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Protest and regression: Notes on a recent protest

S.J. Benjamin

Platypus Review 4 | April—May 2008

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Alasdair Macintyre begins After Virtue with a parable: Populist demagogues declare war on the natural sciences. Every lab bombed, every chemistry department ransacked, every copy of Nature burned. Once the luddite swell subsides, a group of enlightened citizens attempt to reconstruct science from the remaining fragments. To us, natural science is a way of making sense of the physical world through experiment and observation. In this imaginary future, such a context has been lost. The new, reconstructed science is a wholly self-enclosed activity, like the creation of an imaginary language. Yet however hermetic this science may be, it is consistent; the proofs and the equations mean nothing, but they add up.

MacIntyre intended his parable to illustrate the state of modern morality, but it applies just as well to contemporary protest politics. Protest, as a form of political action, begins in the age of the bourgeois revolution. In Paris, Boston, and Berlin men and women marched as citizens to demand a just and free political order. The demands shifted over time, but the form and structure remained. A line of continuity connects the ‘Women’s March’ of 1789 to the march over the Edmund Pettus bridge in 1965.

On the 20th of March, the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, some two thousand protesters gathered for a rally in downtown Chicago’s Daley Plaza and marched north into the Magnificent Mile, the jewel in Chicago’s mercantile crown. The crowd demanded the immediate withdrawal of US military force from Iraq. Just as in Paris, the marchers demanded freedom and justice. Just as in Selma, they decried the barbarism of the status quo. But the similarities are misleading and dangerous. A catastrophe, nearly invisible, separates contemporary protest from the past: the loss of a political context.

To take the streets in 1789 or 1965 was to join a thriving world of left politics; to participate in a movement large and powerful enough to change the structure of the polis. If the protesters in St. Petersburg in 1917 demanded the end of imperialist war, it was in the name of a revolutionary movement poised to take power. Today, protesters also demand the end of imperialist war; but in the name of what? Some insist it is a question of right and wrong, of legality and illegality. Others speak of the right of each nation to determine its own destiny. Put aside all that is problematic about these two justifications. Note, instead, the diminution in political horizon. In 1917, protest was part of a practical and vital political struggle, in 2008, it is a way of making a statement; a scream in the dark.

The loss of mass political movement is already devastating, but the refusal to recognize the loss is worse. Take the sectarian Marxists. Some form front groups, (A.N.S.W.E.R, World Can’t Wait, Not in Our Name) print placards with easy slogans and hand them out to unsuspecting liberal protesters. Other sectarians groups stalk around the rally, handing out newspapers, calling for revolution. The two methods appear radically different; one downplays Marxism, the other screams it. But they are both ways to avoid recognizing political failure. The ‘opportunists’ bury themselves in tactics, leeching onto the anti-war movement in the hope that anti-Bushism might metamorphose into something larger, something revolutionary. As for the ‘manifest’ sectarians: it would be easy enough to mock their aggressive sincerity, their insistence on the program, their passionate orthodoxy. But all of these qualities would be essential in a less wretched age. Better anachronism than whorish opportunism: But 2008 is not 1917. To continue to deny it ensures the continued irrelevance of the Marxian Left.

Only attention to history, MacIntrye argues, could help his hypothetical scientists realize the incoherence of their practices. Given the barbarism, the urgency, the violence of our world, studying history seems perverse and apolitical. If the world sinks into slaughter, it is because the Left, again and again, has failed to inaugurate a new world. As the failures piled on, the very mass support dwindled. In 1928, 12,000 filled Madison Square Garden for a Communist Party Rally. Today, “leftist” events are considered large if they can summon more than 30, and considered vital if more than a quarter of the attendees are under 50. Despite such failure and erosion, the Left stays the course: matter without spirit, habit without reason. Marches recur with diminishing returns. Millions in the street in 2003, thousands in 2008. Every blind demonstration, every thoughtless protest, moves a small step further towards total degeneration. To understand this history, and to recognize it as a history of failure is one step towards overcoming it.

This is not a call to abandon the streets and retreat into the libraries. It is a call to understand what we were doing out in the streets in the first place. |P

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