July 18, 2010

The Conservatism of Protest Ideology

I had originally written up a much longer post about the recent G20 “crisis” in Toronto. Instead I’ll give you the most interesting point, and cut the chaff. There are two aspects to what I find interesting about the outrage people express toward the G20 security response. One aspect is that many innocent people were arrested and detained. Most of this sort of dimension of the problem rests on something like “punishment doesn’t fit the crime” logic. Fair enough in many cases. Though I think most people got "cool" war-stories out of it and suffered very little to get them. No matter, I will leave that issue for the time being. The other dimension of the outrage is something much less obvious.

People are very concerned with the ways in which their civil liberties have been compromised. The security force was either allowed to operate outside the law or to write the law on the fly. This flies in the face of juridico-legislative due process. The way the security response worked to shut down the protest denied many (approx. 900) their “right to protest”. It is around the loss of this right that there is so much fervor. But what is this right really? This sacred right to protest is all smoke and mirrors. Of course the police state will never wholly deny the right to protest, they want you to protest.

There is a common, and really quite genius, strategy of sterilizing threats by integrating them into the systems that they are designed to unsettle. I’ve recently been told that Noam Chomsky makes frequent reference to this phenomenon. MIT, an otherwise quite conservative institution, allows him to work there with all his radical leftist propaganda. They can’t really be that opposed to his politics if they allow him to give voice to his positions in their institution, can they? Well, his point is that one of the best ways to take the subversive edge off something like this, is to allow it, give it a home, and to do so in ways that are acceptable to the system. The police state allows protest because it is an ineffective and generally apolitical way to blow off steam without threatening real change.

For all those worried about your sacred right to protest, don’t be. It’s yours for as long as you want it. Of course, in order for the game to function, the police response has to be there. You have to feel like you are combating some oppressive regime for you to have the proper experience. This is as ideological as it comes. The police say, “no don’t protest, we’ll lock you up…lousy youth. Learn some manners, and pull up your pants!” This creates the space in which young people can feel political without being political.

Genuine politics doesn’t operate under the condition of being granted the right. It is never the case that the-powers-that-be give you the means (at least not on purpose) to compromise their power. You take it. You declare your right to effect change, and proceed according to your right. You act in such a way that the situation changes according to the right that directs your political intervention. The whole worry about them taking our right to protest away misses the entire point, which is exactly what prevents any really politics from taking place.

Zizek gives an excellent and very accessible discussion of ideology that I think may be helpful for interpreting the G20 and its aftermath. (His point about the “self-mockery” of pornography [35 min in] is exactly the kind of play I had suggested goes on in much of the cheesy MTV programming, though I didn’t really say anything about censorship in and through this play.)

A few final notes about politics:

I don’t have perfectly clear theory of political change, but I do have certain intuitions. Some of which (I had originally planned to discuss) are:

1) Politics operates at a distance from the state. You don’t effect radical change by following the rules.

2) Insofar as it is political, it must be radically so. Politics is not a negotiation of interests, but the bringing into being of a radically new structure/situation.

3) Spontaneous organization is a pipe dream. The new anarchisms that envision a cooperative but anarchically coordinated mass movement is about as passive as awaiting the second coming, and a kind of bad faith excuse. Radical politics must be undertaken by a subjectivity at least loosely organized around some kind of centre. My speculation is that this has to be some kind of charismatic leadership.

4) Radical change must occur in response to a kind of break or gap in the structure/logic of the situation. Also, although we cannot simply will into being a political event, we can exploit openings when they are presented. The degree to which we can create openings is still somewhat fuzzy to me. This is a point very much worth exploring.

I suppose this all makes me some kind of revolutionary vanguardist. So be it. I don’t see another way to bring about the kind of break necessary for real change. As suggested, I haven’t a very clear or detailed political program, but these are my intuitions about politics. If you see a lot of Badiou in these points, it is because I’ve been submerged in his works for well over a year. As I go forward with other thinkers, I will continue to flush out these insights.

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