Where is the protest? A reply to Graeber and Lapavitsas

by Jerome Roos on April 9, 2014

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Yes, we’re nice people, and yes we have been sapped of our energy. But the main reasons we’re not protesting are deeper and must be targeted directly.

Photo by Dimitris Michalakis. Video by Yiannis Biliris.

Last week, two commentaries appeared in The Guardian — one by David Graeber and the other by Costas Lapavitsas and Alex Politaki — basically asking the same question: given that we’re under such relentless assault by the rich and powerful, why are people not rioting in the streets? What happened to the indignation? The screws of austerity are only being tightened. So where are the protests? The two pieces provide two very different answers to the question, and while each contains a moment of truth, both ultimately remain unsatisfactory.

Before turning to the articles, however, we should note that things are not as bad as it would seem from a cursory glance at the headlines. Back in 2010-’11, popular protest was a novelty and it was all over the mainstream media. Today, resistance is widespread, but we no longer see it reported in the news. To give just the most obvious example: two weeks ago, Madrid experienced one of its biggest demonstrations since the start of the crisis, with hundreds of thousands taking to the streets. Despite the enormous turnout and the violent clashes that broke out towards the end of the march, the Spanish and international media chose to systematically ignore the event.

Do we care too much?

That said, there’s an impression that the protests have subsided in frequency and intensity since 2011. Why so? In his article, anthropologist David Graeber argues that the working class simply “cares too much.” In his words: “working-class people [are] much less self-obsessed [than the rich]. They care more about their friends, families and communities. In aggregate, at least, they’re just fundamentally nicer.” In a way, Graeber is right to highlight this moral chasm. Recent research has yielded a plethora of scientific evidence that the rich — and their “rational” acolytes in economics departments — are indeed much more selfish than common folk. Here in Athens, communal solidarity and mutual aid is singularly responsible for maintaining the social fabric in the face of this destructive selfishness of bankers and politicians.

But can we really infer from this somewhat moralistic observation that the fundamental niceness of working people — combined with the displacement of their sense of solidarity into abstract concepts like national identity — provides a “partial answer” to the mystery of the empty street? That conclusion strikes me as slightly misplaced. After all, as Graeber himself can attest, there were plenty of ordinary people out there in the streets in 2011, building up protest camps on the basis of solidarity. Why are we no longer out there today? Have we suddenly become so much more caring towards the rich and so much less solidary with one another? What changed? It seems to me that we should be focusing not so much on the moral virtues of workers but rather on the social causes of the ephemeral and ineffective nature of contemporary protest per se.

An economic double whammy?

Here, the article by political economist Costas Lapavitsas and journalist Alex Politaki — which focuses more specifically on European youth protest, although their question is basically the same as Graeber’s — provides a slightly more dynamic explanation. According to Lapavitsas and Politaki, “the answer seems to be that the European youth has been battered by a ‘double whammy’ of problematic access to education and rising unemployment.” This, in turn, has “sapped the rebellious energy of the young, forcing them to seek greater financial help from parents for housing and daily life.” As a result, “the young have been largely absent from politics, social movements and even from the spontaneous social networks that have dealt with the worst of the catastrophe.”

At first sight, this argument seems to have some explanatory merit. Upon closer inspection, however, it clearly contradicts itself. Back in 2010-’11, everyone — including Lapavitsas — cited rising unemployment as a major factor behind the protests. Now the same people are citing rising unemployment as a reason for the lack of protests? That explanation hardly seems to hold water. In 2012, Lapavistas wrote that “this situation is manifestly untenable. It brings unemployment … and spreads hopelessness across Europe. As the eurozone moves deeper into recession in 2013, social and economic tensions will ratchet up across the continent.” Except, they didn’t. As the eurozone moved deeper into recession, the streets all but emptied out. You cannot retroactively account for that fact with the same economistic reasoning you once deployed to predict the opposite outcome, unless you explicitly posit the existence of some kind of threshold at which economic hardship starts to actively discourage popular protest — but Lapavitsas does not do that.

Precarity, anxiety, futility

So, apart from the most immediate factor inhibiting protest (i.e., violent state repression), why are we no longer out there in the streets? I would suggest that, if we look a bit deeper and move beyond mere surface manifestations, we can identify at least three interrelated factors — all long-term developments coming to the fore today — underlying the relatively ephemeral character of contemporary protest:

  1. The total dis-aggregration and atomization of the social fabric as a result of the rise of indebtedness and the precarious nature of work under financialized capitalism, along with the emergence of supposedly “revolutionary” social media and communication technologies, which may be very useful tools for coordinating protest but which render us increasingly incapable of holding together broad popular coalitions. The social atomicity of late capitalism inhibits the development of a sense of solidarity and makes it much harder to self-organize in the workplace and build  strong and lasting autonomous movements from the grassroots up.
  2. The pervasive sense of anxiety wrought by the neoliberal mantra of permanent productivity and constant connectivity, which keeps people isolated and perpetually preoccupied with the exigencies of the present moment and thereby preempts strategic thinking and long-term grassroots organizing. Closely connected to the rise of indebtedness and precarity, anxiety becomes the dominant affect under financialized capitalism. While anxiety is easily transformed into brief outbursts of anger, its paralyzing effects also form a psychological barrier to investment and involvement in inter-personal relationships and long-term social projects.
  3. The overwhelming sense of futility that people experience in the face of an invisible and seemingly untouchable enemy — finance capital — that we simply cannot directly confront in the streets, nor meaningfully challenge in parliament or government. In the wake of the evident failure of recent mobilizations to produce any immediate change at the level of political outcomes or economic policy, people are understandably disappointed by the perceived pointlessness of street protest. Futility — the conviction that “there is no alternative” to capitalist control — thus becomes the most important weapon in the ideological arsenal of the neoliberal imaginary.

In a future article, I will try to dissect these three factors in greater detail and provide an overview of what I see as the main challenges that the movements face in rekindling the radical imagination. Here, however, I just want to highlight one critical point: neither Graeber’s moralistic narrative (counterposing the fundamental niceness of working people to the selfishness of the capitalists), nor Lapavitsas and Politaki’s economistic reading (explaining the decline in protest through the lack of access to jobs and higher education) provides us very much in the way of an analytical-strategic framework to help revamp the resistance in this phase of relative demobilization. What we desperately need right now is a serious debate within the movements on how to break down the neoliberal control mechanisms of precarity, anxiety and futility — and how to adapt our protest tactics and organizing strategies accordingly.

If we are serious about moving beyond the revolutionary moment of 2011 and building a radically democratic anti-capitalist movement that can actually endure and change the material constitution of society, we will first of all need to find ways to disarm the structural and ideological mechanisms of capitalist control. While I do not pretend to have any easy answers on how to do this — David Graeber’s grassroots organizing in Occupy and his direct involvement in the Strike Debt campaign is much more instructive in this respect — it seems to me that recognizing the systemic importance of precarity, anxiety and futility is a crucial first step in the process of revamping the resistance. Only by directly targeting the structural, ideological and psychological mechanisms that sustain the rule of capital can we begin to recover a sense of social solidarity and craft lasting and meaningful alternatives to financial dictatorship.

Jerome Roos is a PhD candidate in International Political Economy at the European University Institute and founding editor of ROAR Magazine.

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Tue Sørensen April 9, 2014 at 18:02

I agree with a lot of what you say, but why do you and others assume that indebtedness makes people less inclined towards political activism? Most people hold a job whether they are indebted or not; does it really make that much of a difference to someone’s daily life? I would have thought that the prospect of changing things through political action would lead people to hope that their debts would be nullified – which I would think were a powerful motivator for action.

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Jerome Roos April 10, 2014 at 11:01

Good question Tue. Debt tends to have a very isolating effect on people, both materially and subjectively (inducing strong feelings of guilt, for instance). Of course there are movements, like Strike Debt in the US, which try to counter those effects and mobilize debtors around the issue — with some degree of success. In the 1990s Mexico also had quite a powerful debtors’ movement, El Barzón (The Yoke). So debt doesn’t necessarily preclude political activism. It does make it more difficult for people to commit to such activism, though, both because of the material requirements of repayment (leaving less time and energy for “non-productive” activities) and the subjectivity of shame and guilt that being in debt invokes in many people. For a more eleborate answer I can really recommend David Graeber’s ‘Debt: The First 5,000 Years’ and Maurizio Lazzarato’s ‘The Making of the Indebted Man’.

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Tue Sørensen April 10, 2014 at 13:22

Thanks a lot! I will look up those books.

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Heranion April 10, 2014 at 11:58

First, a metaphor.

You don’t ask a man who just fell into a pit to look at the horizon. Especially if looking at the horizon is what landed him there. You can try describing the horizon though, as well as you can, and infect that man with enough passion to make him climb out again and walk towards the horizon with you.

Second, some other reasons for our inactivity.

1. Diffusion of responsibility: “someone more capable may do something in my place”
2. Interference, manipulation and populist propaganda. (there is too much disinformation)
3. Mismatch of values/priorities, especially with everyone being highly opinionated and on the lookout for authenticity, as consequences of our social media culture.
4. Protests are só 2nd millenium. Revolutionizing/replacing/rethinking existing social and economical frameworks, that’s what everyone is working on, instead of protests that achieve practically nothing and get zero mainstream media coverage.
5. The labels ‘paranoiac’ and ‘conspiracy theorist’ are destructive and more than often misused by people who are still…
6. …just too comfortable to care.

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Linnéa Rowlatt April 11, 2014 at 12:28

I agree, especially with your fourth point. I don’t have energy to protest any longer. What’s the point of protesting to an indifferent power elite? They ignore our protests and punish us for conducting them. I am now busy building as many alternative systems as I can be involved with (food, energy, cognitive).

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Tue Sørensen April 9, 2014 at 18:04

(Or does indebted mean something different than being in debt? Sorry, English is not my first language.)

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pamela April 9, 2014 at 19:08

In my opinion one of the biggest obstacles is information dissemination. We need flyers, leaflets, mailers, telling people what’s happening. Who the power players are, who voted for or against what. We need to reach people on a much grander scale. Another problem is transportation. Poor people don’t have it most of the time. We need buses like they had in freedom marches. We need a way for people to do it. And we need a leader. Someone we can rally around that will raise the flag and yell into the bullhorn but will also be a symbol. No one is stepping up to do that. But information is critical. People will not get it from mainstream news. And hope is crucial.

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barbara April 11, 2014 at 18:17

I agree. How can you get to the barricades if you don’t have the bus fare.

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Anne Sewell April 10, 2014 at 09:39

Meanwhile here in Spain there are constantly small protests going on somewhere.

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John Spritzler April 10, 2014 at 16:06

Of the things that affect people’s level of organized resistance and that we can have any control over, the most important factors in my opinion are the following:

#1. The extent to which people are confident that their disagreement with establishment authority is morally right (for example, their confidence that we are in fact not morally obligated to pay back the debts that the rulers say we owe the banks);

#2. The extent to which people are confident that they are not alone, but rather in the great majority, in disagreeing with establishment authority.

#3. The extent to which the disagreement with establishment authority, about which people are confident in their moral rightness and confident that they are in the majority, is a disagreement of sufficiently inspiring importance that it is reasonable to devote the effort and make the sacrifices required to prevail in this conflict with the rulers.

When all three factors are high enough, hopefulness replaces hopelessness and THIS is when people take the necessary concrete steps of organizing and resisting that they believe are required to prevail.

In 2011 all three factors were at a certain level–a level that made many people hopeful and willing to join the Occupy encampments and demonstrations. But when the ruling class upped the ante with police repression, Occupiers lost hope. It became evident to most Occupiers that the movement, as it currently existed, lacked what it would take to actually prevail against the authorities. Hopefulness was replaced by hopelessness.

In my view, the chief weakness of Occupy was that it did not have a sufficiently clear and inspiring vision of what it was for and why it was opposed to the 1%. The aims of Occupy were too vague (or, for those who articulated specific demands, too modestly reformist) to inspire the great numbers of people to make the great efforts and great sacrifices required to prevail over the ruling class. Only the vision of an egalitarian revolution is inspiring enough to do this.

But people with the vision of egalitarian revolution (shaping society with the values of equality and mutual aid) don’t feel sufficiently confident that they are in the majority in wanting to win it. For this confidence to be built it is necessary to promote a HUGE public conversation about the vision of egalitarian revolution. Most people do in fact already want an egalitarian revolution even if they have never thought about it explicitly before; this is evident when one talks to people about what it means and people respond with “I would love it if that happened. But it never will.” We need to encourage people to express publicly their desire for an egalitarian revolution, so people will gain confidence they are not alone in this aspiration. (I am involved in such an effort, at PDRBoston dot org .)

Promoting a huge public conversation about egalitarian revolution–what it means, why it is necessary and–most importantly–why it is possible [because most people already want it!]–with all the tactical creativity we can muster, linking this vision to every concern that people are focused on and struggling over, and encouraging millions of people to publicly express their desire for egalitarian revolution and say that they view their immediate goal as a way of making the world more egalitarian, is something that people can do today without confronting a police club or even, in most cases, breaking the law. This can turn hopelessness back into hopefulness, but this time on a far superior basis that will enable us to have high levels of all three factors cited above, and prevail against police repression.

Hundreds of millions of people with a shared vision of egalitarian revolution, who KNOW that they are hundreds of millions of people with this vision, and who demonstrate their determination to win by organized acts of resistance and self-defense against repression, can persuade a critical mass of members of the military forces to refuse to obey orders to attack the revolutionary movement and instead to join it and use their weapons to help defend it against those who would attack it. This is how we can win!

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dave fryett April 10, 2014 at 21:08

re “In my view, the chief weakness of Occupy was that it did not have a sufficiently clear and inspiring vision…”

The Seattle insurgentsia faced this problem at every turn. We (the revolutionary Left) were a minority and our message was certainly clear and inspiring to us, but befuddling and incredible to the majority. It is a tall order to convince people that just abt everything they have been taught is false. Our message doesn’t make much sense to those who believe that it is some grand privilege to live in America; that America’s foreign policy is driven by altruism etc.

At a GA a liberal said “we don’t want to overthrow the American government for heaven’s sake,” he got an assenting round of belly laughs from the crowd. A speaker or two later a Maoist (and this is not an endorsement of the RCP) stated that that was precisely what he wanted to do, and that anything short of that would be insufficient, that so long as America remained governed by a capitalist regime there would be no hope of attaining justice.

This was met with stunned incredulity. Most of the people assembled had never heard anybody speak like that and really didn’t know what to make of it, it being so far out of their experience.

Breaking through that wall of incredulity is our mission, but it is a real challenge.

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Jason Kennedy April 10, 2014 at 16:43

There have been crowds of up to 500,000 mobilized in Taiwan in recent weeks, as part of a 21 day siege of the legislative chamber by students protesting against a prospective trade deal with China. Their action has had strong echoes of the Occupy movement.

The world media has generally ignored this major story, not sure if ROARmag managed anything on it, either.

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Michael Kenny April 10, 2014 at 17:07

I think Mr Roos’s three points are correct. But there is another factor: the old fogey marxists who have tried to hijack the youth movement and use it as cannon fodder to advance the ideas of their long-lost youth and which they, of course, failed to achieve when they were young. Inevitably, young people will have a sense of futility if the only alternative to the present situation is an ideology which, when tried, proved itself to be a cure worse than the disease and therefore failed miserably. What is needed is a new ideology which offers original solutions to the present generations’ problems and thereby inspires people’s idealism in the same way as the solialist movement did in the late 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries. For the moment, there really is no alternative, so the first task of today’s youth is to come up with one.

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Kco April 11, 2014 at 10:03

we have to be free from ideology. you don’t need ideology. Ideology at a deeper level is also manipulation. Inspiration should find its own root in each and every individual on her/his path of becoming really free.

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ride April 11, 2014 at 00:43

I agree
and i quote , there is no point in fighting the system , all you have to do is find a new one witch makes the current one obsolete

you can call it botcoin , the zeitgeist movement or what have you but it is already in place and growing

i think we need to stop viewing this as a revolution pending but rather as a transition witch will takes time ( a lot of it i know ) but historically speaking leaps only look like “leaps” from our perspective

the tipping point however is something else i guess ^^

you should try to interview Dimitris Kazakis

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Pedja April 11, 2014 at 01:00

“unless you explicitly posit the existence of some kind of threshold at which economic hardship starts to actively discourage popular protest — but Lapavitsas does not do that”. I think this is precisely that. I am from Serbia and here everyone knows an old saying by Milos Obrenovic, an early Serbian leader just after the liberation from Turks, he said something along the lines of as long as people are complaining and rioting, you can tighten the belt, but once they become silent you know it has been enough so loosen up a little bit. Basically, its the old “calm before a storm” type of thing.

