Disruption with a Smile
By PB Floyd
Amidst the cold winds that have blown since 9-11, the possibility of militant resistance to the global corporate machine seems, at first glance, to be decreasing. The government and the media have seized on the terror created by the September 11 attacks to “unify” the majority of the US population around a program of more government control and surveillance at home and military intervention abroad. The implication is that the new “unity” should extend to unquestioned support for all government policies, as well as the corporate economic status quo. Government officials like attorney general Ashcroft have come right out and said that anyone who disagrees with the government’s new programs is “aiding and abetting” the terrorists. Its easy to imagine what would happen should a black bloc of anarchists attack a Starbucks or McDonalds with hammers, barricading the street with burning dumpsters. They would get, very literally, smashed, by the cops, by the media, in the Courts, possibly even by enraged, “unified”, flag waving regular citizens.
Meanwhile, while direct action options to resist corporate control seem limited, the need for such resistance is if anything much greater than it was before 9-11. The four months since the attack on the World Trade Center have seen a broad, comprehensive, some might even say historic series of authoritarian take-backs both in the USA and internationally. Generally, the bombing of Afghanistan and the new security measures in airports and against immigrants are the least of the matter.
The real authoritarian expansion lies in the many consolidations of capitalist power that would have been major news before 9-11, but barely warrant a short article in the newspaper now that everyone’s attention is focused on the 3 “A”s: anthrax, Afghanistan and airport security. In just a few months, Bush opened a trillion dollars of new military spending by canceling the ABM treaty. He obtained fast track trade authority to extend NAFTA to the entire American hemisphere, north and south. The forestland road building moratorium was ended. Wilderness areas were opened to gas drilling. Millions have been laid off. Its hard to even figure out all the things that happened as the nation stood paralyzed with terror.
All of this with hardly a peep from . . . anyone. While right after September 11 it was extremely encouraging to see lots of people mobilize to oppose the coming war, resist crackdowns on civil rights and privacy, and seek solidarity with the Arab and Muslim communities who were under racist attack, it now feels like a lot of these initial positive reactions to the 9-11 crisis have faded. At least around here, there’s hardly been an anti-war march over the past two months. And as necessary as these efforts to address the 9-11 crisis are, they’re all tied up with our reaction to power’s initiatives. These mobilizations are reactive , not proactive. The momentum coming off Seattle where thousands of people started to set the agenda by rejecting the corporate, capitalist, industrial vision for the future, and instead described an alternative option – this momentum is in danger of dying, if it hasn’t died already.
But the point of this little article isn’t just to endlessly depress everyone. The point is that now is a crucial time to put forward an anti-authoritarian political option – an alternative vision of society and of the future – to counteract the vast post 9-11 take-backs. Somehow, we need to go beyond the tired, comfortable but ineffective “reactive” politics we’re used to, and describe as accurately as possible what we really want.
The September 11 attack was a huge shock to the entire system, as if all the pieces in the social game were suddenly hurled into the air. Now they’re falling back to earth. Authoritarians have seized on the disruption to put the pieces back the way they want them. But these kinds of shocks are times when huge social change in many directions is possible. If there’s only one option presented, like over the past four months, the social change coming out of 9-11 will all be towards more authority, stronger power and more hierarchy. Its crucial that in the moment of shock and change, anti-authoritarians are present to paint another picture of what the world could look like.
In the post 9-11 world, we find ourselves caught between, on the one hand, religious fanatics bent on killing at random, using whatever blunt instruments are available, and on the other hand, carefully calculating fanatics of a different sort who kill systematically, in the quasi-religious pursuit of power and money. Both of these hands, seemingly diametrically opposed, function in tandem to squeeze out the alternative to either type of fanaticism; that of life and freedom from domination.
What the Taliban, Al Qaeda, the Bush Administration, the WTO and a long list of others have in common is their belief that they should be able to control the lives of others. The most widely felt exercises of power and domination aren’t dramatic events like the bombing of the World Trade Center or the carpet bombing of Afghanistan – they’re everyday occurrences like the cutting of forests, over fishing, pollution of water and air . . . comprehensively creating an SUV-drive to the mall-consume-watch TV-obey-die world.
The most amazing result of the 9-11 attack has been the wholesale retreat of fundamental critiques of power. In the face of violence like the destruction of the WTC, its easy for the media to convince folks to embrace “security” and “safety”, which is naturally provided by huge government organizations, the police and the military. Its up to us to point out that these institutions of power offer precisely the same menu offered by “terrorists” – violence and the concentration of power based on might that is then exercised to dominate everyone in society.
The alternative is trust and cooperation – people doing things for each other voluntarily, not because they’re forced by the government, a corporation, the market, or even a terrorist. In times of fear and danger, the alternative is to get together with community to protect ourselves, rather than looking to an authoritarian state to take care of our problems for us. The alternative must make clear the similarities between fanatical religious fundamentalism that denies freedom, and fanatical market based fundamentalism, that similarly denies freedom. The alternative is a social system organized around people, the earth, freedom and happiness, not one organized to serve machines and accumulation, with people and their happiness as a faint, possible, but not required, byproduct.
The so-called “anti-globalization movement” was getting closer to articulating something positive – something like a vision – before September 11. Such a vision was implicit in the critique promoted by the anti-globalization movement, but the movement’s failure to make its vision explicit was becoming more and more of a liability. It was easy to misunderstand the movement as just a vegetable soup of single issue causes that could be addressed piecemeal with the traditional, liberal solutions. If there’s a problem with sweatshops or turtles, or whatever, the official response can just be to tinker with the economic system to address these narrow concerns while ensuring that the underlying capitalist order is maintained. Only if critique of the whole order is articulated can liberal cooption be avoided. Many within the movement itself misunderstood its potential, anxiously hoping the government would buy them off.
To the extent it was becoming increasingly important for the anti-globalization movement to realize that only a comprehensive critique / vision could be effective in taking the movement to the next step, the September 11 attacks require articulating these alternatives – moving to the next level – now, or damn soon. The post 9-11 political vacuum of alternatives is deafening. The importance of spending time and energy developing political thought, vision and alternatives – not just visually arresting actions – cannot be under estimated.
But to get across the anti-authoritarian alternative requires some kind of action in the real world, not just ideas, especially where purveyors of the establishment option have vast propaganda resources (the mainstream media) at their disposal. The only way to fight the ideological hegemony of the system is to actively disrupt that system and thereby shatter its version of reality – that everything is “okay.” Shattering popular understanding of reality opens the way for alternatives and critical thought.
In the post 9-11 environment, there is no excuse whatsoever to retreat from militancy, urgency and action, but simultaneously there is every reason to be smart about the kind of militancy we employ. What is called for is disruption with a smile – figuring out the most disruptive options available which bare the least resemblance possible to violence against people. Violence against people justifies state repression and doesn’t advance an alternative to power and coercion. While disruption with a smile will often be met with violent state repression, if the disruption is done right, that state repression will appear to lack justification and will end up hurting the state’s ideological and political control.
There are numerous options available for smiling disruptive actions. In general, actions which are celebratory can be disruptive and effective. In Ottawa, snake dancers shut down the business district. Reclaim the Streets street parties can tie up business as usual, permitting instructive cultural/political confrontations – dancers vs. lines of solemn cops. Another idea is building the future society within the old. How about community gardens and free schools down the middle of Wall Street?
The capitalist/corporate/industrial system is attacking the earth and its people on a daily basis. Time is running out. Its time to do something.