Beautiful Transgressions After the Event?

As the wave of popular protests sweeps the globe, there is a growing recognition within activist movements of the exhaustion of traditional radical politics of ideological models and organisational vanguards. Sara Motta calls for a new politics in which people have control over decisions and processes affecting their lives.

Beautiful Transgressions, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Tuesday, June 14, 2011 0:00 - 4 Comments

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By Sara Motta

The winds of political change that are sweeping across Latin America, North Africa, and Europe have put radical politics back on the agenda.

Questions are being asked within UK activist movements about whether there is a new radical political subject emerging, how to generalise and expand the reach of such a subject, and what type of political organisation will enable this. In other words, how do we realise our dreams for change?

Uniting many of these discussions is recognition of the exhaustion of traditional radical politics of ideological models and organisational vanguards.

There is a palpable desire for a reinvention of politics which moves beyond representational politics and towards a politics in which people have control over decisions and processes affecting their lives.

It is often assumed in these discussions that during mass political events a new political subject emerges.

Yet such visible political mobilisation and events open up a particular type of space of political possibility that temporarily enacts another form of politics and political agency.

However, the construction of durable and sustainable radical political subject (s) is limited.

Thus to fixate and focus our political energies and attention on such moments can misdirect our political practice and undercut our ability to conceptualise and construct radical political subject (s).

Here I offer a contribution to this discussion by looking at processes of the formation and consolidation of radical politics subject (s) in Venezuela.

On February 27th 1989 popular rage erupted against an IMF sponsored package of economic reforms. The package included the removal of subsidies on fuel, the key commodity in the Venezuelan economy. The resultant increase in fuel prices led to the skyrocketing of other prices.

As Joel Linares, Venezuelan popular educator and activist recounts ‘I never forget how one morning in Guarenas behind the mountains (on the outskirts of Caracas) at 5am on the 27th February 1989 a women tried to get on the bus. When she refused to pay the new bus fare the driver pushed her. When the driver pushed her that was the beginning of everything…the other passengers…got up from their seats and attacked the bus with sticks then turned it upside down and burnt it.’

The media ran the story and the popular uprising spread to other barrios in Caracas and then to other cities and regions shutting down shops and public transportation. In the days that followed there was widespread looting.

Perhaps this incident was the element of change – the fairy dust– in the situation that resonated with people’s desires and experiences and enabled isolated acts of resistance to become a mass rebellion; an event that challenged politics as normal

The government backlash included declaring a state of emergency which led to massacres and human rights abuses.

Yet the Caracazo (as it is now known) marked the visible beginning of a new era of popular struggle in Venezuela and arguably across the region.

However it was neither the beginning nor the central element in the formation of new forms of radical political subject (s). As the Free Association suggest ‘violent breaks with the present …throw us forward into many futures whilst breathing new life into the past’.

Whilst it is important to recognise the radical breaks that such moments embody it is equally important to recognise the continuities and traditions of pre-existing struggles present in them.

This involves visibilising the histories of political struggle of the Venezuelan popular classes that go back to the formation of the Punto Fijo ‘democratic’ pact in 1958. For many the experience of this system was one of political, social, and economic exclusion.

Yet such conditions were not accepted passively. Struggles for health, housing and water were widespread in which the influence of liberation theology, revolutionary left ideas and elements of popular education mixed.

Cultural projects which involved developing art, music, photography and theatre as tools of critical praxis were organised. Bible study groups which linked the reading of the New Testament with the struggle for social justice and paradise on earth flourished. Caldos (stews) were cooked in the street to bring people together to talk and to break the individualisation that often wracks poor communities.

These processes are everyday processes of construction, often exhausting, often lonely, with many projects not lasting for more than a couple of years and rarely resulting in visible political events. As Roland Dennis recounted to me in 2007 ‘15 years ago there was literally me and two compañeros in a room. Now look we are thousands’.

Yet they helped to construct the solidarities, structures of feeling, shared experiences and knowledges that are an essential element in the creation of radical political subject (s) and agency.

As Roland continues ‘The consciousness that came during this phase does not have anything in common with the political actors that one knows…; they are not parties, organisation, or unions. You have to go all the way to the communities of the towns, to find the new actors…This is why you cannot describe the Venezuelan process using the traditional political categories’.

Such micro-practices of construction continued for the following decade until another much cited political event – the election of Hugo Chavez to the presidency in 1998- occurred.

