Why the G20 Protests Matter

One of the blogs about the G20 (breakingviews.com), posted on Fortune.com, argued that “The G20 needs better protestesters.”

The author, Edward Hadas, argues that in the current time of great need we are lacking badly-needed insights.

“The global mismanagement of the financial system has led to a deep recession. Intellectual paralysis has gripped the authorities and their policy response has been risky. After such failure, the political leaders gathered in London for the G-20 conference deserve a serious challenge. Sadly, all they are getting are the senseless slogans of a hippie festival.”

There’s the logical leap. Mr. Hadas decries the “intellectual paralysis” and the risky policies of governments who really don’t have any precedent for the current sociocultural-economic conditions. I agree wholeheartedly, and have been writing about those conditions for a while now.

But expecting protesters to offer up “a serious challenge” to politicians engaged at the conference is entirely missing the point. Are they going to present a serious policy recommendation? It would be wonderful and terrific is they would. Gathered together under a single banner, represented by a single articulate voice, the protesters could say “here’s the way out, implement these policies and you will save they world.” But how likely is that?

But the authors insists on looking for the unlikely, and then chiding the protesters when he doesn’t find it. So, taking a look at whether there is anything substantial or comprehensive being protested, Hadas argues that there isn’t anything meaningful there. It’s naive. It’s vacuous. It’s full of simplistic sloganeering. It lacks “a new intellectual framework.”

The author concludes: “Protesters who look like they just want a street party aren’t likely to be up to the challenge. Sadly, the more intellectually sophisticated Left seems to be hardly more capable of helping out. Any protester who can articulate a coherent alternative to the establishment’s tattered notions really could change the world.

Mr. Hadas, I wonder, is that what protests are for? Is that how social movements begin: the protesters articulate a coherent ideology, a new social vision, and then present it to the government, who enacts it?

Of course not. That’s ridiculous, and even more naive that the actions ascribed to the G20 protests. Why is Mr. Hadas insisting (and why do so many others insist) on judging the success of a protest based on what it “looks like”? The WTO Seattle Protests were a success based not on what they looked like, certainly not on their use of violence, but, I believe, because they showed a discontent underground, a cultural and subcultural current, that there are still people out there who don’t like the current system and who are organizing to try to change it.

One fascinating thing that these protests show, and one big reason why they matter, is their use of new technology. CNN ran a very interesting story about the use of information and communications technology tools by protesters at the G20 in London, and how authorities tried to use the same technologies to stay ahead of the protesters (thanks to Ece Ilhan for sending this to me). This protest, like Seattle before it, and others, was a manifestation of Net guru Howard Rheingold’s idea of Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution, a type of Smart Mobilization of mobs-within-crowds.

Do these protests matter? Are they significant?

Protests are symbolic acts of systemic resistance. They are groups of people who are displaying their unhappiness with entire social systems. They aren’t meant to articulate detailed policy recommendations or ideological statements. Their cultural contribution is images of angry crowds, of “the people” acting against hegemonic power in a general way, sounds bites and placards and images.

What we get are images. And images are powerful. In our culture, they are probably the most powerful articulations of all.

Look at these G20 images.

G20_Protestesters_are_Damn_Hippies?

With the double peace sign (face-ainted in eco-green, of course), I guess it’s easy to see how this group could be linked to tthe generation of the hippies and the 1960s. But that simple fact isn’t enough to dismiss this protest, or these protesters. Instead, we might note, as a number of intellectuals have already noted, the lasting impact of the 1960s and the types of resistance that were pioneered during that time, the many social movements that have changed, and continue to change, the world. Images of hippies? Yes. Is that a problem? Only if you judge using kneejerk reactions, rather than carefully understanding why the metaphors and tropes of ’60s radicalism still hold power over four decades later. Read the sign, not just the signs.

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Here’s another trope that leads to the “Street Party” dismissal. We see nudity and body emphasis, masks and drumming and dance at a lot of these protests. Why? Because they are about over-civilization. They are about machine culture. They are about ideology, and one of modern activism’s greatest weapons is the invocation of primitivism. It is primitivism that gives protest a lot of its power (and its appeal). I’ve written about this under the guise of tribes, and in my research on Burning Man. This is a very important relationship.

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Here’s another powerful, ubiquotous protests image: good versus evil, and the demons among us. As Jay Handelman and I wrote in our 2004 JCR on Consumer Activism, the roots of a lot of consumer activism (and of social movements and activism in general in America) draw from religious, moral roots. This image creates a spectral, haunting, looming demon out of American dollar bills, to try to draw attention to that ancient root of all evils in the world: money, capital, and the systems that sustain it. Channeling fear, hatred, and anger in this way doesn’t follow a logical, intellectual process. Instead, it draws on instinctive reactions, to try to mobilize and to shock into a new form of (moral) awareness. Images like this, which are artistic, religious, and visceral, show that this is not a “mere” street party or hippie celebration.

Its about the Visualization, Stupid

Here’s a key visual. It’s an image. It says something is wrong. It says the system isn’t working. It is encouraging us not to simply patch up or fix the current system, but to thing about what could be. To envision another world. The world of the possible. This is the essence of social movements. Images of discontent. Intimations of a better way.

First, come the protests. Then comes the organizing, the consensus building, the ideology construction, the alternative-weighing, and finally the policy recommending and politicking and movement making. It doesn’t happen all at once.

We’re seeing the front end of the wave. Don’t expect finished work. But it is up to all of us to take these initial forays and work on them. We can ask ourselves if the system is working or not. And if it isn’t, then we need to ask ourselves what each of us can do to imagine a possible world that is better.

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