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Open-ended analysis

May 5, 2012

Don’t rain on their parade (and don’t be presumptuous)

In the last days of April and on the first of May there was a flood of articles in US alternative media who referred to May Day and to planned protest actions in the USA.

The maydaynyc.org homepage stated:

On May 1st, we will celebrate a holiday for the 99 percent. We will come together across lines of race, class, gender, and religion and challenge the systems that create these divisions. New Yorkers will join with millions throughout the world — workers, students, immigrants, professionals, houseworkers. We will take to the streets to unite in a general strike against a system which does not work for us. With our collective power we will begin to build the world we want to see. Another world is possible!

Calling for a general strike on May Day, also called Labor Day and International Workers’ Day, will sound strange to many people around the world, because this is a public holiday in most countries and workers all over the world are officially allowed to take a day off. In the USA though this is not a public holiday despite the fact, that the history of May Day is closely connected with the history of the US labor movement.

The origins of May Day lay in the commemoration of the 1886 Haymarket Massacre in Chicago, when police shot and killed many protesters (and also several police officers by “friendly fire”), after a bomb had been thrown. The protests occurred during a general strike for the eight hour workday.

Subsequently the strike collapsed and the government cracked down hard on the labor movement, incarcerating labor activists and closing newspapers. Five labor leaders were sentenced to death.

The US labor movement did not recovered from this blow and it would take until 1938 to finally enshrine the eight-hour day into federal law.

Union density was never high in the USA but it fell from a peak in 1945, when one-third of employees were organized, steadily to about 11.7 percent now. Unions also face severe legal restrictions, 23 states have passed “right to work” laws to limit workers’ collective bargaining rights and there are numerous anti-strike laws. In addition to that the US Supreme Court upheld a variety of restrictions on strikes without ever confirming or denying the existence of a constitutional right to strike.

Considering the weakness of the US labor movement it is not surprising, that the stated aim of May Day organizers to bring business in New York and other cities to a standstill went unfulfilled. Strikes are no viable option in US labor conflicts, the last general strike that successfully shut down a US town took part in Oakland in 1946.

May Day 2012 didn’t bring a sea change and there was no general strike but the May Day actions nevertheless gave new life to the OWS movement.

In New York’s Union Square between 2000 and 3000 people attended a concert in a party-like atmosphere with Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, Das Racist, Dan Deacon, and Immortal Technique (Tom Morello told the audience, that he flew 3000 miles to play for them, which in other contexts would maybe raise questions of ecological diligence).

Later on there were clashes with police near Bryant Park, on the Williamsburg Bridge, and near Washington Square Park, resulting in about 40 arrests.

In Los Angeles the OWS movement, labor unions, and the immigrant community unfortunately had all organized their separate rallies with attendances from 200 to 2000 people.

In Oakland police fired tear gas and “flash-bang” grenades to disperse protesters, 39 people were arrested. Black-clad protesters in Seattle used sticks to smash downtown windows, 8 protesters were arrested. In San Francisco the Occupy movement was blamed for a night of violence with cars and small businesses being vandalized.

The May Day protests were ignored by mainstream media, while alternative media reported them as success. The NY Times had a piece about May Day protests in Europe but nothing about US protest actions (except the usual reports about traffic disruptions and arrests).

Although the call for a nation-wide general strike was not answered to the degree that organizers had hoped, between 2,000 and 3000 people gathered in New York, about the same in Los Angeles, 1,000 in Chicago. One could call this a success but compared to the several hundred thousand protesters in Europe it is not impressive. Compared to the 80,000 protesters in Wisconsin in February 2011 it is not impressive.

The Indianapolis 500 car race (a sad and despicable event from an ecological viewpoint) usually attracts an estimated crowd of 400,000. 1.8 million people attended President Obama’s inauguration despite frigid weather, long walks, and annoying security measures.

As stated at the start of this post, there were many articles in the alternative media who referred to May Day but three of them deserve special attention and shall be commented here:

Rebecca Solnit published a piece with the title: American Dystopia, Fiction or Reality? http://www.tomdispatch.com/archive/175536/

Solnit’s books are a pleasure to read and her articles are always inspiring and interesting. She has fully embraced the Occupy movement and this posting in TomDispatch was enthusiastic as always about the prospects and the effectiveness of OWS protest actions.

