Cargo cult activism

During the Second World War, the indigenous people of the South Pacific experienced an upheaval: suddenly their islands were flooded with naval airbases. It wasn’t all bad: the big aeroplanes bought exciting new things: food, clothes, medicines. The people grew to like it. When the war ended, the troops were gone, but the people wished the big aeroplanes full of fantastic goods would come back.

So they did what they thought would summon them. They built runways, performed military drills and fashioned air traffic control towers, where they sat wearing headphones of wood.

Unsurprisingly, the big aeroplanes never came back. It was never about the headphones or the military drills? Yet how were the cargo cults to know this? By all appearances, these trappings summoned the big aeroplanes and all of their bounty.

In activism, we sometimes find ourselves in a similar position. The most egregious example, perhaps, is the occupation of public squares. It stems from the uprising in Egypt early this year, where millions of Egyptians occupied Tahrir Square until they toppled their government and achieved regime change. Admittedly, things have not exactly got better for the Egyptians since their regime change, but the formula appears to go like this:

  1. Camp out in public square
  2. ???

And so Tahrir Square became something of a meme. In the months that followed, conscious attempts were made to copy the great Tahrir Square occupation. In Spain, they camped out in Puerto del Sol. In Greece, Syntagma Square. The UK made several attempts: on March 26th, the word went up to turn Hyde Park into Tahrir Square. People camped out in Trafalgar Square for several weekends. A picnic was held on the steps of the Bank of England that was called an occupation.

What do these things have in common? None of them led to a revolution.

Then there is the example of the ongoing occupation of Wall Street. The people have been there for weeks, now, and are gaining vast popular support. Comparisons to Tahrir Square have been made, of course. Unlike Tahrir Square, Occupy Wall Street is unlikely to lead to revolution: perhaps that was never their goal at all–the occupation has been described as its own demand. There is hope, of course. There is always hope: the occupation could genuinely be used as an organising space to build a better world if it so chose, but it will need to go beyond camping in a public square. The numerous copycat occupations springing up across the States are as unlikely to breed revolution as any of the other squares.

So what is the difference between these occupations and Tahrir Square?

As MagicZebras points out, it’s not about a bloody square. We are a cargo cult, pitching tents in public squares in the vain hope that it will summon better times.

Part of the problem is location. Tahrir Square was prominently placed in front of governmental offices, a visible statement of “we’re here and we’re watching you”. In contrast, many of the other square occupations, including Wall Street, have been tucked away in minimally-invasive places.

Another problem is numbers: millions of people were in Tahrir Square, in contrast to the thousands who camp out in the larger derivative square occupations.

Another big difference is the conditions from which the occupations sprung up: Tahrir Square happened after days of lively protesting and rioting, while all of the others, save Syntagma Square, happened in conditions of relative peace.

In contrast to organising camps such as Climate Camp or the Greenham Common Peace Camp, square occupations are often not used as a springboard for proximal direct action. This is a shame: Occupy Wall Street easily has the numbers and the proximity to do some serious disruption of trading, yet they have not. While its utility as a collective living space and a demonstration of communal spirit is admirable, it could do so much more.

And I wonder, then, if it is hamstrung by attempting to be like Tahrir Square. In Tahrir Square, their presence alone was disruptive: millions of people, refusing to leave until the government they despised had gone. In Wall Street, the protesters now have mayoral approval to stay as long as they like. Time will tell if they seize this opportunity and escalate. It is certainly the best way to move forward, if their ultimate aim is to fix a broken system.

In short, then, we must stop with the Tahrir Square cargo cult. Tahrir Square was perhaps unique: a product of its conditions. It was certainly not just occupying a square that caused revolution, and we may need to let go of the romantic notion that going camping will overthrow governments. For our own motivation, we must be realistic about what we can achieve with an action, rather than dreamy aspirations. Failure is ultimately disheartening.

We are unique. We are not Tahrir Square, and nor should we try to be. Let each action be a response to its own circumstances, with conscious awareness of our own strengths and limitations.

