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A protest in service of its enemy

“All of you revolutionaries want another master, and you will get one!”

Jacques Lacan

It’s pretty easy to look at the protests in Turkey, Brazil and even in Iran, Egypt and India and see the dawning of a new day. Peaceful and violent displays of rebellion paint a tense picture of people, displeased with their masters, demanding change, control and a world not dictated by commercial priorities. As austerity, secularism and corruption ring through the chambers of sit-ins it is hard to resist the temptation to draw comparisons between them all. I mean they all chant chants of hatred towards their common enemies of money, power, greed and politics. In short, people are pissed with just how far capitalism has gone in dictating the terms in which we all live our lives. With this premise I yield to the argument and agree with the sentiment. What is troubling with it however is the inherent contradiction that lies in the way the protests are carried out.

Before looking hard into the protests themselves one must first begin at the origins of protest, where motivations lie. The first mistake is to believe that the underlying discontent lies at the center of truly difficult circumstances. This, unfortunately, is not true. Circumstances that are indeed difficult, like outcomes of natural disasters, quickly show that responses to truly difficult circumstances are much more rooted in empathy and reconstruction. The true origins of protest actually lie in two interconnected places: a threat directed towards someone’s personal circumstance and the mismanagement of expectations. Let us start with threats to personal circumstance.

If someone feels their personal circumstance is being threatened by an outside force they will react and react violently. As an example, the common myth that radical Islamists kill because of our Western lifestyles obfuscates the real point that they are making with their violence. Spend more than five minutes reading any non-indoctrinated media source and you’ll quickly find that radicals tend to kill because of the foreign intrusion into their religious freedoms. This is why American foreign policy is always sourced as the real reason for any attacks. The more moderate response with these types of threats comes by way of protests against the infringing policies.

The second place where protests tend to draw their energy from is the sharing of anger around the mismanagement of expectations. If someone has been told something to be true, and has invested themselves in that truth, for it to be revealed to be a total lie draws forth a ferocity like no other. Whether it’s a product failure, being ripped off by a salesman or being sold a bill of goods called the American Dream, the mismanagement of expectations has the ability to pull people together in revolt. Don’t believe me? Just look at social media comments towards companies, the whole idea of misery loves company and just how good it feels to bitch and complain about something as trivial as the weather. We seem to be hardwired to react negatively to the shattering of expectations and the pleasure in the demonstration of our displeasure.

Which brings us back to the protests. If we are to believe that these motives come from a blend of personal encroachments and the mismanagement of expectations then what form are these protests coming together as? Are we seeing the abandonment of the capitalistic ways and the move to a new system of governance? Hardly. It was struck by a recent piece by Tariq Ali on the protests in Turkey which showed a remarkable manner:

“It’s the first time I’ve experienced protests that begin at night. People come home from work, change, eat, discard their ties and get ready. Water bottles and handkerchief, soaked to protect against tear gas. At 10 or 11 p.m. they come out, usually in small groups, crossing streets like shadows till they reach Kuğulu Park and smile as thousands are already there, chanting slogans, singing songs, taunting Erdoğan. The police attack. Barricades hurriedly go up using advertising boards, the odd car and anything to hand. Water cannon try to disperse them. They fail. Then the tear gas (imported from Brazil). It keeps coming. The demonstrators disperse, assemble again and so it goes on till 3 a.m. or later. Action will be resumed the following night.”

Does this process not seem odd? A protest that only occurs during off working hours. Rather than coming together during the critical time where commercial and governmental institutions rely on people and their production, i.e. THE WORKING DAY, these protests happen at night in lieu of drinking and dancing. It’s as if the protestors serve their masters during the day only to rebel against them in the night. Protesting is actually taking the place of nightlife, repurposing those Vodka bottles as designer Molotov cocktails. On another note, do we really believe that the riots in Istanbul are really about a park and the hatred of shopping malls? Having recently spent seven days in the city I can tell you that Istanbul has more capitalist encroachments on non-commercial sites, like mosques, than anywhere else in the world. In a city where EVERYONE is selling, it is hard to believe that consumerism is the target. Which brings us on to the red herring of the desires of direct democracy.

