Those passing through New York’s Union Square on June 16 witnessed a spectacle that to an outside observer might have seemed incongruous. Approximately 100 people stood on steps leading to a steed-mounted George Washington cast in bronze. They were chanting and waving Turkish and Mexican flags. At their feet someone had scrawled “DEMOCRACY NOW” in large chalk letters.
The Turkish flags fluttered in the grip of activists in solidarity with protesters occupying public spaces across Turkey; those waving Mexican flags were supporters of the Yo Soy 132 movement, which arose in the lead up to a disputed election last summer but has since encompassed struggles for land redistribution and media reform, and against corruption.
“What we want is democracy,” said Angie Galindo, a Yo Soy 132 activist visiting from Mexico. “The same as in Turkey.”
Though they were fewer in number, Brazilian nationals were there as well, voicing solidarity for what would days later explode into million-strong demonstrations — but what was, at the moment, still a relatively isolated effort by a few thousand demonstrators in São Paulo to reverse a transit-fare increase. Members of Occupy Wall Street were also present.
The separate groups of protesters had planned to rally independently of each other, but when they spotted one another in the square they decided to join forces. The rally became a sampling of the revolts currently popping up like a game of Whac-A-Mole around the globe.
How these movements will mature is a question facing each of them, and all of them together. The ability to gather and communicate over the Internet has created opportunities for collaboration, but it has yet to produce the robust global organizations one might expect. Long gone, for instance, are the workers’ internationals of the past. Like the current wave of encampment movements, these represented a recognition that a trans-national response was needed to challenge the power of trans-national elites.
The First International, or the International Workingmen’s Association, was active between 1864 and 1876 and amassed millions of members; it dissolved in a row between communists and anarchists. The Second was formed in 1889 but splintered along national lines with the outbreak of World War I. The Third International, or the Comintern, existed between the world wars and was heavily dominated by the Soviet Union.
In each case, the internationals were an attempt to form cohesive, collective strategies on a global scale, and to enable movements around the world to learn from each other by sharing their experiences.
Nothing comparable has formed since. There was a Fourth International, led by exiled Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky, which was meant to reclaim the roots of the Comintern, but — facing persecution from both Stalinist Moscow and capitalist governments — it was never able to reach the mass scale of its predecessors.
Perhaps the closest thing to an international in existence today is the World Social Forum, which was formed amid the global justice movement of the previous decade. As Occupy activist Marisa Holmes argued in Waging Nonviolence, however, the forum that took place in Tunis earlier this year failed to integrate the latest wave of popular movements into its governance structure.
Journalist Paul Mason has described these movements as the “Human Spring” — a radically new, global phenomenon grounded in the proliferation of new communications technologies alongside the decline of faith in neoliberalism as an economic model.
“There is a change in consciousness,” he writes, “the intuition that something big is possible, that a great change in the world’s priorities is within people’s grasp.”
Even the spontaneous nature of the June 16 gathering in Union Square fit this model; word spread through social media networks or, in some cases, word of mouth, rather than through party or union organs. But when articulating their model of organizing, participants still tend to speak in negative terms.
“The group that is protesting against the government — there is no leader,” said Yusuf Simsek, a graduate student with dual Turkish and American citizenship, discussing the protests against Prime Minister Tiyyip Erdogan’s government. He could just as easily have been referring to Occupy Wall Street early on, when Democrats, anarchists, Trotskyists, Maoists and Ron Paul supporters shared the occupation together. “They are leftist and they are rightist,” said Simsek. “There are educated people. There are uneducated people. It’s people who are for freedom.”
The tear gas canisters fired by Turkish riot police to clear Gezi Park have had a catalyzing effect on the protests, just as outrage at the excesses of the New York Police Department helped Occupy multiply its numbers. For a time, outrage can serve as a stand-in for political unity, but not for long.
The practice of direct democracy has become another common thread throughout the Human Spring; the occupations foster a space where strategic debates can be had and soap-boxers get an airing. Open assemblies draw a contrast against corrupt governments, but the consensus they aspire to often prevents them from being able to make decisions quickly.
This is part of why Occupy Wall Street never rallied around one set of over-arching demands. As the movement developed, however, specific demands emerged from the Occupiers’ struggles around ecological, racial justice and housing issues. The demonstrators in Istanbul, for their part, just days after their encampment began, submitted demands to Erdogan’s government for Gezi Park to be salvaged and for an end to violent repression. In Brazil, São Paulo’s contested transit hike was reversed. But in both Turkey and Brazil, the initial struggles over localized issues have broken out into a wider and less concrete set of grievances addressing disparities in wealth and influence.