Chavez’s election reconfigured politics in Venezuela. But the heart and lungs of this process are to be found in the communities, in the barrios.

The previous decades of struggle shaped political culture and solidarities in particular ways. They led to a pronounced focus on direct democratic participation and collective reflection as a means of generating strategic and political knowledge to enable the struggle to continue.

Many movements therefore focus on a politics without leaders and representation. Political practices are often influenced by traditions of radical and popular education. Political structures tend to focus on equality of participation and decision-making and on horizontal forms of organization. As Nora Machado, community organizer from La Vega, explains,

‘If we want to talk about projects coming from below, then we can’t take the role of leaders who come in and tell communities what, how, and why they should do things. We have to create the conditions in which communities develop, in equality and together, their understanding of their situation, their analysis, and their solutions. It is only in this way that we will break the old way of doing things.’

What productive pathways of reflection does this suggest for the political problems facing us in the UK?

It suggests that much of the work and struggle of constructing radical political subject (s) was not done in the moment of rupture and during the visible political event.

Rather these long-term, uncertain, multiple, open and creative processes involve the building of structures of feeling and ethics of solidarity. They have become manifested in pedagogies and methodologies of practice and collective knowledges. They are embedded in the memory of shared struggles. Often invisible, silent, and everyday processes they transform the experiences and practices of subjects within and beyond capitalist social relations.

These experiences suggest a number of creative avenues of exploration and discussion that include: the place of everyday practices that re-construct sociability, collectivity and solidarity in our politics; the idea that a politics of reflexivity can support the construction of a politics beyond representation; and the importance of the role of the embodied, affective, spiritual and cultural in our politics.

It also suggests that there is not one radical political subject or one form of organisation that can provide the answers to the problems we are facing. Rather the answers are multiple. They are our own.

Sara Motta is a mother, radical educator and writer.

Joel Linares, and other community activists and educators, will be participating in the workshop, ‘Education and Social Change in the Americas’, July 1-2nd 2011, University of Nottingham. For further information: http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/cssgj/centre-activities/escworkshop.aspx.

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4 Comments

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Dan
Jun 9, 2011 13:34

Thanks for writing this article Sara, and bringing a much needed ‘outside’ perspective to the UK discussion.

In my experience, the first mistake made by many who agitate for radical social change is to assume that we will always be the minority urging others on. Rather than starting our affinity group conversations by asking ‘how do we involve everyone else in this process?’ we end up talking about how we can persuade other people to accept our views. This, to me, is vanguardist, elitist and, importantly, doomed to failure.

Whilst undoubtedly people in South America have multiple obstacles that we do not face (e.g. extreme material poverty and widespread violent repression) there seems to be a much greater willingness and ability to work collectively to achieve goals. I have recently been reading about the inspiring events in Argentina at the start of the millenium and was amazed at how readily people formed popular assemblies and other directly democratic methods. It is hard to imagine British people, atomised by centuries of capitalist individualism, coming together so readily. But it seems to me that this is precisely the process that needs to be begun.

Andy
Jun 9, 2011 23:46

The event in Venezuela sounds typical of how revolts have formerly occured: the community are already unhappy (perhaps because they have an autonomous frame – a ‘good sense’ or ‘hidden transcript’ or ‘commons’), this unhappiness is focused on aspects of their situation (‘latent interests’), and the act which expresses the unhappiness strikes a chord with others (it is ‘charismatic’ in Scott’s sense). And in many ways, Freirean pedagogy and community-building plays on the same underlying structure: once people start articulating their own experiences and feelings, a position emerges which is both radical/progressive and collective.

Unfortunately, I have the presentiment that if British people came together, most of them wouldn’t have emancipatory visions at all, they’d have proposals for how to make things even more repressive, or how to make repressive systems work more effectively. If that bus thing happened in Britain, the passengers would gang up with the driver against the ‘freeloading troublemaker’.

It isn’t “vanguardist” to recognise that most people are thoroughly authoritarian and conformist, and that those of us who have progressive visions are a minority who are swimming against the tide. Quite the opposite – I think the left is far too starry-eyed about where the ‘working-class’ or the ‘people’ are politically. As a result, the real lines of the struggle – between those with a desire for freedom, and conformists and authoritarians whatever their class-origin – are blurred. It’s imagined that class interest, materiality, or community will somehow act as a deus ex machina, turning authoritarians into radicals through the simple fact of becoming more active or engaged.

