In reading through news coverage of protest events, a standardised narrative pattern seems to repeat itself over and over again. Almost as though the individual reporters had learned (whether through osmosis or editorial instruction) to forcefully reassert this heavy-handed template.
Protesters are expected to fit into a narrowly prescribed set of “acceptable” behaviours and character traits. Nonviolence is the key overarching demand placed on them. But they are also instructed to unfailingly express passivity and pacifism in a number of ways.
The appearance and personal hygiene of individuals is a particular point of trivial fascination in tabloid coverage. The sleazy insinuation that anyone even vaguely critical of austerity, warmongering or the fossil fuel industry only has time to “moan” about it because they’re on unemployment assistance. A task which the Murdoch press is usually up for, but will perhaps struggle with as the millions of victims of austerity begin to reject its underlying justification of “we’ve just got to pay off the debt“.
The Million Mask March provides a good illustration of these discursive tropes, which need to be scrutinised by those who seek to really get at the demands and significance of popular social movements. Suggestions can then be made for the relevant context and discursive terms (carefully omitted in mass media coverage) in which Anonymous and its calls to action could be more tangibly understood by members of the general public who may not necessarily have been properly informed (God knows why…).
The annual 5th of November protest is a global event organised by Anonymous to protest, among other issues, inequality, oppression, injustice, war, the surveillance state and the war on whistleblowers such as Julian Assange and Edward Snowden.
A common refrain activists made when interviewed for vox pops was something like the following: “we are the 99%. The 1% have bought and corrupted our politicians and our economy. They’ve rigged the game. But they don’t care what happens to us. Either they’ll listen to our demands or we’ll revolt. But things can’t go on like this.”
Back to the corporate media coverage. Every article I’ve read obsesses over how Anonymous activists burned 1 police car. By the way, where is all the outrage for the people killed by austerity cuts to pensions, unemployment, disability assistance, healthcare etc which the police as an institution proudly exist to defend? I guess that’s totally normal and we can go back to talking about the scary “violent” protesters.
In this post, I’d like to suggest that Anonymous protesters at the event just passed who used violence did so tactically and in full knowledge that it would cause some controversy. I think this faction (perhaps composed mostly of the more insurrectionary members) represent a significant minority within the global movement who are emboldened by the growth of the Anonymous network and the wider political climate.
Important for context here is the fact that, as I wrote here earlier this year, the general population is apathetic about parliamentary electoral politics and generally regards it in cynical terms as pointless. This is why voter turnout across the developed world is declining. For instance the New York Times noted that in the November 2014 mid-term elections, less than 33% of eligible voters in the 3 largest states of California, Texas and New York turning up to vote. Opinion polls show that confidence in the American congress for example is in the single digits.
As such, Anonymous has a wide and potentially receptive audience to its call to action. The members of the Anonymous network who reject the defeatist dogma of nonviolence are not acting out in some uncoordinated and chaotic manner that tarnishes the good name of the movement (as petty-bourgeois one-time protesters might). Social movements of this kind taking a stand against oppression are always going to be demonised by the 1%. No, what I’d like to suggest is that the use of force represents a small but growing confidence in the moral imperative for revolt.
Christopher Hedges, referring to Gramsci in a recent interview with Salon, describes the contemporary period as an ‘interregnum’ in between the old order and the new:
Do you think we are in a revolutionary era now? Or is it more something on the horizon?
It’s with us already, but with this caveat: it is what Gramsci calls interregnum, this period where the ideas that buttress the old ruling elite no longer hold sway, but we haven’t articulated something to take its place.
That’s what that essay I quote by Alexander Berkman, “The Invisible Revolution,” talks about. He likens it to a pot that’s beginning to boil. So it’s already taking place, although it’s subterranean. And the facade of power — both the physical facade of power and the ideological facade of power — appears to remain intact. But it has less and less credibility.
There are all sorts of neutral indicators that show that. Low voter turnout, the fact that Congress has an approval rating of 7 percent, that polls continually reflect a kind of pessimism about where we are going, that many of the major systems that have been set in place — especially in terms of internal security — have no popularity at all.
All of these are indicators that something is seriously wrong, that the government is no longer responding to the most basic concerns, needs, and rights of the citizenry. That is [true for the] left and right. But what’s going to take it’s place, that has not been articulated. Yes, we are in a revolutionary moment; but maybe it’s a better way to describe it as a revolutionary process.
Is there a revolutionary consciousness building in America?
Well, it is definitely building. But until there is an ideological framework that large numbers of people embrace to challenge the old ideological framework, nothing is going to happen. Some things can happen; you can have sporadic uprisings as you had in Ferguson or you had in Baltimore. But until they are infused with that kind of political vision, they are reactive, in essence.
So you have, every 28 hours, a person of color, usually a poor person of color, being killed with lethal force — and, of course, in most of these cases they are unarmed. So people march in the streets and people protest; and yet the killings don’t stop. Even when they are captured on video. I mean we have videos of people being murdered by the police and the police walk away. This is symptomatic of a state that is ossified and can no longer respond rationally to what is happening to the citizenry, because it exclusively serves the interest of corporate power.
In anticipation of criticisms for “inciting violence” or adopting a strategy of “violence over peaceful, respectful debate” and “winning hearts and minds”, I feel I should state the following to conclude. I’m not an advocate of a “violence only” protest strategy. I suggest that a more inclusive and adaptable “diversity of tactics” strategy for popular movements, which does not dogmatically exclude any particular option, would yield greater impact than a strictly nonviolent movement. The state’s ethical legitimacy and monopoly right to the use of force needs to be questioned in an age of massive inequality and oppression, which the state by definition has produced and continues to reinforce. I think some targeted practice and credible threat to the use of force can play a constructive role in advancing the interests of groups like Anonymous. For more on “nonviolence versus diversity of tactics” see: http://www.hamptoninstitution.org/what-the-climate-movement-can-learn-from-black-lives-matter.html#.VjxGsrcrKM8. Finally, in a 1941 essay, George Orwell famously said “the pacifist is objectively pro-fascist. This is elementary common sense. If you hamper the war effort of one side, you automatically help out that of the other”. Food for thought!