The Mass Spectacle and the Specter of the Left: NATO in Chicago

So if you were walking around in the center of Chicago a week or so ago, you might have been stopped by police, or had your progress impeded by them. This is because there happened to be, in Chicago at that time, the leadership of a certain international, unaccountable arm of the military-industrial complex with global reach and vast war-making resources meeting to discuss what vulnerable group of poor people will  be serviced next with the Predator drone prix-fixe, to wit: you happen to live in a territory with some of those pesky Muslim malcontents, so you are, in principle, entitled to a Hellfire missile in the face. While these shining benefactors of humanity were meeting, Mayor Emanuel and the City of Chicago spent millions of dollars of public money to outfit and train an army of riot police for the noble task of shielding NATO and the state from that dreaded public enemy, the democratic protest march.

In the event, the demonstration was impressive and energetic, the mayor and the police had their chance to “look good” for the global ruling class, and some elements of the protest clashed with the riot cops in a prolonged and violent standoff at the march’s end. This ensured the predictable series of images in media channels: the confrontation between demonstrator and police; the beaten and bloodied demonstrator; and the orderly columns of rationalized state violence, fully anonymous and fully ready to brain those who might stray away from the state-permitted protest zone. The corporate media never fails to drive the argument home for the benefit of the broader public: to confront the state is to get one’s face smashed, so don’t join these yahoos because it’s bad for your health!

Regardless of the sycophantic tripe peddled by most of the corporately owned media – most notably the wretched Sun Times and the Tribune, the latter owned by the insane Sam Zell – the sheer size and dynamism of the demonstration would have impressed itself upon anyone who saw it first-hand. Strolling about Grant Park before the march, I was again struck by the amazing diversity in style and culture that is constitutive of mass-left politics today. Bucking the city’s prolonged campaign to arouse fear surrounding crazed anarchists planning to blow things up, along with a relentless hyping of the city’s militarization of the police force, dozens of different community groups, political and activist organizations, cultural affinity groups, and trade unions came together in a common opposition to the NATO war-machine. At a given moment, one could do any of the following:

  • Join in a political debate with Second International Marxists;
  • Talk with “libertarians” about the need to reform the tax code, and how achieving socialist transformation is pointless because the U.S. is already “socialist;”
  • Dance a lot;
  • Give Maoism another chance;
  • Talk with native Palestinians about life in the Occupied Territories;
  • Join an artists’ collective in making signs, puppets, and other visual paraphernalia;
  • Chill with members of Occupy Wall Street
  • Discuss the need for a General Strike with radicals from the Nurses’ Union, the I.B.E.W., or the C.T.U.;
  • Don a hood and bandanna with Black Bloc anarchists, in preparation for an inevitable confrontation with the state;
  • Have a conversation with Hindu peace activists;
  • Talk LGBT justice with the radical queer coalition;
  • Hang out with some sweet clowns;
  • Participate in a Human Micropoem;
  • Eat some really good, vegan-friendly, free hot-dogs.

…and so on and so forth.

They don’t want to give you a free hot-dog.

This patchwork of diverse viewpoints, languages, and ideologies comes together to create quite a spectacle. A first-time protester might understandably come off a bit bewildered. Why are these guys here arguing that we should defend North Korea as a “deformed workers’ state”? Who is Bradley Manning? And what do clowns have to do with radical politics?

Speaking broadly, what more or less serves to bring such a wide array of social elements together is a common opposition to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which is an example of what Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe call an “empty signifier.” It is a symbol that can mean many different things to different forces of opposition – e.g, NATO is an expression of the warmongering military-industrial complex, the military arm of an unaccountable global oligarchy, the handmaiden of the system of global capitalism, the vanguard of neo-colonialism, the anti-democracy, and a symbol of patriarchal, racist-chauvinist hierarchy, to name only a few examples. The common opposition to NATO as a multivalent symbol constructs ‘negative solidarity,’ or solidarity among groups based upon common opposition to what they are against, to what they are not. Thus to oppose NATO it is sufficient that one be anti-racist, or anti-fascist, or anti-state, or anti-patriarchy, or anti-Federal Reserve, or anti-capitalist, or anti-injustice, or anti-war, or anti-heteronormative, anti-imperialist, or any combination of these. U.S. mass-left political action today collects a vast array of different attitudes, viewpoints, and ideologies on the basis of a shared opposition, of a deep hostility toward some institution, figure, policy, etc. Importantly, though, the reasons among the various elements for that opposition, and the social and political vision that animates them, can be and often are in conflict with one another. What does the libertarian have to say to the syndicalist? What the Trotskyist to the Stalinist? This particular form of mass politics does not require agreement on the deeper level of vision and definitions of contested concepts, like justice, freedom,  the meaning of socialism, and so on; it merely requires a sense, however vague, that something is wrong with the present system and that the occasion for protest is somehow related to it. The buy-in isn’t too steep, ultimately.

That this is the way mass-left mobilization works today is no coincidence, of course. With the gradual dissolution of the social infrastructure of what used to be called the Old Left over the last 30 years, the classical reference point of organized radical consciousness – the ‘point of production, ‘as they used to say – has increasingly become sidelined, integrated into a larger web of struggles that cast a wider net around what counts as social justice. This is unquestionably a major achievement. But such an expansive view has come at a cost. The terra firma of the older forms of praxis, which was located at the economic point of production because that was widely understood to be the source of general immiseration, has been to a certain degree lost – or more accurately, obscured. The old vision has become but one among many. As a result, the old link between radical theory and practice has become attenuated, which is a precondition for the contemporary splintering of the idea of “resistance” into countless fragments: resistance can be articulated as street performances, throwing bricks at cops, mass-marching, canvassing for electoral candidates, consuming ethically, holding a concert, dancing in the streets, culture-jamming, and of course shop-organizing – the list goes on. Opposition to a sedately imperialist, predatory liberalism, it would seem, has taken on the very pluralistic qualities that the latter ideology holds so dear.

What would the conditions have to be for something like general agreement around tactics and strategy to materialize? I would tentatively suggest that what’s happening in Quebec right now, and what happened in Oakland 6 months ago, both have something to do with the answer, as increasing numbers of organizers, activists, and community leaders are realizing that the future of radical struggle lies in combining the social pluralism of contemporary protest with direct intervention in the productive forces – that is, in combining negative solidarity with the mass-strike.


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