She writes: “Violence is not power, as Jonathan Schell makes strikingly clear in The Unconquerable World, it’s what the state uses when we are not otherwise under control.”

This is somewhat vague, if not mystic, and leaves the question open, what the terms violence and power mean, and how they relate to each other. One could argue, that power enables violence or that violence establishes the supremacy of a powerful actor over the rest of the players. Violence is further used to eliminate competitors, which consequently increases power.

Solnit writes also: “When we come together as civil society to exercise this power, regimes tremble and history is made. Not instantly and not exactly according to plan, but who ever expected that?”

Solnit cites as proof: Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. This is a book that is not published yet, so there is no possibility to check this claim and by mentioning the source and linking to it she btw. makes advertising for Amazon.com, a business that is a prime example of corporate wickedness and ruthlessness.”

Solnit mentions further the success of the Move Your Money campaign, which targets Bank of America and other banks and she writes: “Quiet victories like this could begin to reshape our economic landscape.”

This assessment is correct and especially the last sentence is significant and really nails it, but the Move Your Money campaign is not a violent or nonviolent protest, is a coordinated economic action of enough individuals to have an economic impact.

Further down Solnit writes: “Meanwhile last week, both the Wells Fargo and General Electric shareholders’ meetings were under siege from Occupy activists. The Wells Fargo meeting and protests took place in San Francisco, and afterward an arrested friend of mine posted this on Facebook: “I forgot to mention that Max gave me the Hunger Games salute in jail today. It was awesome.”

Many people would regard the reported episode not as a proof of the effectiveness and power of nonviolent protest, but rather as a proof of helplessness and powerlessness.

Near to the end of her article, Solnit states: “Still alive and kicking, Occupy is chipping away in a thousand places at the status quo”, though she acknowledges: “The banking and oil companies, the 1 percent, and the prison and education rackets are more than capable of pushing back.”

Solnit’s closing sentence again is a rhetorical jewel: “Commit your deepest love and solidarity to the young whose lives are being gambled away, feed the hungry, take a long look at how beautiful our planet still is, find your way into solidarity and people power, and dream big about other futures. Resistance is one of your obligations, but it’s also a pleasure and a way of stealing back hope.”

This is wonderful formulated, this is poetic, it is inspiring and exactly what we need to hear, these are words that will energize us and enable us to continue with our resistance against an insane system. Solnit is a gifted writer and the best possible cheerleader for the green resistance movement, or occupy movement, or transition town movement, or whatever one would call it.

If she only would realize, that protest movements have their limits and protests, demonstrations, occupations, sit-ins, blockades alone will not change anything!

Chris Hedges published a piece with the title: Welcome to the Asylum http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/welcome_to_the_asylum_20120430/

This article is also wonderful written, thoughtful, touching, and far beyond the usual commentaries, analysis, or opinion pieces. This article is a piece of art, but it is not inspiring and cheerleading, it rather sounds desperate and depressed, like the “one final attempt of a wake up call.”

Hedges writes for example: “ The World Health Organization calculates that one in four people in the United States suffers from chronic anxiety, a mood disorder or depression — which seems to me to be a normal reaction to our march toward collective suicide.”

“When the most basic elements that sustain life are reduced to a cash product, life has no intrinsic value. The extinguishing of ‘primitive’ societies, those that were defined by animism and mysticism, those that celebrated ambiguity and mystery, those that respected the centrality of the human imagination, removed the only ideological counterweight to a self-devouring capitalist ideology.”

One could argue, that animism and mysticism as variants of religious superstition are not necessary helpful for solving the myriad of problems that humanity faces. Hedges states correctly that capitalism is an ideology, but ideologies, religions, superstitions, and certain philosophies (dualism, idealism) are all based on believes and not on scientific methodology, reasoning, and common sense.

