(Stadsschouwburg, Amsterdam, January 26 2017. Translated and published for our students of ‘Architecture and Activism’ and for a lecture for ‘Prikkel’, a weekend of youngsters on radicalism and activism, [February 21 2020]…)
(0) We have to learn to look at the history of protest movements like waves. Those who claim that the new generation is no longer on the street have a short memory. They forget one of the most important constellations for a reflection on activism today: the year 2011, the year of the protester according to Times Magazine. Think of the indignados and Occupy Wall Street, … fuelled, strangely enough, by the Arab Spring, Tahrir Square in Egypt. I remember well, ‘Everywhere Tahrir Square!’ that year was my slogan. That was a second wave of the anti-capitalist protests that started in Seattle in 1997, and culminated in a broad different-globalization movement with the famous clashes in Genoa and elsewhere, but also in the World Social Forum, with its heyday in Porto Alegre (the WSF still exists, but has lost a lot of importance) … Which in turn was a follow-up to the protests of May 68 … So, there is indeed protest, here in the low lands too. The protests against TTIP and CETA, the trade agreements with America and Canada respectively, must also be seen as successors to the different globalization protest. As Negri and Hardt demonstrate, the different globalization protest comes in waves. It is part of the image of the world that the mainstream media give us that makes us think that the protest is much more of the past.
So we have to learn to look at the history of protest movements like waves. And this gives perspective, it teaches us that there is continuity under the apparent defeats or failures. On the other hand: we must also learn to see victories. But there is also bad news: there are also right-wing populist waves (the 1930s and so), and what we are now experiencing is a spring tide of right-wing populism: Trump, Le Pen, Wilders, Orban, etc.
What to do? That is the question is: how can we resist? I try to list a number of lines, forms and methods of today’s activism:
(1) The rediscovery of the commons is one of the most promising events of our time. It is time not so much for resistance but for transition, “practices of commoning,” with which we can tackle, perhaps not resolve, the unbelievable challenges we face – climate change, super diversity, migration. We must learn to see the world from the point of view of the commons: both the local and the global, both private, a city garden or a local electricity network on solar panels, and the universal, such as the oceans, the sky but also language, ‘nature’ just as well as ‘the digital commons’. The rediscovery of the commons is the utopia that we need. Self-organization and concern for the common good against the privatization of everything and against the withdrawl of the state. Open source, Peer2Peer, repair cafés, city gardening, etc. The commons’ return also goes in waves, according to historian Tine De Moor (there was a wave at the beginning of the 16th century, associated with the name Morus, and also a wave in the nineteenth – the mutualism of the labor movement). Important to see that. The rediscovery of the commons is always a response to a wave of enclosures, at the beginning of the 16th century it was the fencing off of sheep pastures, now it is: the privatization of everything, of knowledge, of seeds, of public services, of all the public and the common good. The defense of the common good, both the biosphere and cultural common good and the making of commons (open source etc.) Is one of the most important issues of our time (I’ve said and wrote it many times, but we have to keep repeating it).
(2) Self-organizing, worldwide civil protests and movements are a novelty. They are part of digital globalization. It is not necessary to believe in the revolutionary power of the crowd, the multitude of Negri and Hardt, to see that the internet, or more broadly the network society, has led to the emergence of new forms of organization of social movements*. Self-organization in horizontal networks is indeed a novelty in the history of activism, I would think, although thinking in waves might also be the message. The trade unions, the suffragettes, of course, also tried to make networks, but were mainly “circles” (based on proximity, the factory or the circle of acquaintances of women), and mostly hierarchical. How big that difference is, would require a separate treatment. It would require quite a bit of media theory, historiography or sociology of social movements … Is it a qualitative leap? Maybe so. You can communicate worldwide, there is global activism for the first time. The largest demonstration of all times, the demonstration against the illegal invasion of Iraq, on 15 February 2003 (it should be a public holiday), raised 30 million people worldwide, which could only be organized via the internet and the new social media ( then mostly just e-mail, I believe). The speed with which, for example, women’s marches against Trump (and for women’s rights) are organized worldwide, was completely unthinkable before the internet and social media. In 3 months, on the initiative of a grandmother from Hawaii on Facebook, if I may believe the newspapers. Viral actions. Viral action networks are the future.
