Rosie Meade (
Inspiration from Resistance in
Thinking about the inspiration that
I can derive from recent activism in my own country, forces me to look beyond
the political sectarianism that continues to divide sections of the tiny Irish
activist field. Sometimes it seems as if
we on the ‘left’ inhabit a delusional universe, within which the values to
which we aspire actually do hold sway: a universe that is not dominated by the
commodifying and individualizing logic of capitalism. It is because we live in this world of make
believe that we can afford to treat our closest potential allies as our
greatest foes; indulgently dwelling on fine points of dogma and subverting
opportunities for meaningful dialogue.
Recent demonstrations against the occupation of
If I can find reasons to be
optimistic about the current state of activism in
DIY and cultural resistance
George McKay (1998) has described
It is, of course, debatable whether passion trumps popularity as a lubricant of social change. There is a risk that the rhetoric of DIY seeks to camouflage a simple tactical choice as ontology and that other meaningful strategies become disregarded in our rush to prove the authentic spirit of our actions. Furthermore, as Adolph Reed (2000; 195) has warned, ‘lack of connection to palpable constituencies makes it possible to convince oneself of all manner of ridiculous fantasies’ and it is conceivable that small scale local confrontations, such as are idealised by ‘direct activists’, may produce little of in the way of durable or reproducible improvement. Nonetheless, this emphasis on direct action is refreshing insofar as it actually seeks to identify the connections between protest and outcomes. Instead of valourising deferred gratification or emphasising the long hard road to ‘progress’, ‘direct activists’ urge us to steal success whenever and wherever we can and in doing so, they present a vital and dramatic challenge to accepted definitions of ‘revolution’ or change.
McKay (1998) acknowledges that DIY is not new and that its antecedents can be traced to 1970s punk, the social movements of the 1960s and even to earlier forms of socialist struggle. Nonetheless, in asserting that cultural action has its own intrinsic and extrinsic politics, activists have reminded their peers that the scope for resistance is broader than is typically assumed by the traditional left. As if to underscore the threat DIY posed to establishment values, the British Conservative government enacted legislation in 1993 – the Criminal Justice Act – that effectively criminalized key groupings within the DIY activist scene. Ravers, free party organizers, anti-road protesters, hunt saboteurs and ‘New Age’ Travellers had been demonised by the media and thus became the primary scapegoats of the new measures.
Throughout the 1980s and 90s
refugees from Thatcher’s
It is important not to attribute a coherent or binding analysis to all who may have passed through the DIY scene. For example, many (or maybe most) who attended raves did not necessarily construct their participation as a political act; it was often more about the buzz. Nonetheless, raves or nomadic communities can be understood as constituting liminal spaces, within which the norms of conduct and prevailing social values are transgressed. By breaking through the hegemony of commercialism and by offering a focus for dissident opinion, this scene had an important influence over subsequent campaigns and protest movements. Aside from its more overt political claims regarding autonomy and action, it provided participants, however marginal their involvement, with an opportunity to disengage temporarily from society and in the process to self-identify as outsiders. This kind of ideological breach is essential to the building of any counter-hegemonic political movement, and as the media, police and establishment voices demonised the various elements of DIY, participants became further alienated from the dominant value frame of their society.
Dropping the dour, embracing creativity
One of the most persistent
stereotypes about left wing activists is that we are a dour and poker-faced
lot. In many ways, we have reinforced
this image by conducting ourselves in ways that suggest that creativity and
humour are too vulgar for protest; that the correct stance for the wannabe
revolutionary is that of the arch-miserabilist. Very often, our political
aspirations are reduced to mumbled chants as we shuffle along in directionless
marches or to truisms printed on monochrome posters that invoke the ‘hardship
vocabulary’ of the left – struggle, oppression, work, etc. Of course, we must not trivialise the
challenges we face and we do have an obligation to construct alternative
discourses through which the realities of inequality can be appraised with
rigour. But surely a critical
consciousness can coexist with an optimistic outlook or a more dynamic spirit! The tendency towards excessive sobriety is
not just a feature of activism in
‘Before Super Barrio, everything to
do with social movements had to be represented in a very serious way, with
proper respect for the solemnity of the people’s struggle,’….’All the social
movements we see in the US still have this solemnity. The political opposition there is expressed
in very humourless, rational terms, but in
Happily, some more boisterous
elements have become visible at recent demonstrations in
Building a discursive community of resistance
One of the most exciting recent developments to occur in Irish radical politics was the foundation of indymedia.ie in winter 2001. This independent and comparatively unregulated discussion forum promises a free trade in the kinds of ideas, information and viewpoints that are typically ignored or misrepresented by the mainstream media. The substance of its news derives from frontline reports that are posted by activists and although contributors have a moral responsibility to record accurately, they are, unlike professional journalists, unburdened by allegiance to the liberal myth of objective reporting. Indymedia invites all who log onto its pages to cast off the humble role of news consumer and instead to participate as equals in the creation and definition of alternative news. However, by promoting the ethos and practice of ‘open publishing’, Indymedia also challenges writers to use that space constructively. All too frequently, the ‘pages’ of <indymedia.ie> are overrun over by contributors whose main political purpose appears to be the subversion and ultimate destruction of this experiment in information sharing. Rigorous debate becomes sidelined as sectarians trade insults and trolls launch diatribes against the integrity and tactics of fellow activists. In these, its worst moments, the news service becomes little more than a frat-house for dysfunctional cyber-lefties: lefties who appear to have abandoned any hope of engagmement with a broader constituency. In its best moments, however, indymedia.ie, grants minority or counter-hegemonic voices room for expression and thus helps disconnected individuals and groups to become part of a more potent oppositional community through which friendships and alliances can be built. By offering a safe house for all manner of contrary discourses and by allowing activists to frame their thoughts and actions in words of their own choosing, <indymedia.ie> inverts the objectifying processes, which define mainstream media practice. It is the fundamental difference between reporting and being reported on, between speaking and being spoken about. We cannot overestimate the worth of such independent discursive spaces, particularly since Irish journalism is overwhelming centre-right in its orientation and commercial in its sense of obligation (See Corcoran 2004).
