately visible to media are only one level of social articulation. A wide variety of geographically disparate and complex protest cultures generate and sustain these public manifestations, yet analyses are most frequently written from within a postmodern understanding of protest experience as anarchic, anonymous, and inchoately collective action. As critical as protest cultures are towards underwriting democracy, media representations persistently treat them as a less than fully comprehensible and abnormal phenomena that conflict with normal notions of economic progress or the necessities of public security.

This last year of protests against the Iraq War and globalist organizational structures that generate and maintain massive international economic disparities has created new prominence and critical roles for protest cultures. Bad Subjects — itself part of these protest cultures as a collective publication — has set out to examine the role of protest in confronting the dominant orders of the American Empire and capitalism; economic, cultural, and media globalism; and the modalities of state violence, visible and less visible. What current strategies of confrontation and protest are most effective in creating a shared resistance to the normalization of imperial culture? How does staging protests contribute to the creation of peaceful civil societies and social justice? What forms of political organization and collective action emerge from protests to energize democratic practice and confront anti-democratic authority?

Protest and organization are inseparable. The argument embodied in this issue is that protest generates, energizes and directs political organization, and that protest cultures create their own appropriate organizations. This organic linkage between expression and action is the very definition of protest politics, one that gives existential afterlife once demonstrator bodies have left the plaza and returned home. In his 1962 manifesto "For A New Orientation" written for Socialisme ou Barbarie, Cornelius Castoriadis posed a question that remains relevant to the current situation under a combinatory regime of neo-liberal economics and militarization. "What can revolutionaries say and what can they do in a capitalist country where the regime has achieved stability and does not encounter any difficulties in the short term, where the population is not politically active, where. . .even industrial actions occur very rarely and remain very limited in scope?" The project of the present Bad Subjects issue lies in an insistence that the answer to Castoriadis's question lies in protest cultures, in foregrounding the vital importance of shouting where there is silence, in demanding that witness lead to action, in refusing to accept an absence of fundamental paradigmatic changes that will eliminate poverty and war, and in using protest to challenge the perfectionistic self-satisfaction of 'end of history' neo-liberalism.

People outside demonstrative political movements or viewers of CNN footage of large-scale protests, whether in the US or abroad, may think that these people arrived at the protest site, found like-minded people, and did the protest only to return home and to their regular lives. But political movements are like any other kind of social grouping, whether it's a music subculture, the fan base for a local sports team, or a high school reunion — they need some form of organization, some cultural apparatus for continuing the life of the organization, and some means of attracting and retaining new members. We look at the modes by which people organize themselves into protest groups, maintain that organization through the development of a culture of protest, and impact larger public culture through their protests.

This issue includes essays from countries that have been in the forefront of protest against the Iraq War and globalization — the UK, Greece, Australia, and Canada — as well as from Americans who have participated in demonstrations overseas and are keenly aware of protest issues and styles elsewhere in the world. Ideological and tactical cross-fertilization now define local protest cultures far more intensely than they did in the 1960s, a development that parallels the transformation of German-born 'Danny the Red' Bendit-Cohen from a 'foreign agitator' in 1968 Paris to a 2003 European Parliament member from the German Greens elected to a parliamentary seat by the French Greens. In Europe, protest crowds cross the continent on trains; in North America, protest caravans stream over Interstate highways towards demonstrations. Ideological and spatial mobility have redefined the internationalism of social protest. While nothing today is as common as trans-national capital flows, trans-national protest participation is a common and unremarkable political sight. Anti-capitalist and anti-globalization protests intrinsically transform the foreign, rendering 'alien' subjectivities into a refusal of alienage and re-formulating putatively distant global economic and environmental issues as critical problems of immediate local concern. Contemporary protest cultures show 'alien' and 'foreign' for the bad politics they always were.

Too, the range of prose genres in this issue should be noted as a reflection of the human mélange of a demonstration crowd. Beyond the cultural studies, political, and personal essays common to Bad Subjects, this issue carries sociological, architectural, linguistic, and philosophical essays, often interwoven with personal protest experience. The politics of some essayists clash, as indeed the heterogeneous politics of the issue co-editors conflict sharply with the positions and advocacies of some contributors. This, however, is the essence of a protest crowd.

