London, Cairo, Wisconsin: tears in rain

“All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”

A little over a year ago, there was a feeling of momentum within what can loosely be termed as “the protest movement”. It was global, it seemed. The winds were blowing in our favour, and perhaps the underdog would finally have its day.

As we marched through London, we expressed this sentiment with a chant:

London, Cairo, Wisconsin! We will fight them, we will win!

At the time, we looked gladly towards our friends in far-flung countries. We allowed hope to rise in our hearts over the seeming revolution in Egypt, having watched the people struggle to overthrow a tyrannical government and succeed. We felt joy as we watched protesters occupy the Wisconsin State Capitol, thousands of people in a mass mobilisation against right-wing economic policy.

We felt solidarity. If we channelled Cairo and Wisconsin, perhaps we, too, could win.

A year later, how the tides have turned.

Egypt is a military dictatorship, with elections on the way which are unsatisfactory to many. Things are getting worse for many, particularly women who are subjected to “virginity tests”; regressive attitudes towards gender are on the rise. There’s still some fight in the women, thankfully, but these are battles they should no longer need to fight.

Meanwhile, the occupation we so admired in Wisconsin has now become a brand. We do not occupy space, we Occupy™ a tucked-away corner in a tent. As this happens, politicians pass laws signing away protections for vulnerable workers: Wisconsin’s Equal Pay Enforcement Act was quietly repealed with barely a peep.

And what of London? A lot has changed in a year. The summer riots were capitalised upon to expand the state’s ability to use violence. London is being carved up and plunged into an authoritarian nightmare in the name of a sporting event. Not a day goes past without news of another callous act by the government, so many that sometimes they will cover up one callous act with another, slightly lesser callous act.

London, Cairo, Wisconsin… all is lost.

We seem to have reached the Despair Event Horizon, and will continue to fall forever.

If we were a work of fiction, it would be at this point that a ragtag band of misfits would gang together and make a valiant last stand, and, against the odds, succeed. The music would swell, and the credits would roll as we all hugged each other, ecstatic tears streaming down our faces in slow motion.

In the stark reality of things, everything is as likely to end in tears, but probably not the slow-mo huggy kind. If we’re lucky, we’ll just be crying in frustration. We are confronted by the utter futility of our actions, dashing ourselves against the sheer walls of the cruel system. If history remembers us at all, it will be as a mote of dust causing a mildly irritating squeak in an otherwise slick machine.

Last year is currently remembered in a talismanic fashion: all of these magical things happening all over the world, and if only we could regain some of that vigour. The more savoury aspects are performed in a bid to cargo-cult a revolution that will never come. One by one, these little bubbles will burst until it’s all gone.

Despite all this, I have been conditioned by fiction. My heart still holds out hope for that rag tag band of misfits in our glorious final battle. Surely there must be some way to defeat the beast once and for all?

And perhaps there is. What it isn’t is a tired repetition of parts of the near or distant past. It will be something new entirely, this intangible soaring hope.

London, Cairo, Wisconsin. We are all the same.

15 thoughts on “London, Cairo, Wisconsin: tears in rain”

  1. I dunno what to say. I feel it myself, that this wave has foundered upon the shore rather than sweeping the crap away that we’d hoped to see gone by now, but we’re back into the Spring again, and it’s time to get creative once more. Another spring, another wave – & if we don’t sweep away the old order, let’s at least erode their shores back a few hundred yards.

    I always cautioned against using Egypt as an example, because Egypt was not what many people held it to be – non-violent & somehow successful. They took their first steps towards freedom & as so often happens they got stuck with a crappy compromise that really wasn’t all that, and their revolution was anything but peaceful.

  2. Beautifully written and terribly sad. The promise of last year seems to have faded and we need to ask ourselves why.

    Did things peak too soon? The student fightback coincided with the Arab Spring which perhaps made many us believe things were going to change faster and more profoundly than was possible when the overwhelming majority of people still hadn’t felt the impact of the cuts.

    When Time magazine picked THE PROTESTER as person of the year, the writing was on the wall.

    So, we have to wait until things get worse and more people begin to see that those shouting in the street might actually have had a point.

    I am deeply concerned that the government are trying to make resistance structurally impossible, outlawing squatting, putting down protests with even greater brutality, making the surveillance of digital communications easier and more profound. My personal view – not shared, I know – is that we cannot leave parliamentary politics uncontested by refusing to vote because this is the arena in which the state is increasing its control by passing laws that make it harder and harder to create the autonomous zones needed to imagine and plan alternatives. I don’t expect you to agree with me on this point 🙂

    The question becomes, what do we do now to prepare for when things get worse? How do we encourage people not to fetishise tactics but instead to think more strategically? I can’t help but think that the answer in part lies in moving away from reactive political demonstrations (government does X; we do Y) and to instead focus on actions like those of the Diggers of Haight-Ashbury or the free food kitchens run by of the Catholic Workers Movement (Christian anarchists). Occupy had its flaws but it had potential in these areas.