In May 2003, I attended a meeting
Since no one among us can say with certainty where the left begins and ends, we must show modesty as we begin the slow unwieldy process of building and securing alliances. We must become less defensive, stop cheerleading our pet parties or projects and instead work towards the creation of discussion spaces where the certainty of action is replaced by the uncertainty of exploration. It is because Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt (2001 and 2005) have attempted to acknowledge and celebrate a pluralized conception of the left, that I draw particular inspiration from their work. They have theorised the form and political character of ‘the’ counter hegemonic movement that is most appropriate to the complexities of contemporary globalised society – or what they term ‘Empire’. The Marxist left’s longstanding fixation with the ‘industrial working class’ as harbingers of revolution has, they argue, effectively denied the political subjectivity of a range of actors, including peasants, unwaged domestic workers, and the unemployed. Like good Marxists, however, they also recognise that dominant systems of production and exchange tend to generate the forces of their own undoing. Domination and resistance, it seems, are perpetual bedfellows. Because Empire is ubiquitous, because its commodifying and anti-democratic logic insinuates itself within all aspects of individual and collective life, we may legitimately hope that the currents of our opposition are similarly far-reaching and diversified. Hardt and Negri (2001, 2005) also seek to redefine ‘the proletariat’ in terms that are more inclusive and so they invoke the ‘Multitude’ as the ultimate author of political opposition in our times. ‘Multitude’ signifies a collectivity that is pluri-vocal and heterogeneous, where a multiplicity of interests acts simultaneously in defiance of imperial power. This theorisation is also self-effacingly non-prescriptive, refusing to delimit the mechanisms through which individual elements of the multitude might converge or to prematurely determine the content of a shared political programme.
‘We do not have any models to offer for this event. Only the multitude through its practical experimentation will offer the models and determine when and how the possible becomes real.’ (2001; 411) Perhaps this might be construed as vague or fuzzy thinking. However, I would prefer to believe that their work is infused by optimism of the intellect and of the will: the kind of optimism that is the foundation of a genuinely reflexive political praxis.
I do not think that it is possible to deliver a definitive appraisal of the state of the Irish activist left, largely because my own analysis swings over and back between despair and hope. There are specific campaigns, most of which I have not mentioned in this article, whose aspirations I share or whose tactical energy I admire. Nonetheless, I also believe that there are too many groups whose actions are over determined by pragmatism and by a thirst for power. My search for seeds of inspiration has been intentionally dialectical, largely because I believe that tactical choices always must be negotiated with reference to the specific historical circumstances within which activists operate. Of course, I am concerned also that I might be judged guilty of sectarianism if I endorse specific tendencies or celebrate particular campaigns too wholeheartedly. Building a discursive, dynamic and mutually supportive activist community will be no easy task. Our allegiance to the party or to the latest trend in tactical expression, very often the stuff that gives us our identity as activists, may become depleted as we seek to engage honestly with potential allies. However, without such potentially risky dialogue, the Irish left will stagnate. Whether they are local, national or international, forums that take seriously the project of alliance building are to be welcomed. They may be tentative and awkward, and might not amount to much in the way of a new utopianism, but wherever I find such efforts, I also find something to inspire me.
Corcoran, Mary (2004) ‘The Political Preferences and Value Orientations of Irish Journalists’, Irish Journal of Sociology, 13(2): 22-42
McKay, George (1998) DIY: Party
and Protest in 90s
Michael and Negri, Antonio (2000) Empire.
Michael and Negri, Antonio (2005) Multitude.
(2000) Class Notes.
Rugoff, Ralph (1995) Circus
1 I cannot do justice to the complexity of political activism and its associated tendencies in the North of Ireland.