In the past decades there has been a proliferation of protest movements that interpellate a global demos, which has been wronged by the neoliberal beast. From Puerta del Sol to Taksim, from Syntagma to Tahrir Square, from Hong Kong to New Delhi, street politics seem to have transformed the way power, agency and resistance are being perceived and performed. By inserting new actors into the political stage, these counterpublic spheres are displacing the Habermasian idea of public sphere, where rational subjects come together to deliberate over common interests. Instead counterpublics can be read as affect worlds, where public anger, outrage and frustration reshape the terms of the state-civil society relation.
Despite important differences in goals and strategies, it is claimed that protest movements like the San Precario-movement, the Arabellions, the indignados, or Occupy Wall Street are all horizontally organized, mostly employing social media like Facebook, blogs and twitter. Direct action on the streets allegedly brings together heterogeneous groups, inducing “spontaneous solidarity”. These bodies on the street are vulnerable to state violence, even as they demand accountability from their political representatives.
The disruptive potentiality of dispossessed masses, as they occupy public spaces to protest economic and political disenfranchisement, can be read as an exercise of popular sovereignty. Political actions on the streets in the form of hunger strikes by asylum seekers in cities like Berlin or self-immolation by a Tunisian fruit vendor have become symbols of global resistance. A number of concepts like “precarity”, “wasted lives”, “the superfluous”, “the outcasts” are mobilized to describe marginal political subjectivities. Despite significant differences in their approaches, all these concepts engage with the condition of dispossession. They outline how the governmentality of efficiency, profitability, accumulation, optimization renders vast majority of populations expendable and disposable.
Contesting these developments, protest movements in different parts of the world evoke promises of radical political change through shaming powerful states and international financial institutions into good behavior. However, the question remains: How effective are these fantasies of radical change through “Facebook revolutions” and “Twitter insurgencies” in fundamentally transforming social, political and economic relations in the era of postcolonial late capitalism?
There is an intrinsic ambivalence at the heart of today’s protest movements. On the one hand, without the desire for and vision of another political order, resistance is not possible. The movements powerfully negate the TINA (There Is No Alternative) principle. On the other hand, current protests unwittingly reproduce processes of subalternization of marginal subjects and collectivities that have a tenuous relation to the state as well as the (international) civil society and counterpublic spheres. The romantic enthusiasm evoked by popular movements erases the exploitative and exclusionary material conditions that make possible the exercise of agency of the dissidents. When, for instance, an anti-capitalist protester tweets with his/her I-Pad, which is produced under super-exploitative working conditions in the global South, the phantasm of subverting capitalism reveals itself as a surreal moment of class-privileged jouissance. Such radical politics is marked by a discontinuity between those who resist and those who cannot.
Despite the powerful images evoked by ideas like “bare life” or “disposable lives” that are mobilized by protesters to mirror their vulnerability, in my view, many of these concepts tend to reproduce Eurocentrism. For instance, the recent focus on precarity is closely related to the breakdown of the welfare state in Europe, which conveniently disregards that this situation has been the norm in the global South. The majority of the population was systematically denied access to the formal labor market, health insurance and unemployment benefits, and for decades has been living with the insecurity and anxiety resulting from the system of employment made casual. The irony is that the scene of the crime has expanded. What was done to the global South in the name of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) is now being implemented in the global North.
My other concern is that enthusiastic discourses about resistance and fantasies of hyper-agency tend to overestimate the scope and influence of current political initiatives, even as they ignore the exclusions they produce. The absurdity of the claim that tweeting one’s way out of capitalism is self-evident. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari elaborate the erotics of capitalism: “… the way a bureaucrat fondles his records … the bourgeosie fucks the proletariat. Flags, nations, armies, banks get a lot of people aroused”. I would add that fantasies of radical change through protest politics are getting a lot of urban, class-privileged subjects very aroused. The fact that they are complicit in the very structures they are contesting is conveniently veiled by the rhetorics of the disenfranchised global demos.
The fabricated fiction that all bodies are equal on the street or in cyberspace disavows the hierarchies that permeate social and political relations globally. Given that only the elites fulfill the criterion of citizenship invoked in the demographically limited normative concept of civil society, subaltern groups can only unevenly access counterpublics. In response to Michel Foucault’s claim “where there is power, there is resistance”, I would add “where there is resistance, there is power”. There is still a crucial difference between being an unemployed youth in Spain and a farmer in India, who loses his land because of being forced to buy genetically modified Monsanto BT cotton. The former is contesting his precarity on the streets of Madrid as part of the indignados, while the later may be one of the nameless thousands who have committed suicide since the enforcement of biological patents. Not as an act of resistance, but because of his inability to make his interests count and make the postcolonial state respond to his subalternization. Against the claim that our common vulnerability brings us together, I would advance a counterargument that deep asymmetries of power and wealth cannot be corrected simply by sharing the street or cyberspace for a common cause or facing police violence together.
It is imperative to rework our understanding of resistance to counteract the seductions of the vocabulary of “tweeting the revolution”. We need to guard against the enthusiastic celebration of radical change through street politics and digital publics. Protest movements are marked by exclusions that are disturbingly overlooked in celebratory discourses about their opposition to the state. The staging of the state as enemy and civil society as agent of salvation can have vicious neocolonial consequences, particularly for subaltern groups. Transnational counterpublics tend to empower civil society actors, whose “will-to-do-good” and “will-to-resist” are marked by feudality and enabled by a neoliberal framing. We need to confront the question whether enthusiastic discourses of resistance really empower disenfranchised communities, or whether they simply reinforce relations of domination between those who act and those on whose behalf these colorful and lively uprising and revolts are being staged.
The process of de-subalternization is unbearably slow, while the fantasies of revolutions via twitter and Facebook move at the speed of thought. Gayatri Spivak recommends that the vanguardism of the international civil society be supplanted by the slow, patient work of enabling subaltern access to hegemony. This is not just about teaching subalterns to resist through political indoctrination or consciousness-raising; rather, they must be enabled to exercise intellectual labor, while the class-privileged must unlearn the impulse to monopolize agency in the name of saving the world. Such a development would require a shift from street politics as the site of de-subalternization to other arenas of intervention (e.g., the postcolonial state, which is like a pharmakon, both poison and medicine). In contrast to the state-phobic rhetoric of protest movements, the relation between the postcolonial state and the subaltern must be reconfigured, thereby converting poison into counterpoison.
Those on the privileged side of transnationality have to resist becoming self-selected moral entrepreneurs in charge of finding solutions for the world’s problems. “The voice of the people” as an act of political speech that authentically expresses the will of the people reveals itself as a phantasm, so that protest movements can ironically subalternize the masses at the very moment that they seem to let them speak. The continued reproduction of subalternity complicates easy notions of transnational alliances, raising troubling questions about the possibilities of post-imperial politics in the era of neoliberal globalization.