A New Strain of Wild Culture: Taking the Spirit of 1968 to a Higher Level
The Globalization of the Tahrir Square Protests
From the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, to the occupation of public places in, for instance, Madison Wisconsin, Madrid, Athens, Tel Aviv, and Wall Street, the transnationalization of political activism accelerated in 2011 from slow to fast in the flash of a few news cycles. As this movement continues, Canada is providing particularly rich terrain for our own home-grown expressions of the worldwide opposition to systemic abuses of power by integrated networks of self-serving elites. The oldest communities in northern North America have done the most to extend, widen, and simultaneously give focus to the transformative impetuses required in order to avert intertwined disasters across myriad zones of human interaction with one another and the rest of nature. Leading the way in this quest for survival, viability, and justice are the French-speaking canadiens concentrated in Quebec together with the Aboriginal peoples of Canada.
In 2012 student protesters intent on maintaining broad public accessibility to post-secondary education in Quebec organized a mass public campaign that would end up transforming the political landscape of their province. Playing on the intonations of the Arab Spring, the activists ingeniously entitled their movement as le printemps érable, the Maple Spring. [i] Then in the winter of 2012-2013 a broad coalition of Aboriginal peoples together with non-Aboriginal allies made an international issue of the Canadian government’s maltreatment of what are widely referred to here as the First Nations. This movement, known as Idle No More, struck a chord in many countries where Indigenous peoples have been colonized in wave after wave of imperial expansion beginning with Christopher Columbus’s most transformative voyage in 1492.[ii]
Each of these movements combines a particular focus on specific instances of oppressions with more sweeping condemnations of the top-down rule whose neocolonial expressions continue in spite of the formal termination of European empires in the 1960s. From 2011 until the present, citizen dissenters throughout much of the world have reached across international borders to establish the vanguard of a global emergency measures operation mounted in response to many worsening crises. In thousands of cities, towns, and hamlets across the world, a transnational counterculture of collective self-empowerment – a new kind of improvised wild culture – has coalesced to confront the corruption and wrongdoing now on full public display. On the local, regional, and global levels people have demanded their inherent right to be seen and heard. In my view one of the most classic means of dramatizing this insistence took place in the tent villages that took shape in our public squares in spite of heavy police interference and harassment.
Men and women gathered the world over to gain some measure of shared popular control.
Only a major shift in global consciousness could have driven the quick replication of many thousands of encampments devoted to peaceful protest. Again and again these tent villages became sites for experiments aimed at achieving more benign systems of political economy. Some of the ideas for better ways of doing things came forward in general assemblies where issues of public importance were regularly aired in open public discussions. Men and women gathered in public squares the world over with the goal of gaining or regaining some measure of shared popular control over our own public spaces, our own shared resources, our own public institutions, and our own civil society.
Renewing Popular Appetites for Justice
The public demonstrations invoke memories of the protests of 1968 when an international anti-war movement gathered momentum with the objective of stopping US military interventions in Vietnam and throughout Indochina. The anti-war protests of 1968 converged with the rise of movements advocating women’s rights, environmental protection, anti-racism and the end of colonialism. The emotional charge surrounding all these issues was heightened with the killing in 1968 of the anti-war candidate Robert Kennedy in the course of his bid to replace his assassinated brother as US president. Yet more tumult erupted with the violent elimination of Martin Luther King through, as lawyer William F. Pepper demonstrated in civil litigation, an “act of state”. At the time of his assassination by the US government, North America’s most revered civil rights activist ever was engaged in expanding his repertoire of anti-establishment polemics to incorporate more unequivocal anti-war and anti-poverty demands.[iii]
We are able to generate, share and receive data through the most elaborate infrastructure of cultural give-and-take the world has ever known.
In 1968 the new medium of satellite communications transformed TV news reporting in ways that helped engender in audiences new forms of shared global awareness. As Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian guru of media studies, so engagingly observed at the time, broadening networks of worldwide communications were changing the orientation of large numbers of global citizens to time, space and one another. The spirited student protests in the West, but particularly in Paris, found reverberations in public demonstrations in Eastern Europe, especially in Poland, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia.
In the present globalization of the Tahrir Square protests no less than in 1968, the ongoing revolution in communications technology was a significant factor in bringing masses of people together in a collective quest for a more just and viable system of political economy. Where in 1968 television and satellites fed information instantly from particular places to much of the rest of the world, these days a plethora of novel political cultures is taking shape through citizens’ utilization of the internet’s capacity to host many new forms of social networking. Unlike television, the internet enables users to be creators as well as consumers of content.