I’ve no doubt authoritarians can become radical, but I don’t see why it should work this way – what’s the hypothesis here? That once people are listening to one another instead of the tabloids, they’ll engage with their real life-conditions, or construct their own way of seeing? That people are wrongly imagining social/collective problems to be individual, and realising that a lot of people are suffering the same way will make people realise they’re social not individual problems? I can see how these strategies could make sense, but I wonder if they depend on a certain homogeneity of experience which no longer exists. I have a sense that this kind of organising has historically drawn on a milieu of popular communication and horizontal sociality which pre-exists the political intervention and which, while not necessarily radical, is largely autonomous from the dominant ideology (in Raymond Williams, this would be working-class culture; in Gramsci, good sense; in Scott, the hidden transcript; in Lenin, trade-union consciousness; in Kropotkin and Ward, the social principle). Radicals have never before faced the task of building alternative thought-spaces from scratch, without an underpinning in something of this kind.

And my sense is that – in Britain at least, and probably *not* in Venezuela at any stage – this is exactly the problem we’re facing. What’s happening in Britain is a kind of pre-emption through massification and ideology-construction, and a kind of generalised logistical disempowerment, which heads off popular dissent before it can arise. There’s latent discontent, but it’s instantly channelled in systemic ways, or separated from potential resonance by media discourses which people pre-apply as self-discipline. There’s no pre-existing community to map onto. An attempt to do so will simply map onto the pseudo-community created by the dominant discourse. The mechanisms of control reach further than they ever did before. And it isn’t just external control, it’s reaching very deep into everyday subjectivities. If you ask people what they want, they’ll tell you they want authority, they want discipline, they want the immiseration of a series of folk-devils, they want anything *but* a radical political project.

And this has completely disoriented the left. People either pretend that the drift of the working-class into reaction hasn’t happened, or make excuses for it (playing into reactionary projects).

The people who sense what’s happening – who, most often, are the most radically excluded themselves – drift away from any orientation to the community (*and* away from vanguardism as leadership of the community), into counter-communities with their own transcripts and spaces, which are built up from scratch.

I don’t think this is either ‘vanguardism’ or a cult of the ‘event’. It’s a response to the real situation we face – a defensive response which is the only way to preserve radical agency in an overwhelmingly hostile context. It’s a proactive attempt to *build from scratch* what activists in countries which have not lost the spirit of resistance can *take for granted* and build on.

Of course it would be good to have bigger, more inclusive spaces. It would be good to have ‘good sense’ and the ‘hidden transcript’ back. But what do we do when they just aren’t there? How can we build communities with people whose deepest desire is to string us from lampposts? How do we get past the immense blockages arising from the reconstruction of subjectivities and the pre-emption of dissent?

I’m not saying it can’t be done, but we need to think more carefully about how it can be done in this particular context, when the established passages through hidden transcripts and good sense have been taken away. For instance, Situationism engages more closely with a massified society in terms of the idea of the ‘public secret’, which is similar to what would be articulated in a hidden transcript if one existed. Or maybe we need to stop thinking about the working-class and start thinking about the extremely marginal groups who still *are* engaged in everyday resistance to some degree (migrants, criminalised youths and so on). Or maybe we’re stuck with small autonomous groups, until and unless we can sabotage the pre-emption of dissent. To be honest, I don’t know what the answer is. And once we have it, we’ll have another global protest wave. I’m sure part of the answer lies in what’s being done in places like Venezuela and Argentina, where movements are so far ahead of what we have here. But at the moment their experience is untranslatable, because we have these additional blocks which they either overcame, or never had to face. We need to make these experiences translatable by theorising the differences from our own situation(s).

Tom Robinson
Jun 13, 2011 10:46

Much more information about Venezuela, grassroots organization and contradictions rising in films, books and articles by Dario Azzellini: http://www.azzellini.net

Holly
Jun 13, 2011 14:07

I think Brits have more ’emotional’ work to do. I’ve read about some inspiring community projects in South America that involve a tackling of Machismo and sexism. My personal experience of my local area in the UK has been really positive: a few groups of dedicated people really committed to change. I know, and I feel, there’s a long way to go, and the UK can seem a bit depressing, like there’s too much to do, but all we can do is live the difference now and have a go! 🙂

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