We are not Tahrir Square, and nor do we need to be.


16 thoughts on “Cargo cult activism”

  1. Don’t forget the wave of strikes that crippled Egypt’s economy in the days and months leading up to Tahrir Square, and also during Mubarak’s final days…

  2. The fact that they’re Arabs makes a huge difference. For us, “Tahrir” Square is just a square with a funny name. For Egyptians, it’s actually a word that means something. “Syntagma” is quite effective what with meaning ‘Constitution’, but protesting Sunny Port or the police breaking heads in Fuck-You-Napoleon Square doesn’t have the same symbolic value as a million people camped in Liberation Square demanding a free society, and then government thugs murdering them for it. It wasn’t just a handy choice of location, it was a very canny choice of name.

    Also, this is going to sound a bit cocky what with having occasionally been involved with them, but Wall Street also seems to have borrowed a bit from UK Uncut. The strategy of picketing and occupying corporations to attack government policy has been a surprisingly effective one, and has been at least as effective in Wall Street as it has in Topshop and Vodaphone. Yeah, now they’ve got mayoral approval it’s a bit of a pathetic lawful rebellion, but it does show the political establishment is distancing itself from Wall Street slightly.

    Plus there’s a beautiful little reversal in the West borrowing Tahrir. For well over a century Europeans and Americans have been leaning over the Arab world, telling them to adopt our models of democracy (though obviously without any of that silly voting or freedom of expression that might be bad for business) and now we are freely borrowing their democratic models. Even if it’s not at all intended as solidarity, imitation is still the sincerest form of flattery, and I can’t imagine seeing your revolution spread is particularly disheartening.

    And then of course there’s the copy-catting in the Arab Spring itself: Mohamed Bouazizi added himself to a long list of self-immolations. This wasn’t just effective because it was drastic, but because of its existing associations (the “spring” is borrowed from the “Prague Spring”, where Jan Palach famously self-immolated, copying a Pole a few days before, and followed a few days later by another Czech, a Hungarian and a Romanian). Cargo-cult demonstrations don’t necessarily achieve the same thing as their inspirations, but protest is, at its heart, communicative and what they do achieve is to build a vocabulary and a network of solidarity. This doesn’t remove the need for original, targeted and carefully planned actions, but it does give them tools to be effective.

  3. F*** me, A.Y.A! You response is almost a blog in itself. I really like your last paragraph.

    In terms of the cargo cult critism of OWS or OccupyLSX – its not really fair.OWS aimed to directly fuck up Wall street but they couldn’t because they were blocked by the police. instead they’ve moved round the corner – not part of their immediate aim – to Liberty Plaza. The people I talked to were far from niavley hoping for a 1,2,3 point plan and were also very aware of many of the historical precedents for their actions. Liberty plaza isn’t ‘tucked away’, its right near ground zero and there is a huge amount of people traffic in the area. Also, I’m not sure that ‘millions’ of people were tucked into Tahir square.

    In addition to this you might be ignoring many of the things that have sprung out of wall street such as blocking the brooklyn bridge, hugley disruptive and brave piece of civil disobedience.

    In terms of LSX I’m also not sure whats ‘cargo’ about trying to disrupt the stock exchange.

    However, where I do agree with you is the Tahalgar square moments last year. They definatley had a cargo vibe about them.

    in response to a point that AYA made, Ukuncut were standing on the shoulders of giants, and occupying shops etc is as old as the hills.

    Lastly, aren’t we missing the point here? Surely the point is to try. Surely the point is to give things a go and see what happens. I believe that a the idea of a precise, logically bullet proof revolutionary campaign that has lead to the establishing of a post revolutionary utopia has never happened. Also, what is needed to have any impact on anything is people. Lots and lots and lots and lots of angry people that don’t go away – i believe that out of this some good will come.

