Thursday, December 09, 2004

Bush in Ottawa and Reflections on Mass Action

The other day I received an email from a friend back in Hamilton. In the email I had sent to him the previous week I had asked whether he participated in the recent anti-Bush demo in Ottawa. His reply made me think about how being in a different context has impacted my perspective, at least in superficial ways, and has reminded me to think a bit more critically about the role of mass action.

My current experience as a lefty living in the United States means still feeling the remnants of the psychological impact of Dubya's victory in early November, and becoming more and more aware of the power and role of the radical right populist movement in this country, as well as its elite sponsors. I have been reading some liberal blogs that are no more encouraging -- pointless angsting about conspiracy theories around the election, unhelpful and alienating vitriol directed at residents of the "red states," and even some delusional cheerleading about how progressives are in a position to set the agenda now. A sober, grounded, left-oriented reflection is pretty bleak: We are going to see increased attacks on oppressed communities, the gutting of the few remaining social welfare provisions in the U.S., and so much need for defensive struggle that it's hard to even conceive of real progress.

In this context, seeing massive and boisterous resistance to Bush's presence in Canada was a fond hope of mine because it would give a small though much needed psychological boost to liberals and lefties down here -- no replacement for local struggle, but a nice piece of good news. It also might help to penetrate the illusion held by a majority of Bush voters (detected by survey before the election) that the majority of the world's population supports his policies. Of course I know Ottawa is not Rome -- the country is too big, the activist infrastructure not strong enough, and the political culture not sufficiently conducive, to do such a thing in the two weeks notice of Bush's visit that activists had -- but it would have been nice to see people turn out in the hundreds of thousands and the anger at a fever pitch. The actual event was a respectable ten thousand at least, which isn't bad given the circumstances.

But in response to my question about participation in the anti-Bush event, this friend was quite unenthusiastic, perhaps even dismissive, about the action. And it took me only a fraction of second of surprise to remember, hey, I agree pretty much with everything he's saying and would probably, in my Hamilton incarnation, have said much the same thing.

If I was living in Hamilton, it is unlikely I would've gone to Ottawa, particularly now that we have a 15 month-old toddler. I would have appreciated the spirit of the protest, but seen it as not terribly useful, a distraction from day-to-day organizing based in local communities, a tourist event for progressives with minimal impact on the world, and a means by which Canadians are able to seem progressive by ranting about an enemy they can't do anything directly about while further ignoring their own role in supporting and benefiting from imperialism and a host of domestic oppressions. I would have saluted those who went and wished them well, but probably stayed in Hamilton and devoted my precious resources in other directions.

I'm not against mass actions in principle. They can be important and useful and effective. But I think they should be treated with a skeptical eye. This attitude comes from a very definite personal history. I was just becoming politicized during the Days of Action campaign in Ontario. That was a combined labour and community effort to oppose the Conservative provincial government of that time in its draconian restructuring of the state along rather nasty, neoliberal lines. It involved one-day general strikes in what ended up being ten different cities across the province. The most significant in terms of numbers were the one in Hamilton, which drew an unprecedented hundred thousand people (and which I was not at because I was living in Ottawa at the time) and the one in Toronto, which was estimated at a quarter of a million people or more.

While they were an important demonstration of opposition, they ended up being treated as ends rather than means. At the ones that I attended, I remember no effort on the part of the organizing groups to convey any kind of practical wisdom about how to take the energy of the day home to build resistence in your own community -- there was no attention to pedgagoy or to next-steps beyond the ritual of having a speaker from every sponsoring organization. And I'm not even complaining that they weren't used to build up to a province-wide general strike to oust the government -- that would have been nice, but I'm not sure whether it would've been a good risk in the end, even if the big unions had been willing to do the massive amount of educational and organizational groundwork that would require (which they mostly weren't). I just think building resistance is more than standing in a big group and shouting, and that the Days of Action were wonderful but largely squandered opportunities to spark further local activism grounded in a realistic assessment of the material conditions of the time.

In saying this, it is important to keep in mind that the early years of the Harris government really marked a shift in the political culture that had existed in most of Canada for a couple of decades, where if you got enough people together and framed your issues right in the media it was fairly standard for most governments formed by most political parties to at least listen to you and give enough superficial concessions to sap your movement's energy. The main organizers, I would imagine, thought that would still work, and that bringing a quarter of a million people onto the streets of Toronto really would alter the course of the government's agenda.

It didn't, of course, and that has been a big lesson for those of us first becoming politicized at the time: Mass action on its own isn't enough.

The other formative experience in this regard for me (and my friend in Hamilton, I suspect) was in the aftermath of September 11. Our city had periodic peace marches in which, every couple of months, the same hundred people followed the same route and listend to similar, excessively long speeches at the start and the end (with often significant racism and sexism at play in terms of who spoke). On the one hand, particularly during those early months, I think it was important to do as a way of breaking out of the suffocating silence imposed on progressives by the 9/11 tragedy. And it did provide a good focus for actual organizing, i.e. getting out on the street in small groups beforehand and leafletting and talking to people -- that's something I think we don't do enough of. But once again, the mass action (and I use the term loosely, because some were pretty tiny) became a ritual, and was not really examined critically as a tool or augmented appropriately (most of the time) with other tactics.

In a way, consciousness of this more complexified understanding of mass actions was right in front of me and I just didn't see it, smack in the middle of my reasons for wishing the ones in Ottawa had been even bigger and rowdier. I wanted that action to be a symbolic but energetic response to the growing power and confidence of the radical right populist movement in the U.S. precisely because of the power of that movement, but without really reflecting on where that power comes from: They are able to accomplish things we can only dream of, but they rarely use mass action as a tool.

There are obviously lots of ways we don't want our movements to be like the radical right -- we want to eliminate the hierarhcies of power and privilege that structure our world, not strengthen them, and there are significant differences in values that should have consequences in terms of how we organize. As well, drawing analogies between the right and left movements movements is dangerous because the right can count on rich and powerful patrons among the elite, whereas we can be pretty sure that if we ever have such patrons at anywhere near the same level, we're doing something fundamentally wrong. But in some ways, the radical right movement in the U.S. is able to do things that we want progressive movements to be able to do -- it can constrain elites, it can win gradual and incremental policy changes in the direction it wants, it can build a strong and complex network of counter-institutions, and it can get its message to huge numbers of people. It can probably even bring down governments. As I read somewhere else recently -- I forget where so I can't link to it -- they failed when they tried to get rid of moderate conservative, enthusiastic Iraqi child starver, and letch Bill Clinton, but they're a lot stronger now. And they do all of these things with minimal use of mass action. Again, that's for all kinds of reasons, including the differeing culture and histories of the different movements, and different end goals. But they can take the streets when they want to, as in Florida during the 2000 election recount fiasco. They just realize that there's a lot more to transforming society than standing in a big crowd and shouting monotonous, silly chants.

So there we go. My message with respect to the anti-Bush protests in Ottawa: I'm glad they happened, my thanks from LA for those who went, and I totally understand the decision not to go. And with respect to mass actions more generally: Left movements have to be able to take the streets, both as demonstrations fully within the legal boundaries of liberal-democracies and as direct actions. We should not neglect that capacity nor ignore that particular tool. But we need to do a lot more than prove we can get people "dans la rue" if we want to be able to constrain elites, change policies, build counter-institutions, bring down governments, and transform the state.

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