How do you epater les bourgeois when they aren't the bourgeois anymore?
This post will have as its companion piece the forthcoming "I should be able to
have what I want."
That one is about American consumerism. Watch for it! This one is about activism.
I've been thinking a bit about the disappointment many activists felt about the
RNC protests. I didn't feel disappointed, because I was so impressed with the
creativity of so many people who came together, ignored the fear-mongering, and
marched with handmade signs. There are so few arenas in American society these
days in which ordinary people can employ their creativity to make rather than
buy things. I was filled with optimism. I found myself less concerned with the
prospect of a Bush victory. Sure, that prospect depresses me. So does, frankly,
the prospect of a Kerry victory. For different reasons: a Bush victory would
make me very depressed about the American people's inability to see through the
screen of messages pushed by the vast rightwing conspiracy and the media
monopoly that props it up. A Kerry victory would make me depressed about what
the best we can hope for really looks like. But the march made me think there's
more we can hope for; that with those kinds of numbers we can come together to
create a different kind of culture.
Other people, though, were not so happy. I think, though I'm not entirely sure,
that a lot of activists are disdainful of the suburban New Jersey families who
came to march in the big Sunday march but who don't think of themselves as
especially radical. If you don't think of those people as part of what you're
doing, you're not going to be very impressed about the size of the march. I'm
perfectly sympathetic to the frustrations involved in the march's organization
-- the city's outmaneuvering of the Central Park rally, etc. But I think it's a
big mistake not to recognize that huge numbers of people did come out to march
Another aspect of this is that many of direct action-style interventions were
frustrating and disappointing. They didn't feel very effective. I'm not
surprised, actually; this kind of political engagement seemed foreclosed from
the start by the Republicans' skill in turning such things to their own
advantage. I think we should be thinking in terms of long-term, not short-term,
effectiveness, but even on that scale I'm not sure these actions will turn out
to have been effective.
The question I want to pose is what seems like a paradox of an "epater les
bourgeois"-style strategy in the current political moment. In the big WTO
protests, my sense (I wasn't there, and would appreciate feedback from anyone
who knows more about it) is that direct action succeeded because of sheer
numbers and clever coordination, and that it did have powerful effects (if not
always the desired ones). Coming from Seattle people had a sense of power in
direct action tactics. And, as our civil liberties continue to be eroded, as
public space is lost both physically and conceptually, as we find ourselves
increasingly living in a police state (in which police cameras click on, in
Chicago, if we pass the same patch of sidewalk twice -- and that's not much of
an exaggeration), there's an impulse to react against conformity with radical
gestures likely to get us arrested. Gestures intended to make symbolically
effective demands about the rights we ought to have, the justice that should be
practiced -- and also to make visible the obscenity of power.
The problem is that the ways in which activists try to make such gestures seem
(at least to me) to feed into the ideology of the left as either criminal or
privileged or both. I don't mean to minimize the courage it takes to subject
yourself to police violence, but at times it seems there's something selfish
about it. Selfish not in a shallow thrill-seeking or self-important sense --
though these are arguments that some might make -- but in the non-trivial sense
of giving one's own life meaning, which is not to be sneezed at. But is it
enough? What if these kinds of actions, when they show up on TV at all, simply
look like the stuff of idle-rich-kid-reality TV shows? What if the bourgeois we
succeed in epater-ing are not really the bourgeois at all, but the working
class? The reason the bourgeois needed to be scandalized was that it had
bourgeois values -- socially conservative, hidebound, stodgy values. But they
also, actually, had power. Now we really have an aristocracy, and it seems to me
that most of the people who actually hold those bourgeois values are not middle
class, despite the conspiracy (of right and left) to call it that, but what
should properly be called the working class.
Though I had quibbles (significant disagreements, even) with Tom Frank's book, I
think we shouldn't underestimate the extent to which a lot of working-class
folks across the US identify the Democratic party with both economic privilege
and cultural license (what they might call decadence, or a lack of
self-control). And the people who really have the money couldn't care less
whether we dress funny or act rebelliously or get arrested, because we're just
doing the kind of things their kids do in their own exclusive clubs.
Here's what I liked about the big march -- that if you watched it on TV, you
couldn't help but see people who look like your grandmother next to people who
looked like freaks.
Now, it would be a lot harder, and more time-consuming, and maybe even more
dangerous, for these same activists to go out and do grass-roots organizing in
rural and suburban areas, and I can't imagine this is likely to happen. A friend
suggested that one of Frank's most significant points (one he doesn't really
flesh out) is that with the loss of manufacturing jobs and with de-unionization
of the work force, the role unions played in forming working-class consciousness
has not been replaced with anything. Certainly, there are groups making an
effort to fill this gap. (I think of the International Socialist Organization, a
fairly big presence here in Chicago, which does have a big-tent approach to
working-class identity -- but sounds a little too utopian in its promises for my
tastes.) I wonder what an anarchist effort in this direction would look like?
Maybe somebody knows and can make suggestions in comments. Personally, I feel
like there's an awful lot of galvanizing of the more or less radical left going
on right now, which is great, but also a lot of preaching to the converted. How
do we learn to organize in new ways and preach to the non-converted?