  4. Lastly, aren’t we missing the point here? Surely the point is to try. Surely the point is to give things a go and see what happens.
    Exactly. The fact that the Wall Street occupation isn’t particularly coherent ideologically doesn’t undermine its basic message of “fucking hell we are angry and we are angry at Wall Street”. It’s a direct attack on capitalism, even if they’re using a scatter-gun instead of a sniper rifle.

    By the way Joe you can just call me “Alex”. It’s not like people are going to confuse me with anyone.

    1. Re: trying. Trying is generally a good thing. What I have reservations with is repeatedly trying something that does not work–and whether it has actually ever worked is incredibly dubious.

      I am concerned about attachment to tactics that demonstrably don’t really achieve anything, as I think it precludes–as I said at the end–having a go at trying anything that actually works; it precludes creativity.

      It’s all well and good to keep trying to turn a computer on by twiddling the volume knob, but that computer’s never going to turn on if you keep doing that.

      1. Yes, bad tactics are bad tactics, but the fact that something is met by waves of protest, even waves of shit, ineffective protests where everyone mostly looks bored, is still effective in and of itself.

        Protesting isn’t just about blocking or reversing policy. It’s about showing the powers that be that we’re not going to take the next one lying down either, and the people that are on our side and at home that they’re not alone in thinking that and, no, it doesn’t make them a domestic extremist that they still want an NHS. Think of the shite the Tories could be pushing through now if the existing cuts had gone through unopposed.

        It reminds me of a BBC Have Your Say comment I once saw saying if the EU helps prevent wars, how come there’s never been a war between its members that it stopped. There’s no clear way to measure how far we’ve succeeded, because if you’ve prevented something well enough there’s no way of knowing if it would ever have materialised.

        It’s not like turning on a computer. If you’re trying to get Bernard’s attention and you keep shouting “EDDIE!”, there’s still a fair chance he’ll turn around eventually.

  5. What I find interesting about analysis of historical examples to determine which tactics work is the assumption that any tactics work at all.

    I think the popularity of these occupations is a desperate desire to be part of something significant.

    I think they will make some people feel empowered, help some people think about things in a new way, alienate some swathes of the public and perpetuate some common problems in political discourse.

    Mostly people will take part because of how it makes them feel, not how effective it is.

    I don’t begrudge them their fun or their optimism, I don’t even begrudge them their naivety, just as I don’t begrudge the cynics their analysis or even their frustration.

    I don’t have any plans on Saturday. Paternoster Square is as good a place to put my body as any.

  6. The most interesting things about the occupy movements (esp the edinburgh and glasgow ones) is that they are organised by people who aren’t part of the organised left. They’ve been organised and supported by people who usually just sit and shout at the telly.

    The occupy movement isnt the answer, but it isnt the wrong answer either, it may go somewhere, but I doubt it – what it will do is bring people in and make them feel part of something and hopefully bring them into contact with the radical elements in their cities and communities.

  7. Manual trackback:

    It surprised me a bit to find you, Dave etc voicing some similar doubts (i.e. what will this achieve?) that I have – I guess rightly or wrongly I’d expected you to be more optimistic about what occupations can achieve.

    However I’m guessing we do differ about the question of “What next?” To summarise my very incomplete thoughts, I guess I think what’s most important is getting mainstream disillusionment reflected in party political positions and government policy. Because that’s how power operates and therefore the only real means to change things on a big enough scale to have the necessary impact.

    No doubt your “seize the opportunity and escalate” looks a bit different. Could you explain a bit more about what you think this could look like? I’m trying to understand how it’d work.

    I mean, I’ve read Bey, I get the idea of protests and occupations as temporary autonomous spaces where we can enact new forms of social organisation and thereby transform ourselves – micro-revolutions, micro-utopias if you like. I just get stuck by the micro-ness of it all – 100 participants are transformed, but how’s this save the NHS or make corporation tax laws fairer, or so on? How’s it have any impact on the national-level policy decisions that seem to be the most direct problems we face politically, and are the specific issues that these actions (from student fees to UK Uncut) are ostensibly protesting?