(3) The new citizen movements are democracy in action. Civic movements are a form of broad “radical democracy”, à la Mouffe. Rancière says that democracy is the form of government of those who should not rule (those not entitled to rule). So it is also always incomplete, the inclusion is never total, after the women the minorities must now also be involved in democracy, and democracy must always be fought and enforced again. Social movements and activists play an important role here. Take, for example, the Oosterweel case: the St®aten Generaal and Ademloos, two action groups defeated the government and its plans for the gigantic Lange Wapper bridge in Antwerp, with with extensive knowledge and now successfully challenged the Oosterweel route for the Council of State – a stalemate that perhaps leading to dialogue and a better solution (closing the ring farther away from the city). Ever since they have found a sort of solution, and the activists are now actively involved in the process of realizing the plans…
(4) That brings us to the importance of the cities: urban activism in all its forms is one of the exciting phenomena of our time: from squats to guerilla knitting, temporary occupation and protests of all kinds, festive interventions in difficult places to urban gardening… Cities are new anchor points for collective (social and political) identity and citizenship and therefore have a new meaning for activists. Urban movements are local, but there are also networks of cities, Mayors against Climate change… It would lead us too far to go into this, I would like to refer to the work of Eric Corijn and Benjamin Barber, but one can also think to the work of Henk Oosterling and his Rotterdam Vakmanstad, in which education and ecological education must make children and young people, in addition to being professionals, also world citizens.
(5) Most new civil movements are non-violent but: civil disobedience pays off. Civil disobedience is indeed a form of resistance (and not just commitment), which is still very valid today. It pays because it creates a fact, more than a hundred opinion pieces. I give the so-called “Potato War” as an example. Barbara Van Dyck was fired from Leuven University at the beginning of June 2011 for defending the symbolic destruction of a GMO test field with genetically modified potatoes in Wetteren (on 28 May 2011). Together with eleven of her supporters of the Field Liberation Movement, she is also on trial for nothing less than ‘bendevorming’ (‘gang formation’ – or organized crime, which can count as qualification). She has been reinstated (by a new rector) at the university of Leuven. The 11 are convicted of violence and destruction of property but not of organized crime. Results: for eternity and a day many things are on the map simultaneously: the conflict of interest between universities and multinationals and the privatization of knowledge, the neoliberalization of the university (which resulted in the Slow Science Manifesto), and last but not least, the public awareness of the dangers of GMOs. The lesson is clear to me: civil disobedience pays off!
(6) Boycott is a valid form of non-violent political action, or rather: a non-violent means of pressure. An example is the BDS movement (Boycott, Investment & Sanctions) against the occupation policy, the systematic human rights violations and war crimes of Israel. I focus on BACBI: The Belgian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. The first campaign took place in May 2015 when the Ghent arts center Campo wanted to participate in the Israel Festival in Jerusalem with a piece by theater maker Miet Warlop. After an open letter and responses from a number of personalities, Warlop and Campo finally decided to withdraw from the Israel Festival. The second campaign was in May 2016: in an open letter to the rector of Ghent University, fifty professors were protesting against UGent’s cooperation with Technion – Israel Institute of Technology and with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). Technion – Israel Institute of Technology is more than any other university intertwined with Israel’s military-industrial complex. It is at the forefront of innovative military cutting-edge technology. Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), owned by the government and one of Israel’s large arms companies, has a close partnership with Technion. It produces tailor-made weapons for the army. This includes the production of military drones. A third BACBI campaign is opposed to the ‘Law Train’ research project, a cooperation of the Federal Justice Service and the KU Leuven with the Israeli police and the Israeli university Bar Ilan. The research project concerns interrogation techniques of arrested persons, has a total value of more than 5 million euros and is funded through the Horizon 2020 fund of the European Union. In addition to Belgium, Spain and Portugal are also involved. The latter country has since withdrawn. In September 2016, some thirty academics from the University of Leuven wrote an open letter to their rector Rik Torfs. BACBI supported this action, but did not take the lead (as it was not based on the argument of Boycott, but on human rights). After two years of action, with a group of professors and local activists of Leuven, the new rector decided not to prolong the collaboration. It is important to note that BDS is a global movement that acts locally but wants to have an effect in the Middle East. This is a good example of an important wisdom for activists: Think global act local.
(7) The defense of freedom of expression and the rule of law is and remains a most urgent task, particularly vis-à-vis the state of exception called the war on terror. Since nine eleven, activism has been systematically criminalized. Opinion pieces, polemics in the press, play a very important role in these cases, often lawsuits. Both during the potato war there were dozens of opinion pieces and polemics (in which the undersigned was involved) and also, very recently, the resignation of Abou Jajah. Dyab Abou Jahjah, who after his perils with the publisher de Bezige Bij (some authors of the publisher did not want a book from him to be published) was recently fired as a columnist at De Standaard because he called an attack on Israeli soldiers with a truck an act of resistance. “By any means necessary. #FreePalestine”, he had tweeted and then “violence against soldiers of an illegal occupation is resistance under international law.” His “By any means necessary” was considered a call to violence, but it was in fact a quote from international law. “The bandwidth of free speech” is very narrow when it comes to Israel (see my article of the same name on the De-Wereld-Morgen website). The room is guaranteed to split in two like a swirling Red Sea if we would go into this. But whether one agrees with him or not: his right to freedom of expression must be defended. Even when it comes to Israel. In France, calling for Boycott is already punishable as anti-Semitism. And that in the land of Voltaire, unimaginable. The right to freedom of expression is the right to a wrong opinion. As I said, defending freedom of expression is also an eternal task, the core task of the public intellectual, certainly in these times of anti-terror measures in which the rule of law defends itself by abolishing the rule of law, or at least restricting it.
(8) The “professionalization” of activism seems to me to be a very important transformation or development in the contemporary methodology of activism and social movements. It is about truly transdisciplinary coalitions between very different groups and individuals, which yields many learning processes and knowledge exchanges (here too, the internet / network society is bearing fruit, I believe). One can think of the potato war, where professors, human scientists, bio-engineers, organic farmers, worried citizens, NGOs such as Greenpeace, and politicians (of the ecological party [Groen!]) find each other, support and reinforce each other and learn from each other. (The Belgian philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers, who was involved in both the potato war and the Slow Science Manifesto, speaks in her writings almost enchantingly, of “learning to think and act together”, “practicing together the art of paying attention”). The beforementioned Oosterweel-case remains a splendid example of such professionalization and of those transdisciplinary coalitions. Urban activists who bring a gigantic building project with a huge machinery of state, city and large capital behind them, to a halt through petitions, referenda, manifestations, elaborated alternative routes, complaints to the Council of State, etc. That means that there are marketeers, architects, urbanists, citizens, lawyers, working together and reinforcing each other and the movement Ringland is the provisional crowning of it, although it may be that a stalemate occurs so that nothing happens.
The outcome, the ultimate effect of civil protests, of activism is always uncertain and victories can turn out to be pyrrhic victories, or temporary victories, but often there is more influence in the long term than you might think. Often invisibly, in the river bed of (local) history a stone has been moved. The awareness, yes also the theoretical impact of those temporalities, the slow impact of often short-lived actions, may be part of the “professionalization” of the civil movements. We also need to learn (and that is a task for committed academics or activist academics) to see victories, and indirect influences, to see the indirect impact of events, such as the potato war, such as the other-globalization-movement, such as the indignados, that worked through in Podemos and Syriza and in a certain sense also in our local Hart boven Hard.
(9) Small local actions and large social movements should ideally enter into coalitions. We must also take “minor resistance” seriously. I give Parckfarm as an example: a Brussels public park in an old railway trench, a post-industrial piece of romantic urban landscape, with folk gardens for the neighborhood, a chicken coop, a beehive, a dry toilet, a large communal table full of edible herbs and the conservatory, as a stopping place for all kinds of groups working on neighborhood (and youth) activities and organic food and short chains. Parckfarm: a kind of commons under the auspices of the BIM, the Brussels Institute for the Environment, but run by local residents and volunteers, where all kinds of beautiful things happen, which are good for the neighborhood and good for the environment, and the one via the other, and vice versa, that is beautiful … it will not save the world, but it is still a very concrete step here and now, hence I have christened it rather optimistically a ‘concrete utopia’ (that was the title of my piece about it: ‘Parckfarm as a concrete utopia’). The lesson I learned was this: a concrete utopia can bring people together and connect micro and macropolitics, super diversity and ecology, the two major challenges of the twenty-first century. This kind of micropolitics works “globally”. Think global act local, remains the message. One could also call it a “glocal” utopia.
A second lesson from Parckfarm, for me personally: it is the task of giving intellectually publicity to these fragile initiatives, supporting this discursively by reflecting on it as a fellow traveler. I think this is also an important contribution (although it may be a slight excuse for my lack of green fingers and my fresh reluctance for everything that is practical). At the risk of promoting gentrification with that publicity and attention (see my reflections on urban activism elsewhere). But Parckfarm is sowing itself in all sorts of ways in the city … Pool is cool is a kind of continuation: a movable swimming pool in the summer to bring all the people from together via children from disadvantaged neighborhoods and to give underused places some aura … We have to see this kind of dispersion, this kind of temporal impact and yes indeed we have to investigate it (I have been doing this for years with students, nowadays, in the architecture department, PhDs are being written about urban actvism and urban social movements).