Zuccotti Park was once again occupied on June 22 as about 200 Turks, Brazilians, Occupiers and European anti-austerity activists spent the afternoon mingling in a planned “meet-and-greet.” May Veral, a Turkish-American student, was one of the people who stood up on a marble bench and spoke.
“This is not about one country,” she said. “This is about every person. This is for our children. We cannot leave this world to our children the way it is today. And we will not stop fighting till there is a better, a just, a free tomorrow.”
In conversation later, Veral said that the new crop of global insurgencies were not political movements in the traditional sense. “We are not talking about neoliberalism or capitalism. Right now, we have anarchists and communists and socialists holding hands and speaking with one voice against violations of human rights. This is not political.”
Not everyone agrees with that characterization. Daniele Mussi, who is from Brazil and organizes with International Workers Solidarity in the United States, insisted, “It’s civil and its very political.” To her, the melting pot of political persuasions can create serious problems.
Mussi explained that ultra-right-wing groups had infiltrated the Brazilian protests in the vacuum of organization and were dividing them. “The same process is going on in Turkey. The same process happened in Egypt during the Arab Spring.” She expressed a desire that smaller, experienced political organizations should play more of a leadership role.
“Right now, we’re losing,” said Mussi. “It’s very confusing. We want people to stay in the street so that we can organize to fight.”
Today, activists around the world have the ability to communicate with one another instantly, while those of earlier generations had to travel by rail or ship, risking imprisonment and death in order to meet with their counterparts from other countries. The common features of the disparate movements arising in recent years are striking. The potential for solidarity among them seems especially strong, yet perhaps in some respects the ease of communication has made it harder to build strong, lasting organizations together.
What the Human Spring will look like in the months and years to come remains to be seen. Its movements have created powerful spectacles that come and go, often without leaving institutional legacies to carry on their work and help it keep spreading. Perhaps we should join the poet Allen Ginsberg in proclaiming, expectantly, “Holy the Fifth International.”
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A lightly censored comment on Facebook:
It’s interesting. Usually people accuse WNV and the discourse of nonviolent resistance precisely for trying to “export American democracy.” You can’t win!
Thank you, FB commentator. I anticipated such a reaction to this article when I wrote it, but not such a colorful response as yours. Perhaps you could clarify some of your remarks.
For instance, what do you mean by a train both “good guys AND jerks get on board with.” By jerks do you mean Greece’s Golden Dawn or the far right groups Daniele Mussi says are infiltrating demonstrations in Brazil?
In regards to American democracy, it was considered an admirable model for its time, but that’s not saying much given that it was a democracy for white property owners.
I for one am interested in models for social and economic democracy, which America and the rest of the world sorely lack.
Red and proud,
‘Red and proud’ says much, instantly, about you and says much that is at the heart of keeping something as noble as Waging Nonviolence from ever gaining real support from the very ‘regular folks’ is should be seeking out, reaching out to and educating. There is a universal ‘good guy’ that a majority of us feel a kinship with, and there are some easy to embrace universal virtues we wish to identify with. When we can make it clear that certain policies have negative or positive effects on the possibilities of being in a state of ‘good guyness’ and make that clear to a working man in Podunk as well as a political science grad student at Columbia, regular folks will want to be informed and take an interest that can lead to positive change.
But when you fill the streets with Occupy and a substantial percentage of the participants look like a bad cartoon of a spoiled brat who chooses not to bathe or comb their hair, you instantly alienate others, most others, who would likely agree with the good guy issues, but simply will not tolerate such crap from anyone.
The same goes for you, and your consciously crafted red identity. The communists proved, immediately, to be far far worse than the very worst abuses that can and do happen under our current state of democracy. Millions and millions killed in Russia and China. No rights at all except for the worst sort of government gangsters, whose ‘rights’ were just privileges rubbed in the faces of all the others without. To align yourself with any of that, even the supposed theories behind it, knowing what we all know, is inexplicable. To do so in this forum with the coddling encouragement of the editor means that perhaps either I am confused or all y’all are confused about what ‘waging nonviolence’ is all about.