Many will immediately point to direct democracy as the real driver of these protests. But surely one wouldn’t actually believe that people actually want involvement in direct governance of their country would they? Decisions on garbage removal, which contractor to use to cut the grass, budgeting for tires for all government vehicles and many other issues that governments deal with are so far beyond the interests of the everyday person that involvement without representation would run aground within days of these kind of agenda items. This part-time protest culture lies in the new attractiveness in a populist doctrine. We want to make lots of money and come into power but only if we can complain about it with a populism platform. It’s yet another example of the frictions of rationality and belief in our day and age.

Beyond just the part-time protests that fundamentally respect the position of their masters, there is a further set of truths that speak to the title of this post. This notion lies at the heart of what makes a globalized capitalistic structure like ours works. This has everything to do with instability and growth.

Many intellectuals believe that capitalism is the most resilient ideology that has ever come into existence. Its ability to adapt and incorporate its dysfunctions into its normal way of working is astounding. For example, one might look at the financial markets and its recent failures as the truest sense of how just how resilient capitalism is. Even when the markets plummeted in 2008, igniting our world of protests in the process, it still made the best capitalists, the investment bankers, more money than anyone could even conceive. The system ITSELF failed but in its failure it still won! What the fuck?!? Not convinced? Just look to the fact that the greatest engine of wealth creation that has ever existed came out of the devastation of World War II. It lifted a country of outcasts out of the lower class into a position of being THE economic superpower because it incorporated the destruction of Europe into its fold. More? How about the our solution to the destruction of the environment? The system came up with carbon credits and a market where people can buy their way out of ruining our environment! The entire capitalistic system needs instability, destruction, variance and pain because it becomes stronger when things break. Money on the way up, money on the way down. Which ultimately begs the question: what are people trying to do with their protests? Oh right, destabilize institutional structures. Fuck.

Unfortunately we are in a time of many questions with very few answers. What models of governance work? Does social entrepreneurship actually have a place in the world? Does charity help or hurt? When we go for the wallet can we actually change things? The list goes on and on. The unfortunate truth today is that protest, in its current form, makes the system more resilient with every tear-gas canister lobbed. If it continues as it is then we will further sublate the whole notion of protest into the function of our dominant ideology. But, if we’re clever enough, we may have a way out. It comes through dialogue that happens AWAY from institutional powers. It comes from the reclamation of higher eduction and our media. It comes from the coercive power of populism and its commercial demands. But the first step comes in recognizing the enemy for what it is and how it works. What we need to STOP doing is aiming our protests at weak representatives that are only low-level beneficiaries of the bounties of capitalism. Because the system already knows this move and is one step ahead. And if we keep doing what we’re doing, then the Lacanian quote of wanting a new master will haunt any outcome that your heart thinks it desires. The time is right, but the means are not.

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  • Gunther Sonnenfeld

    Great piece.

    No doubt about it, capitalist systems love conflict. Markets seemingly suffer while the barons do their thing behind the scenes, hedging bets upon bets, depleting resources, building more debt instruments. Rioting simply plays into that vicious cycle. Smart protests, to your point, change the dynamic quite a lot.

    Iceland did it through transitional structures that took the gamble and exposure out of sovereign debt (they nixed the central bank and rewrote the constitution). Spain, not so long ago, did it with newly formed unions. Post WWII, Germany decided to take care of its people through corporate and civil superstructures (at which point the Stasis headed West…). Poland still has its problems, but is self-organizing community governance. Mexico has literally reached out to the drug cartels to discuss ways to improve trade lines, reduce violence, and offer incentives for ‘good business’ and ‘better societies’. Sound crazy? Maybe, maybe not.

    So what does ‘smart protesting’ look like? I would imagine:

    - Peaceful, non-violent means for transacting, producing, working and living
    - Community banks and unions
    - Stronger municipal governance & community by-laws
    - Extensible leadership
    - Resilient models for growth & sustainability

    In the meantime, we need to ask better questions of ourselves and our communities. The capitalist superstructure has a tendency to collapse under its own weight, even if those at the top still make out like bandits.