Here, there, and everywhere - there is resistance. Well, not quite, not yet, but seemingly coming. People are alienated and frustrated, which is, however, nearly always true. People are also angry at some straw breaking the camel’s back – a fare hike, a bailout, a budget cut, a report of massive spying. Whoops, that is also pretty much always true. Another day, another straw, another broken camel back. So what’s different now?
Some particular but unpredictable straw causes enough people act and many other people act as well. We don’t, overnight, become more aware, more conscious, or more moral. But we do, overnight, become more hopeful. People can suddenly become elated rather than depressed. Those who become hopeful clog the streets with dissent. And beyond a certain point, more clogging yields, at least for a while, even more clogging.
Typical pundits, watching from behind hotel windows, ask, “Why all this dissent” – as in, “What is the immediate grievance?” Of course, this question is a time waster because answers, however eloquent, tell no one anything they didn’t already know.
More astute pundits ask, “what is the underlying, large scale grievance”? But even this question is not particularly useful, because, again, the answer is obvious. Everything is broken. Everyone, therefore, has serious concerns. Eloquently enunciating the multitude of those concerns may edify a few folks who don’t share them, but on balance it is overwhelmingly telling the hungry that hunger hurts, telling the homeless that homelessness hurts, and in general telling the pissed on why they are pissed off. But of course the hungry, homeless, and pissed on know the score without being told by pundits.
Yes, Spain is different than Greece. Greece is different than Turkey. And Turkey is different than Brazil. And they all are different than wherever is next. And yes, sometimes the differences are quite important. Having an ex guerrilla revolutionary as president in Brazil is one thing. Having some elite autocratic nightmare as president in Turkey is another. But in both places, a few act, efficacy climbs, and the streets clog.
A better question is: “What do the large mass of cloggers, demonstrators, resisters have in common”?
- Rejection of political corruption.
Criminality is incredibly annoying. Hypocrisy is too. And everyone clogging the streets seems animated, at least in large part, by a large-scale, wholesale rejection of manipulative, lying, elite rip offs. Corruption bugs people.
- Rejection of politics per se.
A step beyond crusading against corruption, people curse politicians, parties, and elections. “Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate” – a 1960s slogan that is far more apt now – seems to have taken on a new form. “Do not instruct, count, tally, recruit, direct.” For many in the streets, government, including elections, parties, politicians, and of course, police repression, is part of the problem. For some in the streets, it seems, government is even all of the problem. For a few, it is even a mark of modern thinking to eschew anything at all that has any kind of political identification.
- Rejection of program.
It appears to be a small additional step, from rejecting corruption to rejecting politics to rejecting having a program of any kind. Having a program, this sector of dissenters feels, means discussing it, debating it, demanding it, and in particular, doing this with corrupt authorities. Their reaction is to reject program. If we were to have a program, they feel, we would have to direct ourselves to the authorities, which would give the authorities legitimacy, and we refuse to do that.
- Rejection of repression.
This one is easy. Gas me. Club me. Shoot me. I bet you can guess – I don’t want that. I don’t need that. I won’t abide that.
- Willingness to act.
This is, of course, self evident – after all we are talking about commonalities among folks in the streets which means folks who are already acting – so this commonality is self evident and highly visible.
I could go on identifying more things common among the huge constituencies going into the streets from Sao Paulo to Barcelona and from Athens to Istanbul. Worthy globalization – which we call internationalism – has led to many commonalities. But the above list is enough for now because it points toward a truly important question, Where will dissent, with the above commonalities, lead?
Everyone everywhere knows everything is broken. Everyone dissenting – and even most who are not yet dissenting – knows politicians who occupy office overwhelmingly abet the injustices surrounding us not only when they are most corrupt, but even when they are operating at their very best. And many who reject politicians know – and I would bet almost everyone would have no trouble agreeing – that this type political behavior is not wired in. It is not genetics. It is not even some kind of aberrant, learned evil that people bring with them, in their personalities, from early crib training, or something. Instead, everyone knows that politicians contribute to the injustice and deprivation that is visible all around us simply because they are doing what they are supposed to do. They win office by way of campaigns paid for by the super rich. They occupy positions explicitly designed to aid the super rich. They operate within rules and structures where the agendas of the super rich dominate.
If follows that politicians don’t and indeed cannot sell out “citizens,” because politicians don’t represent “citizens.” The only sell-out politician is the very rare one that actually does serve the public, serve the poor, serve justice and equity, because that rare politician is in fact selling out the interests that he or she is supposed to serve, the interests that his or her office is designed to serve – the interests of the rich and powerful.
Everyone also knows that a new world will not spring magically from a dissenting chant or a huge march, much less from a thrown brick or ignited flame. One step further in the analysis and we come to the observation that a movement that doesn’t know what it wants, and that doesn’t demand what it wants, and that doesn’t have an active program to implement what it wants, is, in fact, a movement that is implicitly petitioning authority. A movement that is unclear about its aims isn’t saying to power, “Do what we deem desirable and necessary, even though you of course disagree, because if you don’t we will demolish you.” It is saying to power, “Hear us, we hurt, fix the pain – and fix it however makes most sense to you.”
Ironically, this message is the exact opposite of the stated intention of dissenters to not petition and legitimate power. And since the elites who are so petitioned have no clue what would alleviate pain much less any desire to deliver what would alleviate pain, it won’t happen. If they feel sufficient pressure to feel they must respond, but they are given no path they have to follow, they will choose a path that they can manipulate and pervert to the advantage of their super rich constituents.