Animism and mysticism can be for sure an ideological counterweight to capitalism, but one has to consider the possibility, that a non ideological counterweight would be even more helpful and desirable.

Hedges writes further: “Reason makes possible the calculations, science and technological advances of industrial civilization, but reason does not connect us with the forces of life. A society that loses the capacity for the sacred, that lacks the power of human imagination, that cannot practice empathy, ultimately ensures its own destruction.”

Hedges probably didn’t mean it that way, but this formulation could be misunderstood as an argument against reason, science, and technology. Much of our technology is indeed insane (nuclear technology, weapons, GE-crops, data mining) and the result of bad intent and lack of imagination.

Yet reason and scientific methodology have lifted us from the mire of the Dark Ages, which were a time of religious superstition, short lifespans, and little understanding of biological and physical processes that are important to humans. The discovery and partially understanding of microorganisms alone validates the scientific revolution.

When Hedges refers to “ambiguity and mystery”, “the sacred” and “human imagination”, he maybe draws from his religious background, but all these terms can be also easily incorporated into a rational, scientific, atheistic worldview simply by acknowledging, that this world, a nonlinear dynamical system with an infinite number of forces and interdependencies, is beyond our understanding via logic (which evolved from grammar and is limited) or via pattern recognition (used in intuition, imagination, creativity).

The wave–particle duality of quantum mechanics, the fourth dimension of string theory, most aspects of particle physics (higgs boson), and many other scientific issues are beyond everybody’s comprehension. These things can be indeed viewed as sacred, mysterious, ambiguous.

A holistic worldview may give additional insight, but is also based on the interpretation of incoming sensory signals and on pattern recognition and therefore limited. To sum it up: Things beyond the limits of our senses and of our intelligence may appear to be magical, mystical, sacred, yet they are no proof of metaphysical concepts.

Hedges writes: “As we race toward the collapse of the planet’s ecosystem we must restore this older vision of life if we are to survive.”

“The war on the Native Americans, like the wars waged by colonialists around the globe, was waged to eradicate not only a people but a competing ethic. The older form of human community was antithetical and hostile to capitalism, the primacy of the technological state and the demands of empire.”

Hedges then cites “The Ethnological Notebooks of Karl Marx” and refers to various aspects of Native American society, culminating in the statement, that:

“Rebuilding this older vision of community, one based on cooperation rather than exploitation, will be as important to our survival as changing our patterns of consumption, growing food locally and ending our dependence on fossil fuels.”

Hedges argumentation has its merits. Humans have disregarded or forgotten the wisdom of the ages, have lost their connection with nature, have created a synthetic environment and unnatural social structures.

Yet: human population has exploded, nature is polluted and partly destroyed, technology has advanced and we have to live (or die) with it. Some of Hedges recommendations deserve a close look and some aspects of earlier societies may be worth emulating. Others may not be applicable in this so profoundly changed modern world.

Hedges closing words are: “The final chapter of this sad experiment in human history will see us sacrificed as those on the outer reaches of empire were sacrificed. There is a kind of justice to this.”

“We profited as a nation from this demented vision, we remained passive and silent when we should have denounced the crimes committed in our name, and now that the game is up we all go down together.”

This sounds tired, disillusioned, hopeless. This is totally different from Solnit’s sentiment. Hedges doesn’t give hope, he doesn’t show a way out, he seems to disregard the possibility that despite the bleak outlook one never can be totally sure that the doomsday predictions are correct.

Maybe new technologies allow to disable weapons and pacify violent humans, maybe the imperium will crumble and fall, maybe increased clouds and other feedback processes will limit global warming, maybe microorganisms will cleanup toxic substances faster than expected, maybe pandemics will reduce human populations to sustainable levels, maybe nature is more resilient than we think and will recover and adapt to higher background radiation?

What about the attitude of indefatigably and pertinaciously struggling on, boycotting, obstructing, sabotaging the old system while at the same time trying new ways, organizing and building new decentralized structures? Hedges didn’t write that but he obviously meant it, otherwise he would not have even bothered to publish his hard hitting text!