Accordingly, the internet as presently structured does not lend itself as easily as television to centralized control over the selection and interpretation of events to be covered. Rather citizens around the world are able to generate information and interpretation according to our own lights. We are able to generate, share and receive data through the most elaborate infrastructure of cultural give-and-take the world has ever known. While the new media of social networking has been integral to the local and transnational power of our movement, digital communications alone have been shown to be insufficient to realize the goals on which our collective survival depends. Face-to-face engagement with our fellow citizens in fixed places over long periods of time forms a necessary part of the cure to counteract the isolated and alienated state of human existence on which the parasitical practices our oppressors’ depend.
Tent Villages as Sites of Experimentation
Urban camping became one of the most simple yet profound innovations aimed at countering the atomization of society during the age when television became the primary means of dulling the masses for easier exploitation from above. In scores of tent villages the inhabitants combined experimentation in the political economy of human community including vital innovations in the procedures of democratic discourse. As with older movements advocating equality rights for women, lesbians and gay men, the personal and the political were made to merge in ways that portended significant alterations in society’s future constitution.
The severity of the attacks directed by police and armed forces at some of the protests, especially in 2011, suggests the vulnerability to concerted public criticism felt by those in positions of command and control over some of society’s most strategic functions. During the Egyptian protests centred on Tahrir Square, for instance, over 800 demonstrators were killed and about 6,000 injured during 2011. In New York City police arrested over 700 individuals in a single action in October as protesters marched across the Brooklyn Bridge as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The arrests came shortly after the announcement that JP Morgan Chase, one of Wall Street’s core institutions, had donated $4.6 million to the New York Police Foundation.[iv]
The system that is failing most of us is rigged against our interests and rights.
These and many other displays of coercive force by state agencies extended pre-existing patterns. Especially since the worldwide spread in 2008 of the financial contagion, recognition has grown in the national security apparatuses of many governments that the greatest threat to the maintenance of the status quo probably lies in “purposeful domestic resistance” triggered by “unforeseen economic collapse.” This understanding was reflected in the enactment in the United States of the National Defense Authorization Act within weeks of the rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The new bill continued the slide of the world’s ailing superpower towards martial law. The bill empowers the US Armed Forces to arrest and incarcerate US citizens within the United States and hold them indefinitely without trial.
At their best, the protestors situated the economic problems of the day within the framework of broader patterns of corruption entailed in financial deregulation, rampant state violence, and power-serving propaganda. In Europe and North America the perception grew that our parliaments, legislatures, congresses, courts, and mainstream media venues have been overwhelmed by vandals advancing interests antagonistic to the defense and promotion of the common good. Our seats of public governance have been occupied by an alien regime of corporate lobbyists, shock troops in the frontier expansion of the private sector.
These corporate occupiers, the point men of crony capitalism, tend to dominate national, state and provincial capitals. They far outnumber elected officials and have massive resources at their disposal. With these resources the lobbyists and their handlers in the public relations industry achieve commanding positions in the political cultures of the representative assemblies they seek to shape, direct and harness to the purposes of their patrons. As politicians become more and more beholden to corporate power they are less and less amenable to representing the concerns, priorities, rights, and interests of average citizens.
While the methods of lobbyists are often complex, their aim is simple: to advance the imperatives of private profit over those of public governance conducted to serve the public interest. The exploitation of the world’s disentitled majority by its hugely entitled minority depends on the ability of corporate lobbyists to steer the policies of public officials towards outcomes that favour capital over people. Among the primary means for advancing this agenda of exploitation is to accelerate procedures for debt enslavement, union busting, the deregulation of large, powerful corporate sectors – particularly the financial sector – that employ sophisticated methods and tools of exploitation, and the continued atomization of the shared public domain through hyperprivatization.
Obama continued, even made more extreme, most of the war policies of the Bush administration.
Band-aid reforms will not save us at this unprecedented juncture in history. The system that is failing most of us is rigged against our interests and rights. Changes made through the ballot box in the public faces of power will not be enough to transform the political culture that oppresses the disentitled majority. The replacement of George W. Bush with Barack Obama helped many inside and outside the United States to see with clarity the powerful constraints of an electoral system where the power of the ballot box is made to be subordinate to the overriding pre-eminence of corporate rule.