We must continue to work on a coalition of the small often apolitical commitments and initiaves and the big picture, the real political activism of the big social movements. ‘Klein Verzet’ (as Tine Hens called it, meaning at the same time small resistance, small gear and small entertainment) in the cracks of capitalism and major movements such as the Climate Marches, can turn the tide … Mouffe calls this kind of coalition the ‘equivalence des luttes’, the equivalence of the struggles: Hart above Hard tries, for example, to bundle the protests of the cultural and healthcare worlds and the library system and of the trade unions across the society, a wonderful movement that is unseen in the low countries and brings together practically all actors of civil society, the ‘midfield’ (as we call it) against the austerity policies and harsh rightist populist politics … a unique one that is still widening …. Ringland, a movement that argues for covering the Antwerp ring road, is also such a broad coalition of urbanists, social workers, activist organizations such as St®aten Generaal and Ademloos (Breathless) and above all also: a large crowd. If they do something, some 20,000 people show up.
All well and good, I hear you think, but what to do about Wilders and other populist across Europe and beyond? What to do about the wave of anti-globalization protests of right-wing populism, which has both America and Europe in its grip? I do not know. I know. The recent pink Pussy hats marches point the way: the intersectionality, the equivalence between women’s rights, ‘black lifes matter’, all kinds of issues came together, a broad movement. We must keep trying: the worldwide manifestation of women, one day after the inauguration of Trump, has made an impression. Who knows, Trump can unite the forces of those who strive for justice, human rights (and therefore for women’s rights and minorities) and those who are committed to saving the planet, etc. We must continue to expand coalitions and equivalences: as in the concept of climate justice: linking justice and ecology and human rights. ‘Heart above Hard’ but then worldwide. Who knows, the rose pussy hat march is a global movement of self-organizing citizens under the banner of the commons. Who knows. [It is also interesting how rapidly this wave has disappeared, this lecture of 2017 has aged…or is it that our memory of social movements is short? This deserves an entire paragraph in itself, combined with the long temporalities, it is a paradox.]
(10) “Structural Activism” or “activist lobbying” may be a necessity. If I draw the conclusions from the previous (and put together the keyfeature of professionalization and coalitions), I come to that almost bewildering observation … Activism is important but, anyway, has a modest and often slow impact, certainly on global problems. Politics in the narrow sense remains extremely important; reformism of structures will have to take place through politics, through parties, states and negotiations. Transition or catastrophe? That will ultimately be settled politically. Structural intervention in capitalism, for example by obliging it to switch to a zero-emission economy, is urgent. We cannot first abolish capitalism (if there is consensus, quod non) and then save the planet, we can only hope that there is enough political will to force capitalism through civil activism that becomes real politics. The NGOs who participated in the table at the climate conference in Paris have understood that correctly, and are doing what I would dare to call “structural activism.”
From a purely political point of view, perhaps only the line that runs from Sanders via Corbyn to Podemos and Syriza to Hart above Hard contains the vague political contours of a real political alternative, but structural activism is for the time being a much more certain option. Sitting down with banks to convince them to withdraw from investments in fossil fuels for instance. That is what we need, anyway. That is a consequence of the transdisciplinarity, the professionalization of activism and the formation of coalitions and the search for equivalences, in the hope of actually getting something done structurally. The decisions of the Paris climate conference are, in that sense, with all doubts and uncertainties, a bright spot. Some call this structural activism “resistance from within”. Maybe that is also, and above all, the resistance that we need today.
[Or is all this reformist hope bogus, and is only revolutionary uprising an option, as Extinction Rebellion has it? Reformist ecological politics and activism has failed, they claim and the past forty years are there to prove them right. So mass civil disobedience now!?]
(Conclusion?) The purpose of all activism remains clear today: the defense of the commons (both local and global, both private and universal, both natural and digital) and the rights of commoners (the Fundamental Rights, Human Rights, Social and Environmental Justice). In every activist action, in every “practice of commoning” there is a utopian spark. The world system as it currently functions (and especially does not function) is unsustainable, both ecologically and socially. We have to do something anyway. Doing nothing is not an option. My slogan remains: “pessimism in theory, optimism in practice”.