The third piece is a blog post by a fellow blogger. Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez posted Which Side Are You On?

http://bethechange2012.wordpress.com/2012/04/30/which-side-are-you-on/

She writes: “The mainstream media is still doing its best to pretend that nothing out of the ordinary is going on.”

This is a correct observation, the mainstream media either ignores, belittles, ridicules, or slanders, scandalized, and defames the OWS movement.

Browdy de Hernandez continues: “But if you move over to Twitter and search #Occupy, #OccupyWallSt, or #MayDay, you get a whole different picture of what’s going on.”

“Instead of the nose-in-the-air ho-hum of the fat-cat NY Times, suddenly you’re plunged into a hum of activity, down on the ground with a million twittering mice running around energetically, purposefully and thoughtfully.”

Which raises the question, if this million twittering mice indeed resulted into a million protesters or a million activists working diligently and energetically on alternative projects in their local communities.

The reports from both mainstream and alternative media (which are all anecdotal evidence of course and therefore debatable) suggest, that the million twittering mice didn’t yield a proportional amount of real life activities.

Navid Hassanpour, a political science graduate student at Yale, used complex vector calculations to study the Tahrir Square movement in Egypt and concluded: “The disruption of cellphone coverage and Internet on the 28th exacerbated the unrest in at least three major ways,” … “It implicated many apolitical citizens unaware of or uninterested in the unrest; it forced more face-to-face communication, i.e., more physical presence in the streets; and it effectively decentralized the rebellion on the 28th through new hybrid communication tactics, producing a quagmire much harder to control and repress than one massive gathering in Tahrir.”

Todd Wolfson, an assistant professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers and a community organizer in Philadelphia, says that there is indeed, “an accelerant role for social media,” but that it “cannot and does not create that kind of mass motion.”

Browdy de Hernandez writes in her blog post: “Thanks to the Occupy movement, the onus has shifted to the 1% to prove that what they’re doing is responsible and for the good of all, rather than motivated by naked greed and self-interest.”

“The rapacious vulture Capitalism that has dominated the U.S., and hence the world, since the end of World War II has been exposed, and there is no going back.”

The “rapacious vulture Capitalism” (I love this formulation) has been exposed many times and for a long time without any resulting change, but leaving this caveat aside one could interpret the two cited sentences as the description of a paradigm shift and fundamental change of the value system.

Pointing to a paradigm shift would be not completely wrong because a gradual shift in the public mood is undeniably happening, though until now it is not reflected in the mass media, the political culture, the political decisions, and most important of all, the personal (individual) decisions and the personal conduct. The life style of the broad public until now has not changed!

Browdy de Hernandez calls on her blog repeatedly to participate in May Day rallies but admits: “Me, I’ll be teaching my classes this May Day, but with a tip of my hat to what’s going on down at the barricades in New York and all across the country.”

Asked by a reader/commenter why she didn’t participate in the general strike she explains: “I thought about not going to school, but then decided I could be of more use to my students in the classroom rather than out in the street.”

“I have always had a phobia about crowds, and never willingly put myself into a crowd situation. I don’t even like to go to an agricultural fair, or a peaceful parade. In my Manhattan youth, crowds and violence often went together, or at least crowds and the fear of violence.”

“I am glad I decided to stay at work today.  At least with this one small group of students, I was able to foreground these historic May Day protests in their minds, and ask some questions that no one else probably would have asked them today.”

“Maybe as a result they will be paying attention to the news in a different way, and thinking more concretely about how the issues blazoned across all those posters and banners are relevant to their own particular lives.”

Both cited reasons are sound explanations for not attending May Day protests, but they apply not only to Browdy de Hernandez alone. Many people will be able to spend their time more productively with occupations like working in the garden, in the fields and forests, repairing, building, counseling, teaching, analyzing and writing, planning, organizing.

Quite a few people will also be uncomfortable with crowds. There is only a small step from mass excitement to mass hysteria, only a small step from mass outrage to riots, only a small step from mass violence to lynch mobs.

Mass rallies can be motivating and energizing, can be a life changing experience, can be an epiphany. They can be a social event where people reconnect with old friends and acquaintances, they can be reassuring, giving the feeling not to be alone, not to be an outsider.