While Obama’s election seemed on the surface to signal that a major political shift to the left had taken place, this notion was largely illusory. Obama continued, and even made more extreme, most of the policies of the Bush administration when it came to the activities of the war machine and the federal government’s laissez faire relationship with the practices of Wall Street bankers and their Federal Reserve system. Indeed, in his robotization of his administration’s signature attacks especially on Pakistan, Obama deserves to be remembered as the Drone President. How much longer will it be before this robotization of state violence permeates the institutions of social control in the host societies from which the most ruthless forces of neocolonialism are unleashed?
Visualizing the Nature of the Dilemmas before Us
As governments become increasingly subordinate to corporations, the odds of breakdown become greater on virtually every frontier of natural and human-made disaster. The extent of the failure of our primary institutions and the elites that direct them is becoming clearer every day. Public debt, for instance, spirals to finance trillions in bailouts for the big banks. The social welfare state withers as the socialized bankers’ state emerges from a massive, systems-wide failure in transnational neoliberalism.
The financial sector’s accounting frauds in the deregulated generation of derivative products continue to suck vitality from the real economy devoted to the production of tangible goods and services. Unemployment and homelessness increase even as public health care, public education and social services are axed in the name of government austerity. As this process continues, poverty is less and less concentrated in the world’s poorest countries and more and more pervasive even in countries that once hosted large and prosperous middle classes.
On 9/11 a new transnational enemy was made to replace the defunct Soviet foe.
The fast-increasing inequities in wealth and income in the United States, Great Britain and Canada epitomize the accelerating trend. As the rich get richer and everyone one else sinks in status, the wealthy become increasingly dependent on the police for special protection even as a growing global majority of impoverished citizens are disproportionately criminalized. The children of the disadvantaged are more and more cut off from even the most rudimentary venues of upward mobility, of equal opportunity.
While budgets wane for reducing poverty and providing public services, they continue to grow for intensified policing, surveillance, and warfare. Military adventurism becomes unbridled while the mental atmosphere is polluted to demonize and dehumanize those targeted for attack. The 9/11 Wars extend the frontiers of duplicity. The architects of these wars devote particular attention to generating the psychological conditions necessary to maintain the political economy supporting the world’s dominant machinery of industrialized violence. On 9/11 a new transnational enemy was made to replace the defunct Soviet foe. An open-ended justification was provided for an unending onslaught of foreign invasions and occupations, but especially those directed at the predominantly Muslim populations of Eurasia.
Possibly more serious is the fact that every few minutes another whole species becomes extinct, as wildlife habitat gives way to urban sprawl. The salmon are increasingly made to go the way of the buffalo or the cod. Pollution and global warming kill coral reefs. The biodiversity of old growth forests is replaced by the narrow monocultures of tree farms. The cultural diversity of humanity is similarly stripped of expressive media. Every year scores of Aboriginal languages cease to be spoken, each one of them an irreplaceable treasury of wisdom whose loss to humanity subtracts from our collective linguistic, philosophical, and cultural commonwealth.
Toxic radioactivity from the Fukushima nuclear disaster spews high rates of cancer and deformity into human, plant, and animal populations across the globe. How many more Fukushima surprises await us from a privatized nuclear industry exempted by government from having to purchase insurance for its dangerous activities? How much longer will citizens tolerate being saddled with all the risk and liability from many dangerous industrial and military procedures while the profits from public investments are frequently privatized to reward friends of the government? The nuclear industry’s privatization of profits and socialization of risk and liability epitomizes more pervasive patterns. The public is saddled with massive and growing deficits to pay for the transfer of state assets and resources to those that have set themselves up as the reigning overseers of our heavily-mortgaged governments.
Every day the natural realm is being overtaken by the manufactured realm.
There can be no mistaking the fact that many crises are simultaneously spinning out of control. Broad recognition of the imminent nature of this scenario of doom is the primary force driving of the transnational movement that gathered force in Tahrir Square and continues yet in, for instance, Idle No More. Disaster cannot be averted unless a broad coalition of global citizens give rise to a new kind of leadership capable of replacing the discredited cabal whose runaway and unchecked crime spree in the financial sector and in the arena of warfare, torture, and systematic disinformation remains on full public display for the attentive.
Everywhere we face blinking SOS signals. We are living through exceptionally dangerous times when many kinds of risk, some of them completely new to humanity, are bearing down hard on us. From the depths of our poisoned oceans to the heights of our blighted atmosphere, the basis of the wild and natural economy that encompasses our humanity stands in stark conflict with the political economy of the manufactured world. Every day the natural realm is being overtaken by the manufactured realm. The unsustainable character of our life-support systems in the monoculture of capitalism menaces the viability of our true sources of wellbeing as human beings enwrapped in the biological diversity of healthy ecological communities.
