The FBI have added ‘Carnival Against Capital’ – the name given to many of the mass actions for international days of protest from London to Quebec – to its list of wanted terrorist groups.
But ‘Carnival Against Capital’ is not an organization. It is: a pink fairy; a pie in the face; a man in a dress; a fire juggler; a samba rhythm. It is a tactic, the incarnation of the spirit of contemporary resistance to global capitalism. And if the FBI wants to infiltrate this movement, it may have to do so wearing tutus.
Did the ‘Tactical Frivolity’ women dressed in outrageous pink dresses, wild wigs, nine-foot-high fan tails and feather dusters dancing towards lines of confused Czech police during the International Monetary Fund meetings in Prague pose a terrorist threat?
Did the teddy bears launched by a large medieval catapult at the six-kilometre fence surrounding the Free Trade Area of the Americas summit in Quebec City threaten the hegemony of the market economy?Will the comedy army of the ‘White Overalls’ movement, who wrap door mats and cardboard round themselves for protection and attempt to non-violently push through police lines with inner tubes for shields and water pistols, bring capitalism to its knees?
Perhaps the real threat is the irresistible appeal of carnival as a tactic and strategy of resistance. Its creativity is contagious and totally unpredictable. Anything can happen during carnival. World Trade Organization (WTO) meetings get shut down. The FBI knows this and they can see it spreading. Around the world a new spirit is reinventing tactics of resistance, rejecting the tedium of ritual marches from A to B, the verbose rallies where the party faithful listen passively to long speeches by ‘leaders’. Spontaneity and pleasure are the order of the day. As someone said at the Festival of Resistance against the WTO in Seattle: ‘Even if we are getting our asses kicked, we’re having more fun than they are.’
For if resistance and rebellion are not fun, do not reflect the world we wish to create, we are merely replicating previous repressive struggles which postpone pleasure, along with racial and gender equality, until ‘after the revolution’.
Many of the great moments of revolutionary history were carnivalesque – revelatory and sensuous explosions outside of the accepted pattern of politics: the 19th century Rebecca rioters performing street theatre in front of the hated toll gates before destroying them; the Luddites dressing as women when they dismantled the looms; the ‘permanent festival’ of an autonomous liberated city during the Paris Commune of 1871; and just about everywhere in 1968.
Carnival and revolution have identical goals: to invert the social order with joyous abandon and to celebrate our indestructible lust for life, a lust that capitalism tries so hard to destroy with its monotonous merry-go-round of work and consumerism. It creates a new world by turning the present one upside down. But as Eduardo Galeano shows us, we live in a world already turned on its head, a ‘desolate, de-souled world that practices the superstitious worship of machines and the idolatry of arms, an upside-down world with its left on its right, its belly button on its backside, and its head where its feet should be’. It’s a world where children work and don’t play, where ‘development’ makes people poorer, where cars are in streets where people should be, where a tiny minority of the world consumes a majority of its resources. And, he asks: ‘If the world is upside-down the way it is now, wouldn’t we have to turn it over to get it to stand up straight?’
Reclaim the Streets in London was one of the first contemporary groups to bring together the volatile mixture of carnival and revolution using rhythm and music to make rebellion as irresistible as dancing. In July 1996, while 10,000 people were illegally dancing on an urban London motorway, two ten-metre-high carnival figures with three-metre-wide hoop skirts were wheeled up and down. Hidden under the skirts, away from the eyes of the police and drowned out by the music, people were busy digging into the tarmac with jackhammers and planting saplings. To the repetitive beat of techno the tarmac was temporarily transformed into a forest.
The varied rhythms of resistance have continued since then; a hundred-strong samba rhythm section with home-made shakers made up part of a huge improvised festive bloc in Prague; the notorious Infernal Noise Brigade provided the soundtrack to insurrection in the midst of suffocating teargas and massive police attacks in Seattle and Prague. The bands inspire joy, but also help move crowds, bring reinforcements to high-intensity situations and renew courage to those engaged in direct action. Carnival cannot exist without music. Music and rhythm cross barriers of nationality, ideology and class; like carnival, they embody self-organization and incite people into ‘dancing,’ as Casey Neil sang, ‘on the ruins of multinational corporations’, throwing beauty back into the streets – streets in which people really begin to live again.
In the days leading up to another Carnival Against Capital the air is tangibly electric as people arrive in town and prepare for the demonstrations. Cities are transformed overnight as graffiti and posters mysteriously crowd out corporate advertisements. A ‘convergence centre’ becomes a central gathering point, independent media activists find a local base. A general framework for the actions at hand has been crafted in advance by locals, with a smattering of outside participation. Then thousands of people, many of them total strangers, come together in dozens of meetings scattered all over town and running late into the night. The skeletal plan is made flesh and blood, sometimes outright rejected and turned into something else. These actions will belong to everyone and their success will rely on the level of participation.
Just as in an authentic carnival there are no spectators, in a contemporary anticapitalist carnival there are no leaders. It is the embodiment of diversity, as every opinion is heard and disparate groups interact. A dynamic direct democracy takes place in spokescouncil meetings, which aspire to hear from spokespeople from every affinity group working together on some aspect of the action. The process can be messy, as there is little in the world which prepares us for coming together to share and build a common experience.
Carnival is unyielding in its demand for participation. It abolishes hierarchy as the fool becomes king. It is the time for celebrating the joy of face-to-face direct democracy, a democracy that takes place on the stage of spontaneously unfolding life, not raised above the audience but at ground level because there are no spectators, no side-lines, only an entanglement of many players who do their own thing while feeling part of a greater whole. Common goals and ideals, symbols and visions unite in a moment of intense participation. As Goethe commented, carnival ‘...is not really a festival given for the people but one the people give themselves’.
So when the FBI identify Carnival Against Capital as a terrorist group, they expose their greatest fear, and perhaps their greatest weakness. