In the post-Occupy world, with protests that heated up Egypt, and now Ukraine, Bosnia and Venezuela it may appear that the people are awakening, and progressives around the world have something to be excited about. Think again.
For us privileged folks in the west, most who have never come close to a tear gas canister it may be exciting to see people take the street, set alight the world. These are images that we typically associate with the creation of a new world in the flames of the old.
It is thus easy to conflate the huge revival of protest over the past years into one positive global uprising. The so-called ‘Arab Spring’, the Indignados in Spain, Occupy Wall Street to China, the protests against university reform in UK and the riots of August 2012. But each should be taken on its own merits, with many just the protests of the salaried bourgeoisie as Zizek puts it, to those in Spain and Greece who genuinely called for progressive social reform.
In recent days social and traditional media has been abuzz with images of the protests in Ukraine and Venezuela, talking of pure government repression and the noble cause of the protesters. Nominally liberal leaning publications like The Guardian have published powerful images of cities set alight and protesters being harassed by the police. But in the age of social media, we still have not learned that all cannot be trusted. Twitter will not bring about a revolution, and in fact can be the harbinger of conservative tendencies.
The international media have been portraying these protesters as peaceful victims of state repression, and that is certainly the narrative that the protesters in Venezuela and Ukraine are pushing for. In the Venezuelan case, celebrities such as Paris Hilton and Cher have been drawn into this social media created false hysteria, calling for the end to the ‘brutal dictatorship’. However, the reality in Venezuela is very different. Yes, there are many social problems in Venezuela such as insecurity, inflation and currency shortages which some protesters are legitimately demonstrating their concerns. But the real force is from a right wing element which aims to destabilize and delegitimize the elected government. But it is their false discourse which us in the west have eaten up.
But both the protests in Venezuela and in Ukraine have more to do with returning an old elite in Venezuela, or creating a different one in Ukraine. Nothing that a progressive could get behind.
Unbeknownst to most, in Haiti there is a deep political crisis since the election of the President Michel Martelly, who received only 16.7 percent of registered voters, and has been running the country without a fully functioning government in order to avoid dealing with constitutionally mandated checks and balances. However this has received very little coverage. Maybe partly because it lacks strong images of a noble protester fighting against of a ‘third world dictator’ such as the Venezuelan and Ukrainian governments can offer.
A cynic would also point to the imperial side of these protests. The Venezuela protests are on behalf of a pro-US right, and those in Ukraine are anti-Russia, pro-EU. Both these protest movement, as reactionary as they are, are in favour of the west. It therefore does not come as great surprise that these are covered in the media extensively, and favourably.
In the era of fast sharing of powerful images, and of the protests of the developing world, images of protests have become spectacle par excellence. We are almost automatically conditioned to take sympathy for all who take to the streets and face up against a riot cop.
But it appears many have still not learned from the Kony incident. For example, there is a You Tube clip which has been shared extensively of a Venezuelan woman explaining what is going on in Venezuela. The upper class woman tells a narrative which fits neatly into the discourse of a global uprising against the old world. But, the case in Venezuela is very different. As George Cicciriello-Maher, an expert on Venezuela explains, it is simply the old elite wishing to wrest back control of the nation into their wealthy hands.
I don’t want to get into the specifics of the situation, because there is much of that already explained. But what I want to question is why many in the west automatically side with third world movements without understanding the specifics of the situation? Ai Wei-Wei must be automatically a good guy – not a neo-liberal in disguise? The protesters in Egypt must be pushing for deep democratic reforms, not just a military government? The Syrian rebels must be creating a new positive Syria? Each of these cases deserves close inspection, and appreciation of the complexities, but the western gaze often overlooks these, looking for a Tony Abbot style narrative of goodies versus baddies.
This fetishism that exists is suspiciously guilty – white man’s burden. Fetish is a term that originates from anthropology – it was a charm that supposed magical powers for the so-called primitive peoples of the world. In psychoanalysis it is a strong or sexual attachment to objects and images, especially ones that are not in ones immediate life.
The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard updated the traditional Marxist reading of the fetish by remarking on its etymological relationship to ‘fakery’ in the age of the hyper-real. Under this model, the fetish becomes the sign of the commodity (promulgated through media culture) that become the fetish object, above and beyond the commodity itself.
And the left is guilty of it as much as anyone. I can see parallels like the calls that it should be China and India doing something about climate change because they are bigger countries, us the west looks towards exotic places to do their rioting and social change. Think of it as a global version of NIMBY.
It is this very fetishism that we must be careful from resiting. Simply because there are powerful images beamed quickly across the world, it does not mean the same as those other powerful images of Tiananmen Square, or the Vietnam War. Each one has their own deep context that we should be very careful from romanticizing.
