Brian Holmes on Tue, 1 May 2001 22:26:39 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> counterpowers - Quebec and after

Felix Stalder writes about the main day of protest in Quebec City:

"I was a bit surprised that not even very basic ideas (i.e. tobin tax,
cancellation of debt, linking democracy to literacy) seem to be supported
broadly enough to provide the basis of an emerging alternative policy
program. Perhaps it's simply too early, or a consequence of the movement's
decentralized organization (which for me directly reflects the structure
and the culture of the Internet, in its good and in its problematic
aspects), but there must be ways to formulate at least general alternatives
against which to measure up the status quo."

I guess you mean that these basic ideas were not on the baners of the
march, as concerted visible demands - the kind that could pierce through
the media filters?

You're right about that, and it has both to do with the decentralized,
reticular organization of the whole movement, and with the complexity of
the issues involved. Informing oneself then becomes difficult, in the
absence of a party line - and that difficulty/absence is what our so-called
leaders have relied upon over the past twenty years, to continue pushing an
economic treaty program designed entirely for the interests of what, alas,
must be called the "transnational capitalist class" (title of a recent book
by Leslie Sklair). But I don't exactly think we need a party line...

You might already know that the Second People's Summit
( aimed at defending and refining the detailed
proposals in "Alternatives for the Americas"
(, which is an extensive and
detailed, point-by-point document written collectively after the last 1998
Americas Summit in Santiago, in the framework of an organization called the
"Continental Social Alliance" ( There you have an
alternative policy program. You might know that the Peoples' Summit itself
was convened by two Canadian umbrella-organizations: the "Reseau Quebecois
sur l'Integration Continentale" ( and "Common
Frontiers" ( They have many concrete proposals in
specifically Canadian terms, as you probably know, which their members can
tell you about or whose details you can read (the just-published book
Global Showdown, by Maude Barlow and Co., is probably in every bookstore).
Taking a look at the links section in the sites I've indicated will give
you a dizzying feeling: you have all the reticulated offshoots of the
average HTML node, but these links lead not to data banks, advertising,
one-person or small-group sites, but in most cases to civic and research
associations or unions with memberships, resources, constituencies,
agendas, political programs, etc. As in all such campaigns since the MAI
mobilization, a kaleidoscope of groups, operating on different levels,
comes together on one central demand: here, that the process of hemispheric
integration be taken out of the shroud of executive secrecy, and opened up
to public scrutiny.

The critique and the proposals generated by these groups are too detailed
to put on a sign or banner, but the intensity and depth of the work being
done explains the better media coverage of the substantive issues (we've
seen that process in France too). Now, the "basic consensus" hasn't broken
through to the media yet. But what's encouraging, in Canada as in France
(no doubt in Brazil and maube Argentina as well?), is the emergence of a
_mass networked movement_, in which tens of thousands of people can take to
the streets on the basis of complex ideas that can't be reduced to the old
party-line simplifications. Porto Alegre and the Peoples' Summit are the
first expressions of an attempt to organize these myriad counterpowers, and
to make them politically effective. It's a learning process, and I hope
that the next time some big mistakes will be avoided: like maybe next time
the "unitary march" with the unions and all that will not turn its back on
the adversary, and instead be able to stage some huge, peaceful, civic,
_visible_ gesture of frontal opposition to the executive branch so visibly
confiscating power behind what will now be its undeniable symbol: the
police line, the tear-gas cloud, the Fence.

The truth must out. Capital is enclosing itself, a little more each time,
as more and more citizens gain eyes to see what it is doing. The networked
organizations of the counterpowers are our eyes today, from social
movements to citizens' think-tanks to a new kinds of unions - even if the
political structures and scales of decision that could make those
counterpowers effective have not yet emerged full-blown. I think the best
program is to go on gaining critical and propositional power, to force that
increasingly into the media, both intellectually and visually, and then
finally to make the traditional parliamentary structures respond - and to
begin changing those structures, making them more permeable, more
responsive to citizens and less to business lobbies. That process is now
beginning, at least in Canada, in France, and I think in Brazil. It's being
pushed for almost everywhere.

What good are the protests then, if everything is happening in the abstract
public spheres of networked communication and debate? Like the summits
themselves, with their champage-and-caviar toasts and their face-to-face
encounters beneath the cameras, the protests with their incredible
creativity, visual stunts and tactical diversity are symbolic events that
have everything to do with the maintenance or dissolution of the "status
quo," of the norms our societies live by. To explain that I want to take
another approach, and give you one "inside" view of how those days of
protest came to pass. It would be great, by the way, if more people on this
list would give such an inside view.

I went to Québec as a member of Ne pas plier (Do not bend), which is a
small French association that distributes graphic art productions in
collaboration with social movements. We deliberately went as a network,
inviting artists and graphic designers from England, Spain (the Barcelona
"agencies") and ex-Yugoslavia (Skart, Emigrative Art), as well as 2 members
of a French social movement (l'Apeis: the Association for employment,
information and solidarity for jobless and casual workers), and a
sociologist working with Pierre Bourdieu - whose recent statements on the
need for a European social movement, working as a loosely coordinated but
non-hierarchical network, make a lot of sense to us. We basically went to
see a translocal social movement in action on a hemispheric scale, and to
support it, with the aim of finding out what we could do about that sort of
thing at home in Europe.