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Neil April 11, 2014 at 07:52

While I agree that atomisation, anxiety and a sense of futility are profoundly disabling on an individual level and demobilising on a collective level, I think one should not underestimate how the former two psychological mechanisms of repression may be neutralised by overcoming the latter: in other words, by collectively coming to see a way to challenge the enemy and begin to establish something better – or at least move in the right direction. The radical imagination stimulates hope and overcomes futility. Having stimulated the collective radical imagination the problem, as Occupy demonstrated, is how to maintain momentum in the face of repression.

One of the most inspiring and promising suggestions for a universal protest cause that I believe may stimulate that radical imagination and engage with the hydra-headed (external and internal) enemy on a multitude of levels was one that I came across in Counterpunch yesterday (see: ‘A Tsunami of Commercialization’, Mohammed Mesbahi) (although it was probably meant as a rhetorical idea). I quote:

“Our complacency and wrong education has led commercialisation to become like a powerful hammer, while sharing has become a miniscule nail. To the extent that it has become a way of life to know that people are dying from hunger in other parts of the world, while we ourselves do almost nothing to prevent it.

“Not that we can excuse our complacency and indifference. Our complacency should be taken to court where we should all be judged for committing crimes against humanity. We should form a planetary queue outside the International Criminal Court in The Hague, because we are all complicit. Through our collective complacency and indifference we have remained silent while the earth was being pillaged and destroyed, and we have looked the other way while our brothers and sisters are dying in poverty. In the final analysis, the people who desecrated the earth and those who did nothing to stop them are one and the same, because one cannot exist without the other. We could even say that the one who looks the other way is even more culpable, because the one who is hoarding the world’s resources and destroying the earth is entirely dependent on the complacency of others – he could not do it otherwise.”

In short, what about a mass protest outside the International Criminal Court in the Hague (in the form of a demand to be tried) against those responsible for climate change, against the system that causes it, accepting our complicity and shared ‘guilt’, demanding justice? A mass of ordinary people ‘handing themselves in’ and calling for the powerful – those most responsible – to come and face justice with us. People’s assemblies working out and deciding who to summons. The protest (call for justice) spreading to include other crimes against humanity. Linked local daughter assemblies springing up all over the world – North and South. The possibilities and potentialities seems unlimited??

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Kco April 11, 2014 at 09:41

As Albert Camus says “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion” .

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Kco April 11, 2014 at 09:43

sorry, said.

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carlos April 16, 2014 at 13:05

Great post.

Like others commenting, I do wish to point out that this idea that there is less protest everywhere is sort of false. In Spain there are more protests per day than ever before. So beyond the question of why people don’t protest, there’s the question of why people think there’s no protest. I think this has to do with the atomization, but also with the fact that small protests and initiatives are not Spectacular and are thus incapable of offering a moment within the Spectacle for the multitude to exploit in order to articulate itself.

Also, debating old-timey marxists or puritanical anarchists on Facebook and Twitter fucking sucks and makes you want to just watch TV.

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Jerome Roos April 16, 2014 at 15:14

Fully agreed!

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Ed Lytwak April 19, 2014 at 00:01

Another explanation is that many people no longer believe that conventional democratic nonviolent resistance, i.e. protests, civil disobedience, direct action can effectively bring about meaningful change. And, at the same time conditions are not bad enough to risk violent rebellion. Another explanation is that people are no longer looking for change to come through politics. Instead, they are as John Holloway says changing the world without taking power. They are practicing what David Graeber calls the egg shell theory of revolution – creating a parallel and alternative non-hierarchical social, economic and governance structures.

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Todd D May 23, 2014 at 00:09

While I agree that protests not resulting in change is very likely to be the biggest factor in the United States for people power fizzling out, I think there are two important components missing.
One would be the failure of people to really try and imagine and work for change that is different from the structures we currently know as well as the organizations we think are the instruments of change. In this I am speaking of the traditional non-profit industrial complex.
Second would be the insistence that our revolt must be “non-violent” and by non-violent I mean the overly-broad definition that would include targeted vandalism as violent. I think this narrative needs to be smashed. The 1% is violently opposing us in the streets and murdering people every single day through their pollution, denial of services, and other such profit motives. Are we really expected to oppose and depose of these fuckers with signs and chanting?

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