Conditions of Protest in 1968 and Now
Hopefully many citizens the world over will continue to discover the potential for innovation available in tent villages, but especially those in the heart of urban settings. The lure of these places of protest and experimentation in collective living must continue to give expression to the huge transformations taking place in the domain of human consciousness. The changing configurations of the mental and material landscape require alterations in our means of creating and enlivening human community. By experimenting in the design of urban tent villages and other configurations of ecological community, new conceptions of the public interest and the common good are emerging.
As in 1968 the worldwide protests these days draw much energy from young adults. In 1968, however, the global economy was sufficiently robust to help invest young people with confidence that they could take a chance in joining others to agitate for a better, more equitable, more ecologically sustainable world. While the injustices addressed in the protests of 1968 were vast and severe, there was nevertheless the sense that the direction of change was pointed in a progressive direction susceptible of being accelerated and broadened through ameliorative activism on behalf of the common good.
The widening gaps between rich and poor are morally outrageous and economically wasteful.
The conditions of protest are very different now than in 1968. These days, those who decide to step into the public arena of dissidence do so in an environment characterized by dire economic and political trends. We take action at a time when the capacity of states as agencies for the protection and advancement of the public interest had been largely hollowed out to serve the interests of a small elite that the Occupy Wall Street movement labelled the privileged 1%.
This emphasis on the disproportionate wealth of the world’s richest 1% does not even begin to approach the enormous disparities that made about 1,000 billionaires in 2010 approximately four times more wealthy collectively than the bottom 50% of the entire human family. To add to this travesty of inequality the world’s tiny billionaires club, about half of it in the United States, increased its wealth about 50% during 2009 as a result of the taxpayers bailout of financial institutions deemed too big to fail.[vi] Prominent among the private recipients of the mortgaged public wealth were multi-billionaire hedge fund managers Steve Cohen, James Simon, John Paulson, Karl Icahn, George Soros, and Warren Buffet.
This public subsidization of the world’s most wealthy individuals, probably the biggest single upward transfer of wealth in all of human history, occurred as the financial debacle pulled the economic ground out from beneath the feet of many millions of working people facing simultaneous onslaughts of unemployment, home foreclosures, and large increases in the price of food, education and other basic necessities. The latest phase in this trend of economic polarization goes back to the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. With the real or imagined threat removed that an alternative system of political economy might be made to prevail over capitalism, many of the psychological conditions were eliminated for retaining the legacies of the American New Deal and European social democracy. Many impediments were removed for those seeking to replace the infrastructure of managed capitalism and the social welfare state with the Darwinist rush for spoils in the deregulated stock market state.
Responding to the changing landscape of economic relationships in 2000, Michel Camdessus surprised he retired as managing director of the International Monetary Fund, and warned of trouble ahead. “The widening gaps between rich and poor within nations,” he observed, “are morally outrageous, economically wasteful, and potentially socially explosive.”[v] Many of the conditions of class acrimony that Camdessus identified are becoming even more extreme with huge consequence for the future.
National security is a code employed to empower contractors to murder and steal with impunity.
We must confront a failed system where the architects of the global financial debacle cling onto power offering up as remedies the very same formulae of change that unhinged the global economy in the first place. In this milieu we citizens are faced with vast and proliferating levels of private and public debt as the inevitable outgrowth of a deregulated system of fractional reserve banking geared to the interests of the privileged few who assert ownership and control over the lion’s share of the world’s capital. Such a system treats banking and national currencies more as instruments of speculative gain for privileged insiders rather than as vital public utilities requiring careful government regulation on behalf of the public interest and the common good.
The exploitation of working people by banking elites is closely aligned with the increasing prominence of military forces in a society where profiteering from warfare offers one of the fastest tracks to stupendous wealth as well as to the type of political influence available for purchase to the highest bidder. In the privatized terror economy of the twenty-first century, the financial chicanery attached to the generation of derivative products can as easily involve speculation over the outcome of drug deals, arms deals, regime change and pipeline construction in Eurasia as it can speculative betting on the future value of packages of subprime mortgage obligations.
As it now stands, however, much information is hidden from public view about key aspects of the economic forces that determine the nature of humanity’s material interactions. Much of the data concerning the nature of the privatized terror economy, increasingly a primary area of growth during an era of overall commercial contraction, is relegated to secrecy in the name of national security. As came to light in the revelations in the late 1980s concerning the intertwined scandals of Iran-Contra and the transnational Bank of Credit and Commerce International, national security is a code employed frequently to disguise lucrative licenses granted by government to favoured contractors empowered to murder and steal with impunity.