In the book ‘Third World Protest’ the author Rahul Rao is
“struck by the tacit alliance between a politically correct Western left, so ashamed of the crimes of Western imperialism that it found itself [in a] a hyper-defensive Third World mentality.”
Liberal Western cosmopolitans sees international borders as irrelevant, or simply a way for the stereotypical third world strong man leadership to hide their crimes. This is a different way of seeing space and sovereignty to those who defend the national rights of other nations. An alternative view would be the communitarian-nationalist one in which borders and states are sovereign, to protect the domestic against the international, against a inherently unequal world capitalist system
But for the hegemonic cosmopolitan view of the world the international space is safe and must overcome boundaries to enlighten the few remaining backward societies in the world, in which darkness still pervades. A neo-colonial gaze if there ever was one.
This is not to say that defenders of national sovereignty are correct either. One could argue until the cows come home about the crimes that Gaddaffi committed versus the Western imperialism in Africa and the race for oil. Both perspectives miss something, and both refuse to give any space to the other.
We could therefore reverse Marx’s thesis 11. The first task today is not to succumb to the temptation to act, to directly side or intervene with change. Rather, what we should be looking at is the ideological coordinates of the situation.
To go back to the Venezuelan example, those protesting are not representative of the working class majority that have voted for Chavez, and wish for a different system than the one they were subjected to until recently. The people taking to the street of Venezuela, that are destroying public buildings, setting up barricades and burning garbage a tires represent marginal right wing interests. Even if an international progressive can not support the Chavez/Maduro regime, they certainly can not support the interests of this elite, regressive group.
The protesters in Venezuela are protesting real issues, to be sure. But the out in the open plan, as their slogan ‘The Exit’ suggests, is to throw the country into a state of ungovernability that would lead to regime change, possible with international intervention. While regional governments have expressed support for Venezuela, the US was quick to back the opposition supporters. Obama even threatened President Maduro with international consequences. These are not the ideological coordinates that we should be getting ourselves behind, no matter how romantic the images, nor even considering the problems in the nation. Going back to old elite control will not create a better Venezuela, simply the same divides, just with the neo-cons back instead of focussing on the poor.
The Venezuelan case also shows the limitations of social media in these kinds of situations. Going against claims that social media is a democratic tool (as has been in the case in many middle Eastern protest movements) the Venezuelan case shows that what is can do is be a harbinger of disinformation and misrepresentation. Doctored and old photos of police assaults from other countries and different protests were circulated widely as if they were from the current protest movement.
In Venezuela the upper classes have disproportionate access to social media and the necessary English language skills to get the word on to the Western media. The Guardian cited many tweets of unsubstantiated rumours of pro-government gang attacks that were organised by the government. The same publication also reported the arrest of 30 students for public disorder such as tyre burning, Molotov cocktail attacks and barricade building as if it was an egregious assault on human rights.
Philosopher Chantel Mouffe highlights that antagonism is necessary for a strong democracy. And it is in fact this antagonism which drives Chavismo in Venezuela. One the other hand, fascism seeks to impose the goal of hierarchically structured harmony through the means of an unbridled antagonism. It is this covering up of the antagonism which the protesters seek to implement. Civilization needs to win over barbarism for the right. It is this very idea of civilization which coincides with the idea of liberal capitalism that the west fetishizes.
In a homologous way, the ambiguity of the middle class, this contradiction embodied, as Marx wrote to Proudhon about, is best exemplified by the way it relates to politics. The middle class is against politicization. They want to keep going with their way of life. This is why that left wing politicization, such as that in Venezuela is a threat to the middle classes. They want to put an end to the polarization in society (which can often lead to right wing authoritarianism) so that everyone can get on with his or her ‘proper’ place in society, a return to neo-liberal capitalism.
The other side is to argue anti-interventionism as the independence, which was fought for, should be the bulwark against imperialism and the ‘Empire’ in the Negrian sense. But this simply ends up in overly simplistic views also, something which the Wikileaks party fell for. The problem lies not with realism, but with shoddy analysis of individual cases.
The alternative to both oversimplifications is not to deny the existence of an imperial force that continues to have a destructive effect, and support right wing destabilization movements like that of Venezuela. What should be done is to recognize the myriad threats to a given population, both external and internal such as foreign imperialism, and national domination.
And at the same time, following Mao’s dictum ‘Everything under heaven is in utter chaos; the situation is excellent’ it is an opportunity for the left to capitalise on the desperations and mistakes of other groups to form a more powerful revolutionary perspective, one which pushes against the reactionaries both in civil society and in the state.