Everyone knows, and surely those clogging the streets know, that a new world takes persistent pressure and creative construction, not merely dissent plus a hope that some elite power broker will act honorably. But everyone also knows that there are people in pain now, deserving redress now, even if a new world is not going to burst into being – now.
So what emerges as an answer? Do what, given this knowledge we share and given the commitments we have?
We should win changes in the present that improve people’s conditions, but we should accomplish this in ways that lead toward further struggle rather than toward a dissolution of dissent.
There are two aspects to achieving these goals. First, seek changes that will actually benefit people who need benefits. Second, fight to win those changes in ways that will arouse additional worthy desires and create additional movement commitment and organization, and even, when possible, will yield on-going structures of movement influence and outreach. The immediate victories aid those who are suffering. The methods arouse, , enlighten, and empower efforts to win more. The movement persists and grows.
This all may sound easy, but, of course, it isn’t. Winning a better world would be fantastically complex even if there were not mighty forces obstructing the endeavor every step of the way. Still, the reaction to those centers of power and coercion and to their lies and violence should not be to whine about their scale, ubiquity, or tenacity. It should be, instead, to go around, over, and through them, taking their presence for granted, as an obstacle, but an obstacle that must be overcome.
Consider the transportation issue in Brazil. The fare hikes that precipitated dissent of course especially hurt the poor. What should they seek? Well, superficially of course, it would be excellent to roll back the fares to where they were earlier, and then to reduce them even further. How should this be talked about? One good choice would be to urge that transport should be free because the circumstances and situations of people should be equitable. But what if the government gives in and subsidizes transport, but pays the costs, largely or even overwhelmingly by taking from those who were going to pay the higher fares? Maybe the government regressively taxes the poor. Maybe it punitively reduces their services. In either case, the government will have ripped off Peter (the poor), albeit in a new way, to appear to pay Peter (the poor), all while Paul (the rich) laugh at the outcome. Context matters, and I have no idea what would make the most sense in Brazil – but, perhaps, a tax on auto transport, or on air transport – or on all forms of transport by the rich – to pay to make the bus fees less and then nothing at all. Or perhaps the payment should come from a reduction in services that are aimed to benefit the rich – such as military expenditures. In short, a demand should make sure that to pay poor Peter, we take not from Peter’s other pocket, but instead take from rich Paul.
The above reasoning applies to dealing with budget difficulties of all kinds. One can imagine the focus of demands being spread to matters of education access, taxes generally, even pay rates, and hours of work.
Consider another dimension. What should movements do about government and politicians – and about media? One possibility would be to demand changes. Another possibility would be to construct alternatives. They are not mutually exclusive. In fact, each can and should inform and embolden the other.
So, for demands, there could be demands for new expenditures, different taxes, different policing policies, new voting procedures, and new social benefits. Or, for media, there could be demands for new sections of papers and TV news shows that would be overseen by popular movements or grassroots agencies or even by public plebiscites. The goal in each case would be to better people’s lives in the present, and to move government and/or media toward greater public participation and oversight. The discussion, however, would formulate everything in terms of ultimate longer term values and aims – including, for example, popular self management, so as to make it clear that immediate gains aren’t an end, but instead a way station for seeking and winning further gains.
For construction, the rather straightforward – though quite difficult -possibilities are creating neighborhood assemblies to begin to take over local governance and to also exert pressure on higher level decisions including finally moving toward taking over those as well. Likewise, creating alternative media that would be counterposed in its motives and its structure to the mainstream. How would movements find means to pay for all this? One option would be demands on the government to subsidize the efforts.
Finally, what about creating organizational means for continued movement activity and enrichment of movement commitment and creativity? One vehicle is those same neighborhood assemblies, now seen as venues of debate and formulation of active programs. Another vehicle is the alternative media as a means for spreading clarity and vision. A third option, however, would be to create national organization, aligned internationally with other national creations, all characterized by shared visionary, strategic, and programmatic commitments and by solidarity and mutual aid. This, too, would provide a venue and a vehicle for program and struggle.
One could even imagine such organization, with ties across borders, developing solidarity to engage in massive international campaigns for peace and justice, for reallocation of national wealth away from war and repression and toward education and health, for a serious and effective campaign to end global warming, for shorter work weeks worldwide, for redistribution of income by changes in minimum wages and in wages generally, and taxes, for an end to violence against women and gays, for an end to racial violence and immigration oppression, all carried out in a manner designed to not just win immediate benefits, but to arouse and inform new desires and new struggles – leading to a new world.
As always with massive popular upsurges, outcomes are uncertain. The mainstream will use cooptive and coercive means to try to channel energies in Spain, Greece, Egypt, Turkey, Brazil, throughout the Mideast and everywhere else dissent explodes, back into the status quo of persistent inequality. The right wing will try to scare and provoke people and thereby engender a drift toward more fascistic outcomes. The mass dissent itself must not settle for being large, being visible, or even being aggressive – though all these attributes are essential. The mass dissent must instead become informed, unified, and organized.
Here might be the bottom line insight. Contrary to what many who are involved in current massive dissent are spontaneously feeling, we should not let our justified anger at existing government and politicians cause us to reject demands for changes that can help people right now. Yes, it is essential to avoid co-optation into stale debates defined by governments and by elites generally. Yes, it is also essential to avoid appealing to nonexistent elite wisdom or largesse. Such pursuits are nonsense. But there is no reason whatsoever, while elites sit in society’s high chair, to not force them to deliver better outcomes in the present, even as we also steadfastly orient our choices and our rationales and explanations toward ultimately eliminating the high chair entirely.