We held an exhibition in a Québec city gallery called "Le Lieu," which
invited us, got housing for us all (through the local network OQP2001) and
helped us in many ways. The English friends brought along the mask project,
which four of us developed early on in Montreal with the help of some very
generous people, teachers and students, at Concordia university. Some 3,500
of these "masks" - bandannas printed with a laughing face on one side, a
gagged face behind cyclone fencing on the other - were silkscreened by
hand, at personal expense and with the help of twenty or thirty other
people. They were all given away free by the first day of protest. Ne pas
plier itself brought mostly stickers (a few hundred thousand) for the
"exhibition," which was conceived as a temporary agit-prop center in
support of the movement. The stickers included slogans mostly in French,
saying things like _upstanding utopian_, _Money World_, _the media are
awake, citizens can sleep_, _artists, touch reality_. Another showed the
earth as a hamburger, waiting to be consumed. Another said "free" in
various languages. Our idea was to play the gift against the
totalitarianism of the economy, to practice a dispersive art, to spark off
conversations through the act of giving signs to strangers - an act which
could be performed by anyone, since we gave quantities to people we didn't
know. The images we distribute are all enigmatic, they ask people to think,
to speak and to play. The city was flooded with them, everyone seemed to
love it, it was a fantastic pleasure to do. And all around us, people were
doing similar sorts of things.

By the nature of it, the work in the street brought me closest not to the
Peoples' Summit, not to the unions or the research groups, but to the local
activist groups: OQP2001, who struggled to organize logistics on the ground
in Quebec City, and the anarchist alliances, CLAC and CASA. With Ne pas
plier we also tried to make contacts with popular education groups and
elements of the more traditional cultural and workerist left - something
which I plan to continue doing, during future trips to Canada. In the
demonstrations by the fence though, what you saw most was anarchy. So
what's the anarchist program? Right-thinking people are always deploring
them for being apolitical, spontaneous, violent - not me. I think diversity
of tactics is the key.

Mass protest movements, including direct confrontation, are at the heart of
any chance we may have to transform society today, and the anarchists seem
to know that, maybe better than the others. In these actions, where art has
a central role to play and everyone can act artistically, three things
happen at least, which can change your life. The first is that you touch
the concrete limits of your rights: you face the police, the gas, the
fence, you feel the worst of the system in your own body, and you need
that. Touch the state and be radicalized. It's a way to get beyond the cool
media screen, to verify what oppression is, to better imagine how it works
far away, behind the screen. It was clear that people needed that, and
particularly clear in the stories of everyone who left the unitary march to
climb the stairways up to the fence and find out the real protest was
there. The second thing is solidarity, mutual support: we're all here to
help each other, with almost nothing on our backs, no armor, no
hierarchies, and when someone has the courage to throw the tear gas
cannister back at the police, you love that someone. Love on the
barricades. You can talk to anyone in the crowd, say things you never said
for years to your colleagues or even your friends, you can act collectively
in simple but essential ways. And the third thing is freedom, the freedom
of the city. Walk on a freeway, dress in an outlandish costume, give away
your art, build a bonfire on the street at night. Dance in the streets. The
power of the drumming, hundreds, maybe thousands of sticks and stones on
the roadside barriers, beating out a wild, threatening, supportive, joyful,
dionysiac rhythm that could come together at times into an incredibly
sophisticated beat: that's something you can never forget, you carry it
within you. The carnaval is a counterpower too.

Quebec City looked a lot like the beginning of what I'd seen the end of
back in the early 70s: a countercultural movement with powerful,
articulated politics. We know how that older movement was dismantled, not
only through its own internal contradictions, not only through the secret
police picking off key people (as they're already doing now), but also by
channeling rock music and other spaces of freedom into commodity practices.
What I see today, in the wake of that, is a situation where the only party
in town, the only one that can really get you high, is 100% political.
Quebec City, my friends, was the biggest party you've ever seen, the
beginnings of a new political party. It was collective dionysian political
theater. And everyone knows it. There was no real violence: almost no
gratuitous smashing of private property (some would say not enough broken
banks), no deaths as there might easily have been, not even many broken
bones. That level of sublimation was deliberate, and Canadians can be proud
of forcing compliance from their cops, who simply were not given the right
to break bones and kill. Because the idea is not for us to become the
terrorists they want us to be - the idea is to go somewhere we've never
been before, to change politics, to change life. To express the violence of
contemporary capitalism, to make it real here and now where the power is,
and to go beyond it in the same movement.

We don't know what "the revolution" will look like. But we know so many
things, about the nature and structure of exploitation and domination in
the present, about the way it is ideologically supported and engineered to
bypass any democratic political process, about its key points of weakness,
about the new possibilities for organization and the sharing of both
information and decisions - and about the course of radical democratic and
socialist movements of the past, about the traces and resources they've
left in our societies and our hearts, about the political and social rights
we've gained collectively over centuries, rights that the state can't take
away without losing all its legitimacy and increasing the force of the
movement, as it is doing right now. We know all that, and that's why no one
is allowed to dominate, no one's in control. But more and more people are
starting to play the great revolution game: carefully, with love and
intelligence and urgency and foresight, and with the sense that if you make
the right moves now, someone else may surprise you tomorrow. As 60,000
people surprised us, beyond all hopes, and in ways we still have yet to
thoroughly understand, last week in Quebec City.

So that's my "inside" view. I'd love to hear more from others.

Happy May 1st, and good luck to our friends in London.

best, Brian Holmes

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: contact: