'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The 2012 Election and the Evolution of Political Protest 

One of the most striking aspects of the 2012 electoral process is the fact that much of the public has realized that it has nothing to do with real issues of concern. It is now generally recognized as a form of social entertainment. It is, in short, a spectacle, one designed to give a facade of legitimacy to the governance of a country under the control of transnational elites. One pays attention to candidates like Obama, Romney and Gingrich, if at all, as another form of televised sports. And, just as one tunes out the World Series if you don't care about baseball, a lot of people are tuning out the 2012 election because they don't, for good reason, care about mainstream politics.

Spectacles like this are costly, especially when the producers are facing a headwind of indifference, so it comes as no surprise that President Obama will raise an amount of money close to the $770 million he raised for his 2008 campaign. By the early part of January, Romney has raised more than $56 million, an amount that is likely to increase substantially if it becomes likely that he will be the Republican nominee. Gingrich is receiving generous SuperPAC support from right wing, anti-union, arch Zionist Sheldon Abelson and his wife, Miriam, a reward for appalling, ill-informed political positions that he has expressed for decades. Gingrich can also expect an acceleration of contributions if it appears that he will be the nominee.

But this is background noise for most people, because they have already seen through the charade, the self-referentiality of a process whereby the same people who obsess over the debt and Iran enthusiastically promote candidates who mirror their beliefs. I know a number of people involved in partisan politics who follow it closely, including people involved in unions, and I rarely hear them say anything about the campaign. Sacramento, as the capital of California, is a political place, and yet those who one would expect to talk about it avidly are, by and large, silent. On the Internet, I have noticed that the number of comments in response to 2012 campaign posts over at firedoglake are down in comparison to the number of comments in response to 2008 ones, which is to be expected, I guess, but not this much. I should visit DailyKos to confirm, but I don't have the stomach for it. These are expressions of the post-partisan Obama legacy: the recognition that participation in the electoral process is useless.

Political protest strategies have evolved accordingly. Back in the early to mid-1990s, protest organizers worked on the assumption that elected officials could be influenced through public pressure. Hence, the effort against NAFTA. By the late 1990s, people were beginning to question this assumption. The protests against the WTO in Seattle in 1998 announced the introduction of disruptive direct action methods into the mainstream. Radical environmentalists had already discovered the futility of the conventional practices of protest marches, letter writing campaigns and visits to the offices of elected representatives, and they played a prominent role in the shutdown of downtown Seattle. Trade unionists, on the other hand, played the traditional march and rally game, consciously distancing themeselves, with some exceptions, from the police assaults upon locked down protesters in the central city.

Organizers of the protests against the impending Iraq war in February 2003 took the later approach, and, predictably, failed. Direct action undertaken immediately after the start of the war quickly fizzled out. More recently, there was a tremendous effort to push Congress towards the implementation of a meaningful health care reform. Contrary to Obama apologists who blame the victims by saying that we didn't do enough to make it pass a progressive measure, there was a tremendous, broad based effort to pressure the Congress and the White House. Beyond requiring the President and the Democrats in Congress to adopt public relations strategies to conceal their complicity in the bill as passed and adopted, it failed, too.

In the aftermath of the intransigence of the political system, we are now seeing people gravitate towards more confrontational and amorphous methods of protest. In California, UC students, angry over fee increases, dismiss the importunings of UC administrators to lobby the legislature, and instead seize campus buildings, call general strikes and attempt to storm meetings of the regents. Implicit within these actions is a condemnation of the hierarchies of privilege and access that are interwoven within the modernist university. Likewise, people in the East Bay angry over killings by the BART police sought to disrupt transit service, although they have made some effort to address the BART board in an attempt to get rid of these cops entirely.

Of course, Occupy has been the inevitable extension of these protest tactics in the face of the hostility of elected officials. By refusing to make demands, people involved in Occupy have expressed their contempt for the corrupted political process. Nihilism is the consequence of such an entrenched, corrupted elite, and the refusal to make demands is an obvious manifestation of it. Direct action, such as assisting people against threatened foreclosures (an activity that, admittedly, predates Occupy), is another one, as the participants have decided that they must help people themselves because the government will not do otherwise do so. Similarly, the seizures of abandoned buildings and properties undertaken by OWS, Occupy Oakland, and, possibly, Occupy SF, for the purpose of providing shelter and services (again, an activity that predates Occupy), highlight how the government and the economic system rely upon artificially imposed scarcity to generate poverty.

Occupy therefore represents the extent of the accumulated despair experienced by those who have suffered over the course of the ongoing recession, and the willingness of some of the victims to undertake actions that would have been imcomprehensible to them just a few years before. Consistent with this, there is, within Occupy, primarily among its younger participants, an emotional, philosophical rejection of contemporary capitalist society itself, one with echoes of May '68, social movements in South America, and violent protests in Greece and Algeria. It is but a thread, but a logical one in light of the refusal of those in power to address the concentration of wealth and power in fewer and fewer hands and the desperation that results from it. But it remains to be seen whether a nihilistic combination of enforced disassocation from the political process and the performance of direct action will provide a way forward to create a new, more humane, more egalitarian society.

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