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<nettime> Response to TiLt: the myth of democracy and reactivism
n ik on Wed, 17 Oct 2001 16:19:53 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Response to TiLt: the myth of democracy and reactivism

Response  to TiLt: the myth of democracy and reactivism.

I went festival slutting over the last three weeks. First to the TINA
collection of festivals in Newcastle (see http://www.octapod.org.au), then to
the TiLt conference in Sydney (see http://www.dlux.org.au/tilt).

On the last panel of the TiLt conference, which was entitled "Sabotaging the
New World Order", a panelist spoke about what he saw as a reactive culture in
activism (both media and other kinds as far as I remember) that operates in
opposition to things (is 'anti') but doesn't propose alternatives, as well as
the idea of 'reinvigorating' democracy (I'm going off my memory here, so this
may not be an exact recreation of his talk. This was the basic gist of it as
far as I remember though).

Quite a few people, both on the panel and in the audience, received his talk
quite well.

I didn't though.

  I thought the talk was both naive and misguided.  Both the 'reactive' and
'anti' nature of activism (if we can forgive the use of a term so broad ad
overused as to be as good as useless) and the common notion of democracy are
myths - this much is obvious. But they are myths that subjugate and deny, that
impose a specific position to 'activism', and deny those people that would make
up the category the ability to creatively engage with their own history.

"We need to stop always being so reactive and 'anti' everything"

I was down at the S11 blockade (Australian blockade of the Asia-Pacific meeting
of the World Economic Forum in September 2000).  It, like many of the other
mass direct actions that have plagued the meetings of international financial
institutions, the few wealthy countries, and supranational organisations like
the EU and WTO, was largely perceived in and through the media as an
'anti-globalisation' protest, against capitalism and all that jazz. You could
say that it was a perfect example of the reactive activism that the TiLt
panelist was talking about.

Except for the fact that it, like all of the other protests in the same current
before it, weren't any more devoid of alternative visions that they were
'anti-globalisation' protests.

In a recent nettime post, Willard Uncapher wrote:

"And to the public, the demand and struggle for 'economic justice' and cultural
and natural sustainability sounds a lot different than 'antiglobalization' and
its protests. Indeed, I would have thought that the term antiglobalization was
invented by the mainstream press to isolate, humiliate, and belittle
'progressive activists.' "

At each protest that has taken place in the Global North since this current
'round' of protests began in May 1998, the multiplicity that constitutes the
meshwork of movements, organisations, networks and groups has contained and
promoted both criticisms of the current status quo, and alternative ways of
organising ourselves and living in the world.

(And here I am talking about the protests in the Global North.  Resistance in
the Global South is, like alternative proposals in the Global North, ignored by
and large. Resistance, important resistance anyway, happens where all the
action happens - in the North. And in the North, all the important action
happens in the USA.)

So many alternatives have been thrown up, from minor changes in debt structure
and currency transfer systems, to wholesale changes in social structure, it is
hard to know where to begin to describe them all. We could cite the Tobin Tax,
a favorite of more 'reform' orientated organisations (or we could look at the
endless list of proposals on various NGO websites, from Global Exchange to
Friends of the Earth). We could look at the alternate models of governance
proposed in forums like the World Social Forum, or in the dozens of forums that
accompany every protest. Or we could look at the endless wealth of examples of
"theory-in-practice" that is the autonomous, anti-hierarchical, and networked
protest affinity groups - from their decision making structures to the carnival
they introduce into the protests and revolutionary actions.

There is a difference between having alternatives, and having the mass of
status-quo media acknowledge them. The myth of "reactivism" is like the myth of
"anti-globalisation" protesters - a tactical deployment of a popular myth to
weaken activists, undermine their projects, and alienate them from the rest of
the population(s). It makes them spoilt children, always complaining. It makes
them appear as though they have no answers, and, god forbid, if 'they' were
ever to 'gain power' they would obviously have no idea about 'what to do'.
They are the opposite of The Leaders Of The Free World, who stand ready and
able to deal with the practical problems of the Real World.

The myth of 'reactivism' has been deployed, from both within and without,
against the possibilities the meshwork of groups, organisations, movements and
insurrections throws up.

"Get back to the 'real' democracy"

Democracy as an ideal / idea is constantly thrown up - from the Zapatisitas to
international NGO's to the idea of participatory democracy on the blockade to
parliamentary democracy (the most common form of the ideal/idea).

The basic concept though, is the latter - the kind of parliamentary democracy
that is characterised and associated with the Nation-State.  The basic concept
is not informed by current realities - ie, we don't generally associate
oligarchy with democracy thought this is what democracy in its most general
sense current amounts too (and has pretty much always amounted too).

But, people far more eloquent than I have already covered this fact - both on
this list and off. Negri and Hardt for instance;

"The notion of "one person, one vote," for example, was one of the ideals
toward which the various modern schema of popular representation and
sovereignty tended. There is no need for us to argue here that these schema of
popular  have always been imperfect and in fact largely illusory. There have
long been important critiques of the mechanisms of popular representation in
modern democratic societies. It is perhaps an exaggeration to characterize
elections as an opportunity to choose which member of the ruling class will
misrepresent the people for the next two, four, or six years, but there is
certainly some truth in it too and low voter turnout is undoubtedly a symptom
of the crisis of popular representation through electoral institutions."

The question is not "how do we bring about a 'real' democracy", for there is no
'real' democracy to base any comparison on. The question is, does this myth
have an power to bring about a society in which we wish to live?

I'd say no - its (his)tory is so tainted, from mercantilism, imperialism, class
division, patriarchy, racismŠetc, that it is near impossible to 'clear out'
the concept and make it usable. There are also more substantial problems with
the myth, the issue of 'representation' being the most important. Also, a myth
so laden with historical baggage is all to easy prey for recuperation by the
powers that we would claim it from. Its (his)tory makes it an 'unbalanced
sword', always leaning towards its past of mercantilism, imperialism, class
division, patriarchy, racismŠetc  in 'mythical' and cultural warfare.

Tactical myths?

I might be making too much of words here, but they can be important.  They can
limit the sphere of possibility, and alienate us from each other and out own
pasts and stories. I wish that the question the TiLt panel had thrown up was
"what myths are we to deploy, do these myth have the power to bring about a
society in which we wish to live, and how are we to fight the myths that would
subjugate us?

just a few thoughts from the arse-end of the Global North, 

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