On the other hand protest rallies can be time wasters, can be boring, disillusioning and frustrating. The speakers are preaching to the quire, they will not say anything what the audience didn’t know beforehand. They will not dare to say anything unexpected or reveal any new conclusions or dissenting views. They will not dare to spoil the party and will not risk to be booed and hassled.

The attending police officers will not listen to the speeches because they will be busy with noticing and cataloguing individual participants. If they would ever listen, the message would not reach them, they live in a different world and speak a different language (metaphorically). The rallies though will be reassuring for them too, their jobs are secured as long as such rallies happen, maybe they even can get overtime pay.

From an alternative media outlet:

“At the rally, speaker after speaker raised questions about the lavish spending on US military interventions abroad and drastic cuts in budget expenditures on health and education at home, and the failure to create jobs and alleviate poverty.”

That strikes a note of course and the audience will applaud and cheer and after listening to the speeches maybe go home or have a drink in a pub or smash some windows. But what is the functional difference between these speakers and mainstream TV brainwashing? Where is the interaction and thoughtful discussion?

Big crowd have their own psychology, Carl Gustav Jung, Jean-Gabriel De Tarde, Gustave Le Bon, Sigmund Freud, and more recently Edward Louis Bernays and Philip Zimbardo have discussed this matter in great detail.

Here is not the space to delve into details and furthermore, the internet and social networking have fundamentally changed the situation, many aspects of crowd psychology are now irrelevant, one could say that “crowd psychology” has been replaced by “cloud psychology.”

Anthropologist Robin Dunbar of Oxford University says, that 150 meaningful relationships seem to be the neurological limit the human brain can handle. In other words, 150 is the maximum number of friends. Dunbar also concludes that 50 is the largest possible number of trusted friends, 15 of good friends, and 5 of best friends.

One can discuss the mentioned numbers and labels, but the assertion of a neurological limit is backed by statistical evidence and psychological as well as neurological research.

The earnestness and dedication of the May Day protesters is beyond doubt and their grievances are real. Nobody should “rain on their parade” (a reference to “Don’t Rain On My Parade” from Funny Girl)

The final verdict about OWS and the usefulness of protest actions is still out and there is hope that OWS evolves from a protest movement to a social movement. OWS camps have attracted the down and out, the homeless and drug addicts, the ones which are abandoned and hidden away by society.

To bring their plight into the open is one of the big achievements of OWS!

As the regular readers of this blog will have noticed, I never shy away from voicing controversial and dissenting views, I don’t regurgitate clichés (or at least try not to regurgitate clichés), and despite being thankful about feedback and corrections in the end I make up my own mind.

The following text was written in October and I never published it because I considered it as too harsh, as biased, petulant, and unjust. It still is all this but I reveal the text now to give an alternative point of view and enrich the discussion:

Spoiling the Party

Some people like to spoil the party, some people are skeptical by nature and don’t tend to fall for a hype. Some people are immune against the infection with “irrational exuberance”.

Quite a few of this kind of people are skeptical about the OWS movement and its usefulness to change the existing power structures. Quit a few are skeptical and doubtful, that public protests are an appropriate way to fight against the plutocracy. They consider these protests a waste of time and energy.

The vented grievances are legitimate and it is necessary to bring the issues of social injustice and corruption to the attention of the broader public. Yet at present the strategy of the protesters gives the police all chances to hurt and humiliate them, to set a deterrent example, to test highly advanced tools of crowd control, and to show the public how weak and helpless the protesters are.

What about flash mobs organized via cellphones instead of OWS camps? Permanent OWS encampments may be left alone in some cities but will be broken up and be cleared in others (Oakland). Prominent participants will be arrested and treated correctly and comparatively well, not so prominent persons will be harassed and mistreated and heavily fined.

A violent and disproportional response of the police forces to public dissent will of course expose the true nature of the rulers. But we know their true nature since a long time: They are monsters! They were exposed as monsters long before 100,000 (and maybe even more) died in Iraq, long before at least 20,000 died in Afghanistan, long before about 40,000 died in Libya.

The rulers exposed themselves as monsters throughout the history of the empire, for instance when they installed military dictatorships in most of Latin America and trained the torturers and henchmen in the “School of the Americas.”

They exposed themselves as monsters as they were assassinating people around the world. Assassinations by drones are prominent and newsworthy now but the methodical killing by various (often ingenious and innovative) means goes on since decades.

How could the policy of MAD (mutual assured destruction) be characterized in any other way as being monstrous? How could the annihilation of two cities by nuclear bombs being described in any other way than being a monstrous crime?

Everyone who has not made up his or her mind, everyone who has not realized that the imperial nations are ruled by monsters must be so massively indoctrinated, brainwashed, and tranquilized by mainstream media that even the most bloody crackdown on a protest movement will not change his or her mind. “The protesters brought it upon themselves,” is about the only reaction to be expected from common mass media consumers. 

The monsters have no mercy and facing them in an open confrontation is risky. They will ignore dissenters, when they are no threat, they will arrest and punish them when the movement gathers traction, they will crush the protests when they feel threatened.

“Operation Garden Plot” and FEMA internment camps are ready to be activated at any time.

The assessments and considerations in this text are not intended to label resistance as hopeless. They are not meant to advocation resignation and compliance. They are also not meant as a sweeping dismissal of OWS.

The assessments and considerations in this text only want to point out, that open protests are not necessarily a winning strategy in a struggle against a monstrous enemy. One doesn’t have to study “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu to realize, that facing a superior enemy head on will seldom work out.

The OWS protesters claim to be inspired by the Arab Spring. They should consider very carefully what the Arab Spring achieved until now: In Egypt the replacement of a military dictator by a military council (a group of military dictators), in Tunisia elections, which brought an islamist party into government but didn’t change the basic power structures, in Libya the demolition of the country, the death of at least 40,000 people, and the destruction of the most equal and moderate society in the Arab world.

An impressive resume indeed!

The OWS movement celebrated Gaddafis death with the twitter message: “Congrats Libya! Your struggles against the #Gadhafi regime is (sic) over. Let’s hope for a bright future #solidarity.” What can better highlight the naivety and ignorance of OWS spokespersons?

Could this criticism be unjustified, could this text be too harsh with the OWS protester? Could it be that they fulfill their useful part in drawing attention away from the more important activities? Could it be that they shield the really important actors from the scrutiny of the authorities?

Could it be that OWS in fact provides a helpful smokescreen for the teachers, librarians, and artists who plant the seeds of independent critical thinking? That OWS provides a cover for the psychologists and media experts who insert subliminal messages and change the public mind towards empathy and responsibility in a way the monsters and their minions are not able to comprehend?

Could it be that OWS shields the inventive and resourceful people who diligently work on building up small local initiatives and networks? That OWS protects the community organizers who develop and test ways to replace the old structures, the engineers who invent clever methods and tools to stop the machines of destruction, the chemists who discover new processes and compounds meant to obstruct and disable, the scientists who work quietly in their laboratories, taking DARPA money and nevertheless doing their own thing (not inventing new weapons but ways to disable weapons), the programmers who write powerful code, better than Stuxnet or Duqu and nearly undetectable?

This is a question which demands no answer — nobody who knows will talk about this openly. It is a question that everybody who has skills can answer herself/himself by starting one of the just mentioned activities and leaving the protesting to those who cannot contribute to the greater good in another way.

4 comments

  1. Great post, Mato! You raise crucial points here! I will reply at more length–I have been wanting to continue thinking in more depth about the May Day protests too–

    Like


  2. Nicely done, Mato! Esp. liked your note of how the protests benefit the police.

    Like


  3. […] Other readers expressed their support for my decision to “occupy my classroom,” where my individual presence was perhaps more important than it would have been as an anonymous member of the crowd on Broadway. […]

    Like


  4. I really think this particular blog post , “Open-ended analysis
    Mato’s Blog”, extremely compelling not to mention it was in fact a terrific read. Thank you,Corazon

    Like



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