    I recognise that your overall goals might not be statist, but even if “Save the NHS” is a minimal or transitional demand en route to something more radical, it’s still basically a statist goal for legislation, government spending & a pure state-owned system. (No?)

    I understand how the normal party-political methods are supposed to work (write to your MP; join a political party, etc) – much as I have doubts about how far they are really effective. But I’m much less clear about the process through which direct action can achieve these same goals.

    So I thought I’d ask a direct activist. Georgie not being available for questions down the pub, I hope you don’t mind? I hope it’s clear I’m sympathetic to radical methods: I am just a bit stuck on how exactly they work.

    1. I really liked the blog you wrote on this, and interestingly your thoughts on the Occupy movement are largely similar to my own–I don’t think such a thing will work very well for achieving radical demands. Particularly problematic is the 99-slogan: it’s too broad, yet with no real critique of the underlying problems.

      Occupations, as a tactic in and of themselves, I have no problem with whatsover, and generally recognise the transformation of space as something which is positive: however, as someone (I wish I could remember who it was) said, “occupy everywhere, but don’t occupy anywhere”. The Wall Street and London occupations are both based in a place that is minimally disruptive, where they have permission to be. To me, this is less of an occupation, and more of a campsite–it’s direct action in the same way that Glastonbury is direct action.

      As a means for consciousness-raising, it’s great. As direct action, it’s not.

      On a personal level–and the thing is, direct action means a lot of things to a lot of people–to me, direct action is at its most effective when we don’t think “revolution” immediately, and instead stick with something which we can directly change. This can take the form of blockading, physical business disruptions, brand damage to name but a few. Blockading a runway to stop a plane of deportees taking off has direct, tangible results.

      For larger political change, direct action is also vastly effective. The best example of this is strikes, which have historically achieved a lot of great things for workers.

      Of course, on its own, direct action can only do so much, and consciousness-raising is also hugely important. This is ultimately why I’m so annoyed about the “we are the 99%” slogan–a golden opportunity for consciousness raising seems to be squandered on a somewhat flawed message.

      Hope this makes some sense!

  8. Fantastic blog post and I’ve gained a lot from the comments too. You;ve collectively kind of provided me with what I’ve been missing re: a paper I’m trying to right on climate change. I think the critique of “do these tactics actually work or just make us feel good that we’re doing something?” is spot on and can be applied to many other issues/areas of action.

  9. I saw this happen in Birmingham – the initial occupation was in Victoria Square, but because we were in the run up to Christmas, they got moved to the peace gardens behind the Library – a place where pretty much nobody ever goes, where there’s little to no traffic, & nobody would be bothered about them. I did my bit to support them with firewood & whatnot, & tried to get them more visibility in the media but despite being the oldest UK occupation after St Paul’s, they were hardly even part of the national Occupy movement’s consciousness. They might as well have stayed at home. Since then people have tried to salvage something from it in that it was a talking shop for clarifying what the problems of modern society are, brainstorming solutions & so on, but since then talking is all that’s happened. It’s just locked in a maze of twisty little GAs & comittees, all alike, full of sound & fury & signifying nothing, if you’ll forgive the mixed metaphor. Nothing is getting done, though it seems some people are carving out little fiefdoms, creating in-groups & out-groups & breaking down the essential inclusive, anarchistic, democratic nature of it. Your other blog about a despair event horizon kinda sums up how I feel about that. It’s like Stuart Christie says happened with the CNT & the FAI in Spain during the civil war – there’re wave upon wave of people who start out wanting to implement democratic principles & end up becoming essentially careerist politicians – even if they’re not drawing a salary for their activities, they get off on being the top dog or the person at the centre of it all, & that’s motivation enough to dig in & be the new rulers, or at least a big fish in a smallish pond. And that’s where it fails. Instead, we need to ride the wave of energy while it’s there, get to a consensus as to what to do & then FFS go & do it. Not spend the next 5 years discussing it. /facepalm

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