Common Protests

What do the different forms of unrest that have proliferated in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America have in common? Recently, Judith Revel and Toni Negri published The Common in Revolt, one of the more lucid and penetrating essays analyzing recent and current social protests, revolts, riots, and street politics. A characteristic of such provocative essays is that they demand responses and help shape public debate. This is an important historical moment when commonality needs especially close analysis. Revel and Negri have advanced that discussion considerably.

In Revel and Negri’s introductory paragraphs there are two initial points to question.  First, is there something especially new today, as they state, about this expanding proletariat of precarious and unemployed workers? Should we attribute some of this social unrest to precarity?  That seems unlikely as a primary explanation. For decades, North African economies have been built atop precarity, unemployment, labor migration, and remittances.  These same features appear in the Arizona labor market and its exploitation of migrant labor from Mexico and Central America. Sinaloa and Jalisco have the same proximate relationship to the California and Arizona labor markets as do Tunisia and Algeria to the French labor market. These relationships have existed for at least three generations and more, much longer than the current crisis or its recent antecedents.  Precarity has been a way of life throughout those generations.

What is different, it seems, is that the white American and European working and middle classes are not as accustomed to being treated by capital on increasingly similar economic terms as those long endured by people of color (noting here paradoxically and tragically, in London and elsewhere – as in the 1992 Los Angeles riots – many smallholder victims have been immigrants from Asia). The disenfranchisement generated by capitalism – not opportunity – has created a common class that cannot be delimited by race or gender.

Euro-American capitalism was born and built atop racial and gender subordinations, race slavery and the exploitation of women. In its transnational, neoliberal stage, this capitalism is an equal-opportunity exploiter. Racial and gender differentiations of income levels persist; North-South inequalities continue to grow. The neoliberal order has learned how to manipulate these differences to the disadvantage of all except a trans-racial economic elite that controls capital resources. The commons no longer provide quite the same stage for white privilege.

Nonetheless, racial privilege still seeks to maintain labor exploitation occurring along familiar regional and hemispheric trans-national axes. In this light, David Cameron in London and Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris are urbane versions of the same impetus that elected Jan Brewer in Arizona. It is a nativist impetus to preserve the political and economic domination exercised by whites, although by now carefully couched in a well-learned non-racial and nominally anti-racist rhetoric.

Law-and-order reaction to demands by disenfranchised classes link governments that might not otherwise conceive of their similarities. Their primary functions as neoliberal administrations lie in cutting social budgets, increasing police control, and creating policy conditions that promote corporate profitability as a claimed public benefit. Surplus labor needs to be drained from the market, state or nation in order to meet the xenophobic political demands that these administrations have encouraged. Different social conditions attain in different locales, so there may not be riots in south Phoenix while there are riots in London, but the reductionist processes of capitalism operate in proximate similarity in both cities.

This issue of differential manifestation of reaction raises a second issue, that of Revel and Negri’s belief that “the urge for radical democracy is everywhere.” In Beijing’s Haidian district from where I write, the heart of China’s participation in the global ‘knowledge economy’ and neoliberal order, there is certainly a subterranean stream of belief in radical democracy, but no significant manifestation of its presence. While one may always be surprised, the vigilance of Chinese authorities suggests that no public outburst ought to be anticipated shortly. Revel and Negri overstate their case with the phrase “everywhere.”

Yet they do have a strong case inasmuch as we have continued to watch revolts in Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America. It is a rare and memorable season, one in which it is easy to indulge in statements that might seem over-excited. If there is no ‘new proletariat’ in universal flower, there is a new sense of political opportunity. The vulnerable structures of neoliberal capitalism are being laid bare by serial crises of finance and governance. Compliant governments that have subordinated their policies to the ‘necessity’ of enthusiastic participation in the neoliberal order and enforced those policies have been revealed as vulnerable. The visualized front of the streets has become the new-old threshing-floor of class conflict. These local fronts are linked by the collective intelligence of trans-national social media.

One of Revel and Negri’s most crucial insights comes from their attack upon claims that there is nothing uniting this season’s revolts. Accordingly, events in London, Barcelona and Athens share no commonality; students and pensioners in Lima and Tel Aviv have no shared causes; protesters in Cairo, Damascus and Bahrain constitute too dissimilar cases. Arguments of disaggregation serve the status quo by suggesting that social complaints exist only on a local or national scale, even as the entire thrust of neoliberal capitalism has been toward reduction or elimination of trade barriers and globalization of financial systems. From such a disingenuous elite perspective, privilege is global and social protest is local. To admit a transnational aggregation of protests is to admit a serious challenge to a class order that serves elites. Locale, region and nation provide specification; they cannot be employed legitimately as limitation of systemic analysis.