I wage nonviolence every single day, but while I try to be polite about is I am not passive about it. Throw your commie studies out the window and revisit the Charter of Privileges from Pennsylvania and the United States Constitution. Find what is virtuous in those documents and don’t try to dismiss them by throwing examples on the table of our failings. Raise it up.
The Grand Review
People are a little bit more complex than “good guys and bad guys” as were the communist revolutions you’ve mentioned above. I certainly wouldn’t defend what eventually posed as communism in the Soviet Union and I’m no endorsor of Mao or his heirs. Incidentally, many experts have begun describe the economy in China today as “Capitalism with Asian Values.”
As for why people like me continue to live by credos such as Marx’s “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” (also see Acts 4:32 and Matthew 25:14-30) I can only say that it is because we continue to see so much institutionalized carnage, poverty and oppression within the current system we live under. (Do I need to make a list?) We hold out hope that, despite the horrific failures of the past, a more just and sustainable world is possible.
BTW, I don’t mind being red-baited, but you should know Todd, you sound a lot like Joe McCarthy.
Also in defense of Nathan, I think he is simply working to foster a healthy debate. Waging Nonviolence publishes a variety of authors who each come from unique view points.
Still red and proud,
You’ll not bait me with McCarthy blather or in any way further raise my dander. This is not about me. It is about connecting with as many people as possible and sharing a wonderful message of hope with them.
Listen and wake up. Americans need to be informed of the big picture issues about a great many things. Part of waging peace is seeing that big picture and finding out how to bring the most people to the table. Academic historical gobbledygook about the communists pins you to a map, and there you wiggle like an utterly non engaging spider. Folks see that for what it is and want no part of it, and if you’re drizzling goo onto Waging Peace, you are destroying the possibility for the masses to get involved. The real masses. The modern masses. TODAY’S masses.
Peace On Earth begins with me. If it also begins with you then take that silly jacket off because most people are running away in horror, but are too p0lite to say why.
Okay, you don’t approve of communists and launch vitriolic attacks against them but are in no way like McCarthy. You think I’m am academic (you’ve obviously never met me). You believe in peace (so do I!) and the universal good guy, who you think the modern masses need to be shown (kind of like Buddy Christ in the film Dogma). What are you getting at? What is your realpolitik?
Thank you for making it clear that I am in no way like McCarthy.
Folks can commie it up til they’re blue in the face, but to bring any of that to this forum, and for the editor of this forum to find that natural and normal, is to immediately alienate the kind of regular folks who will most benefit and bring the most collective positive energy to waging peace in all its facets. If there is vitriol in my words it is the frustration of once again seeing peace be marginalized by the very people who think they’re doing Joe and Jane Doe a service, yet are living in a total fantasy of their own creation, with JUST ENOUGH people close at hand, dressing the same way, wearing the same hair, smelling the same way, to keep you in a self delusional haze that does naught to make this world a better place.
Protest as it has come to be lately seems so knee jerk, where the same people, if they could actually care enough to sacrifice their strict anarchist fashion rules and stale, ineffective politispeak, might ask themselves how best to comport themselves to reach out and teach about universal issues. A public, informed by simple truths, becomes a caring public ready to pull together across party lines (NOT communist party!) for Truth…
and The American Way!
One of the things that’s so important about this proposal of Pete’s is that it goes beyond “the American way” to something closer to an emerging global way. That’s one of the things that’s so striking about the whole tradition of nonviolent struggle: It’s international, it’s global, it’s human. No ideology owns it — only courageous people willing to fight for their dignity through resistance and building alternatives.
This is all still in its infancy and I do believe that the core leaderships groups that Ms Mussi speaks of are yet to come…but they will be formed.
It will take some trial and error but this new age of International Solidarity can and will work.
I am very hopeful that the mutable nature of this global techno-fueled solidarity will help prevent or at least mitigate the problems of the old left/right, faction/fraction issues and entrenched generational leadership locks of the old movements.
This will take a wile to sort out but it will work.
The Stigmergic Revolution
“There is no central coordination, no hierarchy, no administrative mechanism. Each ant’s behavior is entirely spontaneous and self-directed, as it responds independently to the chemical trail markers left by other ants.”
Debates over the shape of things to come are underway right now in Brazil. Here’s a good article on the subject: https://www.commondreams.org/headline/2013/07/06-0?utm_medium=referral&utm_source=pulsenews