The Wild Culture of the Fourth World
Many of the main maladies of our era have their roots in the fact that for the first time in the history all of the world’s countries, peoples, and regions are encompassed by a single homogenized system of political economy. We live in an era of monopoly capitalism. The monolithic character of this single system for valuing an ever-widening array of material relationships extends into the ecology of biological and sociological diversity. With conditions removed for the proliferation of biocultural diversity, the habitats of wild culture disappear.
In the era of the Cold War many Indigenous peoples just emerging from the era of European imperialism could readily see the approach of a new onslaught embedded in the myth that all humanity was locked into of an epic struggle between capitalism and communism. Many Aboriginal groups took the view that the choices put before them of joining either the US-led or Soviet-led side of the Cold War were completely false. Many Indigenous peoples could learn from their own histories that there is vast array of possible political economies available to humanity, not merely two. Rejecting a view of themselves as underdeveloped Third World peoples, some of the best brains trusts of the Indigenous peoples came up with a concept of themselves as inhabitants of the Fourth World.
Indigenous peoples can lead the way in the quest for a way out of the converging crises presently engulfing us all
In the Fourth World the conditions of biocultural diversity, extending even to the domain of political economy, are embraced, enhanced and extended. The idea of the biocultural diversity of the Fourth World presented an alternative to the bipolarism of the Cold War. From his own perspective as a Shuswap leader from British Columbia, George Manuel provided a book-length guide introduction to the Fourth World. The year after the book appeared in 1974, Manuel was instrumental in founding at the United Nations the World Council of Indigenous Peoples.[viii]
The idea of the Fourth World was entrenched in the founding of the Non-Aligned Movement dominated by the several dozen new nation states emerging from colonialism. The decolonized peoples of the Non-Aligned Movement rejected Cold War bipolarism and promoted instead the principles of ecological globalization with plenty of latitude for the cultivation of multiple political economies to express the ideals of biocultural diversity. The culture of the potlatch constitutes an illuminating example of biocultural diversity in action. Those who live by the code of the potlatch rather than the code of capitalism acquire prestige through the sharing of wealth in ceremonial apportionments of presents. This practice, long outlawed by the Canadian government and the missionary societies that set federal policy, eschews capitalism’s primary impetus to amass wealth through the hoarding of capital.
The ethos of the Fourth World can provide a broad umbrella for many groups and individuals who can unite in our refusal to accept that the globalization of monopoly capitalism presents all humanity with a universal destination at the end of history.[ix] As the broad public appeal of Idle No More demonstrates, Indigenous peoples can lead the way in the quest for a way out of the converging crises presently engulfing us all. The Fourth World has found some particularly fertile soil for the cultivation of a diversity of sustainable political economies in the tent villages. We hope to regain from the police state the imperative of camping together in our own urban public squares. By making these encampments healthy beehives of ameliorative transformation we hope to move beyond emergency measures towards higher expressions of civilizational achievement with abundant room for plenty of wild cultures.
Anthony Hall is professor of Globalization Studies at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada and a member of the 9/11 Truth Movement. He is the author of several books, including Earth into Property, a description of the effects of capitalism upon indigenous peoples.
All illustrations by Brad Harley, co-founder and artistic director of Shadowland Theatre. He has worked extensively as a theatre designer with VideoCabaret, Peter Minshall's Callaloo productions in Trinidad, Horse and Bambo (UK), and Bread and Puppet Theater (US).
[i] Hall, “From the Maple Spring to the Education Summer,” Veterans Today, 7 June, 2012
[ii] Hall, “From the American Revolution to Idle No More,” Veterans Today, 7 January, 2013
[iii] William F. Pepper, An Act of State: The Execution of Martin Luther King (London: Verso, 2008)
[v] Chris Hedges, “Bad News From America’s Top Spy,” Truthdig, 16 February, 2009
[vi] Andre Damon, “World’s Billionaires Grew 50% Richer in 2009,” World Socialist Web Site, 12 March, 2010
Jehron Muhammad, “Greed, for Lack of a Better Term, Is Good,” The Final Call, 3 January, 2012
[vii] Michael Camdessus cited in Sam Pizzigati, “The World’s Billionaires, A New Count, A New Record,” Alternet, 18 March, 2008
[viii] George Manuel and Michael Posluns, The Fourth World: An Indian Reality (Don Mills: Collier-Macmillan Canada, 1974)
[ix] Hall, The American Empire and the Fourth World (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005); Hall, Earth into Property: Colonization, Decolonization, and Capitalism (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University, 2010)