Refuting such attempts at analytic limitation, time and again there are overlaps and borrowed images between protests and street scenes; time and again we listen to comparisons of Cameron, Mubarak, Ben Ali, Papandreou, and Netanyahu.  In each case it is the state and the illegitimacy of its authority that are under attack; it is the opposition being voiced by broad classes and communities to unrepresentative government by an intertwined economic-political elite.  The root commonality lies in a grievance against state authority that stretches across language and culture. Protest is a common culture. That “vanishing of political representation” which Revel and Negri cite joins these protests in their diversity of working- and middle-class origins, cultures, and languages. Absence of voice and absence of future constitute a common condition.

Kneejerk condemnation and criminalization of social unrest has a history as long as public protest itself. Rhetoric of official denunciation is so well-practiced, David Cameron’s words condemning “sickening scenes of people looting, vandalising, thieving, robbing” could very well have been borrowed from comments made by Robert Peel during 1832’s Days of May, or Margaret Thatcher following the 1981 Brixton riots. Cameron could not think of applying the same terms to markets trading in near-worthless mortgage securities, bank collapses that deprive pensioners of annuities, or corporate despoliation of the environment. When he said “We will not allow a culture of fear to exist on our streets,” Britain’s Prime Minister could not conceive the same words as having equal applicability to over two generations of British acquiescence to perpetuation of a culture of fear on Palestinian streets from Israeli occupation. This refusal to draw connections, to find appropriate and equal application of identical words, denominates the rhetorical history of such denunciations.

Like other social phenomena, civil disturbances function within the realm of causality and do not exist in an ahistorical vacuum. These are not simply moments of individual opportunism and culpability.  To deny social causation in British streets is to deny it in the streets of Tunisia, Egypt, Spain, Greece, Bahrain, and Chile. Where David Cameron does see causality, he finds it in the alleged “twisting and misrepresenting of human rights that has undermined personal responsibility,” schools lacking discipline, and poor parenting.  Such reactionary calls for renewal of social discipline in order to combat “chaos” make Cameron sound as if he has been borrowing policy notes from Bahrain’s King Hamad.

Without pursuing periodization too closely, in this international array of protests, riots, and rebellions we are witnessing the disintegration of the post-9/11 order. New economies, multilateral alignments, and socio-economic gaps are appearing in the wake of economic crisis after economic crisis. The Eurozone is nearing a state of internal collapse, while within five years three of the four largest national GDPs will be credited to Asian nations. The United States, the former guardian of global security, is no longer its central organizing power.

The US is a retreating but still potent imperial force beleaguered by its own internal conflicts.  Its tumultuous domestic politics of repression – an array of anti-labor state governors and ever-more reactionary Republican Party presidential candidates is evidence sufficient of itself – are attempting to re-enunciate a solidity of power even while repression has been overthrown in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere. This is a period of international political shift as momentous as the post-World War II era when the United States adopted a confrontational role against the Soviet bloc within a global context of decolonization and anti-capitalism.

Bar small-government libertarians such as Ron Paul favoring isolationism, the US right-wing is profoundly conscious of the declining US global role and views social and fiscal discipline as necessary to preserve US power.  Their theme is ‘take back’: take back presidential and legislative power, take back ‘states’ rights,’ take back gay and lesbian equality, take back worker pay and labor protections, take back their profoundly oppressive vision of American glory. Canada, Australia and other nations have their own domestic versions of this reactionary US model, whose ideological roots derive more from Senator Joe McCarthy than Ronald Reagan.

As neoliberal societies fracture due to contradictory pressures (for example, demand for cheap labor versus anti-immigration xenophobia,) nativist political figures such as Geert Wilders, Michele Bachmann, and Marine Le Pen attempt to supply the glue to mend such fractures.  A potent combination of social austerity measures and demands for national purification – deportations, in a word – is serving as that political glue.  The ‘recompositional movements’ that Revel and Negri identify have their reverse dark side in these neo-nativist politics that attempt to reconstruct fictional, exclusionary ultra-nationalist histories.  The Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, the Tea Party in the US, and the Front National in France exemplify this international tendency that continues to gain strength in current or former imperial powers.

These are hate-based politics, which combine working- and middle-class constituencies that believe themselves displaced within their own cultures rather than find a common humanity with neighbors. The revolts are multidirectional, not all of them positive. Selective choice of political examples within the commons might lead to inadequate or poor conclusions.  Today’s global map displays an archipelago of revolts, of resistance and repression, all intertwined in demand and reaction.

Complex crises exist within this context. One pole is representation; the other is neoliberal capitalism. Absence of credibly democratic representation enables market operations and the production of financial crises through deregulation, trade deceptions, wage and benefit cutbacks, intensified labor exploitation, privatization, and a host of inventive means. For its part, neoliberal capitalism substitutes consumption for democratic representation and creates hollow democratic forms.  Each crisis produces the other in a tight cycle. Democratic representation and capitalism are the Romulus and Remus of neoliberal societies, the inseparable foundational myths.  The work at hand – and the work accomplished by revolts – is to lay bare and overthrow them.

Photograph by Joel Schalit

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