    When someone says “anarchist” or “hard left”, would you rather their first thought was “oh you mean black bloc smashing shit up” or “those people who cleaned up that patch of wasteland and turned it into a playground then handed out free food.”?

    It’s not enough to assert that there is an alternative to lives ruled by fear and profit, we need to start showing people how such lives might be possible. With squatting outlawed, this becomes harder but it is not impossible. I’d argue that putting our energies into such projects right now would be beneficial while waiting for opposition to grow. We have seen that we cannot stop cruel legislation being passed through external pressure alone: we can however start building communities who will give support and help to the victims and in doing so strengthen ourselves as we wait for our numbers to grow.

  3. We are all the same, all Mal at the end of Serenity.

    As Tim says “we have to wait until things get worse and more people begin to see that those shouting in the street might actually have had a point” but it’s terrifying that this will be to the detriment of hundreds of thousands of lives.

    I sat in an encouraging Skype session with Greek activists the other week. Yes, a lot of their work is about mitigating the worst of the crisis and capital at large – those friendly anarchists cleaning playgrounds, giving away food – but they were adamant that the vast majority of people involved in these open kitchens, clinics, general assemblies etc. were newly radicalised, that the country was now more divided by what your response to 2008-2010 was, not by divisions of the past. That’s pretty big for Greece. People are looking to participatory democracy for answers and that can only be good. And their situation is set to be replicated across Europe which, before it collapses in on itself from age and misuse, is going to see a lot of trouble, the best kind of trouble.

    I really think this is the end of the beginning. I’m not saying that the trans-national capitalist class don’t have the ability to cook to books again and milk another thirty years of neo-liberalism, but they’ll have to pull something pretty special to stop capitalism finally cannibalising itself at this point. We live in interesting times. We ain’t seen nothing yet.

  4. As somebody who is slowly discovering the world again, as i feel people often do and re-do – my point is, people all over are moving, shifting to the effects of ‘recession’ as well as many other factors, all happening at once – time upon time governments, financial and bussiness ‘leaders’ act without respecting the individuals right, the individuals choice. In a age where we all see each others views as clearly as we can see a sky.

    I find it difficult to imagine the facade of the ‘banking’ system lasting in a age where people realise they can find out all manner of truth if they have the patience and the will….as of yet most haven’t even bothered to learn the concepts, or perhaps ‘language’ to convey these ideas. Why? well this is why this a endless post, of which was meant to be short. lol.

  5. All the comments are interesting and each provides a valid aspect of the whole picture. Personally I’m closest to Anna’s optimism. These are just plain very hard times. Interestingly the biggest positive changes in history have taken place in times of (relative) prosperity but the movements that created them were born in the harder times. The factors that produced the events of last year were never going to go away in a year. In fact in general it’s worse but that was also to be expected. The “powers that be” are hardly going to undergo a change on the road to Damascus (how appropriate) and say “hey guys, you were right, we’ll sell the Rolls and do it your way”.
    The biggest threat is that people become on the one hand disillusioned and cop out or drop out – or turn to violence. Echoes of the 60’s? Sure but really echoes of any uncompleted change at any time in history.
    Small victories are important and should be celebrated. What has gone wrong needs to be understood and learned from.
    Keep the faith.

  6. I mostly feel the same way but I still think we need to keep at it. The real issue is the sheer gargantuan heft of the shit they’re in. State and police repression ratcheting up is invariably a sign of insecurity and there are signs everywhere of how insecure the ruling elite are feeling right now. They’re all clueless. Their old tricks that they all thought were gospel no longer work. Their economic policy is just a more brutal, divisive version of the same old shit but they don’t even bother to dress it up as some nice, shiny land of freedom and “aspiration.”

    The pace at which they’re ripping the country apart is numbing and terrifying but I’ve met so many people who’ve been radicalised by this crisis, who’ve been woken up. There aren’t enough people who’ve woken up yet but it’s the job of everyone who’s wide awake to shake all the other bastards and tell them to stop looking sideways at the mythical scroungers and shirkers and start looking up at the faceless tax avoiders, lobbyists, bankers, politicians, accountants and bureaucrats who all perpetuate this life and planet-destroying system.

    I think you’re too harsh on the Occupy movement. As someone who’s part of it I can verify that it can be frustrating, and it’s not perfect but it is vast and global, it has mobilised huge numbers in the US (unthinkable before Wisconsin) and the similar, earlier 15M movement in Spain. There have been Greek and Turkish Cypriot people occupying together in the UN buffer zone along their divided island, there are still camps on every continent, all with slightly different motivations and ideas. In terms of the branding, of course it’s been appropriated. It’s the nature of capital to capitalise and of the corporate media machine to condense things into inanities but that doesn’t mean that’s the reality inside the movement or the people within it. My mum is American and my grandma says she hasn’t seen anything like Occupy Wall Street since the 1930s. To even have the balls to attempt a general strike in NYC is pretty incredible.

    Occupy London hasn’t caught on anywhere near as much, and we’ve had our problems but there are still plenty of good, radical people trying to make an impact in May because there’s no point in not trying especially when we are in what should be a transformative moment. Growth-based systems have no future and neoliberal capitalism specifically has failed utterly, their policy tools no longer work but we’re in Gramsci’s “interregnum” of “morbid symptoms” between the dying old and the unknowable new. And there’s always a huge fucking fight to shape the new and the only way to fight a zombie system that still controls everything is surely through recruiting a critical mass of people, fomenting widespread civil disobedience and strikes to make their system topple under the weight of its own contradictions. What else are we supposed to do?

  7. Fortunately, we don’t live in a work of fiction, so our real situation is neither as grandly melancholy nor as grimly tragic as you lay out. We’re far too imbricated in the crisis to clearly make out the contours of its progression anything other than hazily; however, while it’s glib to say that austerity hasn’t hit yet, it’s certainly true that it has only hit the politically marginalised thus far. The crisis isn’t going anywhere in the next two years (at the very least), but it is shifting, and changing. Serious political activity should be attentive to the forms of the current crisis of capitalism, think about the methods being used as redress, and attack them.

    I suspect you miss a trick when talking about ‘protest’ instead of ‘struggle’, here, because street protest, however manifold, is always only one aspect of what we are doing – or trying to do, at least. Tim’s point above is a good one, though of course I disagree with him on contesting the domain of electoral politics: regardless, the struggle isn’t just about the street. It’s a hell of a lot of other things too.

    I’m more optimistic than you: in fact, I think there’s a good deal more political energy in London than you grant in this piece. Yes, of course there was something cringe-worthy about much of OLSX, yes, there’s something ritualistic and cargo-cultish about a lot of protest, but that’s (to my mind) ultimately a relatively small strategic question. There are fashions in these things, and as with all fashions, some dodgy knock-offs. What concerns me more is sustaining the energy we need to push towards a horizon which isn’t just capitalism with a smiling manager. That is the horizon against which we should judge our activity.

    In fact, more concerning to my mind is the question of retreat vs. sustained engagement: you know as well as I do that there are many young ‘radicals’ who are doing the standard routine of depoliticisation post-university or by the time they hit their mid-20s (though fewer than have done in the past, and the absence of jobs is one thing that underscores that.) And I think these people, and the attitude of retreat, is rather more dangerous than anything else. Yes, we absolutely need to survive, but I get suspicious when survival and retreat from struggle are conflated. I fear we know people who will wait out this current crisis, ‘politicised’ but never pushing too hard, and emerge as the managers of a new capitalism, without the cumbersome weight of social democratic institutions, all the while wringing their hands.

    Anyway, I digress. But I think the key message here is that these are moments in which we need to redouble our organising efforts, rather than despair at what’s happening around us. Private healthcare providers are looking ripe around now; it’s not as if workfare is gone either. It’s not that I don’t share your despair: I just think we should weaponise it.

  8. I do not agree with this post. I think the protests achieved what protests are set out to do: inform the public. What we have to do now is vote.

  9. The real problem for me is that ultimately people can be guided into making any choice….i feel the ‘matrix’ world of money we live in deserves too crumble but the ultimate mid-term to long term consequences are so vast that i often feel uncomfortable discussing anything other than the disgusting status quo, only because i feel people will act without even really considering what alternatives there are to sustaining somewhat the life styles and population numbers we have as a world achieved.

    Ultimately, your movements are failing (not really, they’re growing, occupy is growing) however i am not part of one, i know many who feel the way i do about the current state of things, particularly within my age bracket 20-25 who have a full belief in the fact world war is on their doorsteps, that society is wrong and in-balanced and fundementally money is a tool, a means of control. but they just simply think there is no point fighting it and would have a better life if they ignore it. so yes, i imagine things will have to get worse as people always say =/

    What the political movement need is the media mind of the manipulators…

  10. Reblogged this on Chraeloos and commented:
    An interesting idea…I couldn’t have said it better my self. It’s sad that we do this, and I really have to wonder what type of force it would take to change things. Hopefully not WWIII

  11. Hi – have you read Emma Goldman’s autobiography “Living My Life”? Dreams, courage, disillusionment, indomitable spirit, never giving up – it’s all there – highly recommended as an antidote to despair!

  12. Form a political party and put up candidates for election. If you get enough votes, you get what you want. No tents required.

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