Analyzing Protests

The first section of this special issue provides philosophical and social analyses of protest and its goals. Writing from Canada, Jeff Noonan leads off by returning to the concept of protest as an originating force for socialism, and of socialism as a force for peace in the face of the Bush administration's military and economic doctrines. Noonan looks towards the history of the socialist movement and finds Marxism's "failure to consistently articulate its normative foundations in properly universal form prevented it from ever becoming a solidaristic movement for human emancipation," while also arguing that "The truth of Marx's predictions about the globally expansionary nature of capitalism have come to pass [such that] it poses a threat not just to the working class but to human life-activity in general." From this vantage Noonan elaborates his case for re-conceiving socialist thought within an open framework of a social peace movement that can accommodate different political tendencies with shared progressive values.

Bad Subjects editors Joe Lockard and Joel Schalit analyse the political function of protest within a neo-liberal environment, arguing that while manifestations of civic dissent receive nominal ideological tolerance, that same apparent democratic opportunity "continually reaffirms and normalizes the values of US capitalism. And thus the cycle turns on itself as state authority generates protest, protest confirms the existence and legal protection of democratic values, media restate that protest is both part of the democratic value system yet marginal, and this circular hegemonic ideology in turn confirms the benign character of state authority." Further, in states where protest genuinely challenges unpopular public and economic policies, democratic availability of protest opportunity becomes contingent and disappears.

Two Greek contributors, Iosif Botetzagias and Moses Boudourides, describe their social research on the politics of anti-Iraq War protests this past year in Greece. They find that idealistic anti-militarism contributed most heavily to generating street protest, but that public protests are also a site for ideological contention between left-wing parties for hegemony. Anti-war and anti-globalization politics can and are being co-opted for use in factional in-fighting among progressive parties in Greece, a situation paralleling that of other countries. Yet as Botetzagias and Boudourides point out, given the general agreement between protesters and their close proximity to general public opinion on the war, "there was no reason for the major Greek anti-war organisations to opt for a non-cooperative approach on the Iraq issue."

Opposition to US war policy in Europe was especially strong among the young. There is little understanding in the United States of the depth of that political opposition, and of its present and future impact on US standing among this rising generation. The Blair government, through directives from the Ministry of Education, went to great lengths in attempting to ensure that high school students would not be on the streets protesting Bush's visit in November. In another essay from Europe, Stephen Cushion examines media representations that denigrated the political consciousness of teenage anti-war protesters. He finds that they were characterized as victims, sexualized actors, consumers, immature and naԶe school children, and celebrity-obsessed or fashion-conscious protesters.

FTAA Protests and Street Experiences

In the United States, protest in November 2003 centered on the FTAA meetings in Miami, meetings that sought to expand the economic domain of the NAFTA agreement and its neo-liberal market regime throughout the Americas. In her essay "Demonstraightening Out the FTAA," Alexandra Flynn analyses the provisions and probable impacts of this trade agreement, due for implementation in 2005. She argues that a new 'transgovernmentalism' embodied in these agreements eliminates popular will and consent, and that protests are one means of obtaining public representation at bargaining tables.

Tom Crumpacker, like Flynn an unemployed attorney, used his time to accompany the anarchist bloc at the Miami FTAA protests and found that the rule of law did not extend to protest in that city. Crumpacker's observations comport with those of Dade County judge Richard Margolius, who presided over trials of protesters and who stated on the record in his courtroom that he witnessed "no less than 20 felonies committed by police officers" during the demonstrations. "Pretty disgraceful what I saw with my own eyes. And I have always supported the police during my entire career," he continued, "This was a real eye-opener. A disgrace for the community." (Miami Herald, December 20) This potential for violence denominates protest locales as sites of social discipline and demonstrations of state authority. If the FTAA represents a new hemispheric neo-liberal market structure that constitutes a postmodern 'invisible government' dedicated to the interests of capital, one where anonymized forces rather than visible democratic actors provide governance, Miami demonstrated that older and well-tried methods of state control remain necessary to implement such neo-liberal arrangements.

Gwyneth Rhys writes from an alienated perspective on the anarchist actions at the Seattle WTO protests in 1999. As a progressive disturbed by that violence, she argues "my own rights were being stripped away because of the actions of people using legitimate protest and freedom of speech as a weapon for their own personal gain or to let loose aggression." If illegitimate social violence, either through militarism or deprivation of economic rights, is a central issue at contest in protest campaigns, then why should it be countenanced — even glorified — at protest actions? In her essay on this question, Susan Burdacki explicates the tactical and strategic dilemmas of protests, based on the diversity of tactics that she witnessed at the G-8 demonstrations in Genoa. Burdacki concludes "Violent forms of protest will not work successfully toward the ultimate goal of gaining credibility and bringing about change." Maia Ramnath combines experiential reportage from protest demonstrations in Cancun and Miami with political strategizing in her essay "Peace and Justice, North and South." Her essay distinguishes usefully between the different political forces mobilized by these demonstrations, particularly between those groups focusing on peace and those addressing global economic justice issues. Ramnath's comparative observations between demonstrations in Mexico and the United States reinforce the need for critical awareness of class positionality and underwrite her conclusion that "Cultures of resistance stem from the interaction of ideology with location." Interestingly, each of these US writers functions under or contends with protest as a moral occupation, one of the distinguishing features of US protest cultures, as contrasted with the concept of protest as ideological expression that characterizes street politics in Europe and elsewhere.

Organizing Protests and Cultures

The issue section on organizing includes essays that address labor, political, and cultural organization. The organic interrelationship of these facets of protest cultures emphasizes the inseparability of labor and culture, and the denomination of class through culture. Problematics of this relationship remain central to understanding how class, gender, and race function not only to produce protest, but contribute towards achieving recognizable and discrete aesthetics of protest.

Bad Subjects editor Mike Mosher's essay suggests that political and cultural strategies need to proceed from within a unified project, that labor organizing needs art culture to create an aesthetic for organizing success. Using the example of Silicon Valley, the prototypical post-modern economy that is notoriously hostile to labor unions, Mosher identifies potential correspondences between the techno-classes and their artists. Another Bad Subjects editor, J.C. Meyers, interviewed three labor and political organizers in northern California during November and December 2003 to listen to their assessments of organizing politics and the US left. As one of these organizers suggests, labor protests in the United States have become "a series of disconnected attempts to reintroduce radical unionism in different places. It has to develop its own rhythm; its own culture."

It is in this same sense that anti-war and anti-globalization protests in the United States are still searching for a culture, one that recognizes that the economic models that have emerged from the US provide an ideological cutting edge for global capitalism through re-ordered and neo-liberal legal systems, privatization, social and health services cuts and termination, and increased capital accumulation by local elites. That specifically US protest culture, one that still remains substantially formless, unsystematic, and relatively powerless in political effect, hangs on the horizon.

To search out vocalizations of protest, however, Mark Pegrum argues in his excellent essay, "And on the Eighth Day: The Struggle for Linguistic Organization," is to search through the artifacts of everyday intellectual life and practice. Alien languages and the presumptive alterity of non-anglophone language itself have come to represent threat and terrorism for mono-cultural statism under the New Xenophobia. "[If,] since before the days of the French Revolution," Pegrum writes, "governments have disenfranchised dialectal grammars, how much more jealous will they now be of alien grammars?" Where unabsorbed language culture itself represents a social threat, then the richness of human cultures itself has come to function as a source of — as well as, paradoxically, a sign of cultural protest and resistance.

Protest cultures exist within spatial realizations of their politics, and those politics are mirrored by the structures created as protests. Architect Gregory Cowan contributes a fascinating article on the ephemeral, mobile and collaborative protest structures in Australia, structures used to illustrate issues of land rights and spatial freedom. His essay considers the Australian protest tradition of Tent Embassies as a tool of democratic protest that has been employed for aboriginal rights and to focus recent anti-war demonstrations. Andy Kirby explores the issue of protest and architecture in an essay on an ecovillage in upstate New York, treating the community as a utopian work of protest. Kirby seeks to locate the ecovillage movement within a US progressive tradition of practical protest that provides alternatives for daily living, a tradition that included the Fourierist socialist New Harmony communities of Pennsylvania and Indiana, the Brookdale Farm community, and other nineteenth and twentieth-century efforts to convert protest into community-building.

The issue closes with two photo-essays that begin to define the aesthetics of US protest cultures. The first, by previous BS contributor and long-time friend, Colette Gaiter, reviews the graphics of Emory Douglas, whose work was central to defining black radicalism and the Black Panther image during the 1960s. Douglas' images substantially defined the face of radical protest during the 1960s, and Gaiter provides an analytic tour of their content. A second photo-essay by the Pink Bloque, a radical women's protest dance group from Chicago, tells the story of their demonstration actions over the past two years. Comparison of these two photo-essays, not to mention their color schemes, emphasizes the diversity of protest cultures that have emerged and continue to emerge in the United States.

And we exit protesting and dancing into the new year.

Cynthia Hoffman, Joe Lockard, J.C. Meyers, and Scott Schaffer, Issue Co-editors, are members of the Bad Subjects Production Team.

Copyright © 2004 by Cynthia Hoffman, Joe Lockard, J.C. Myers, and Scott Schaffer. All rights reserved.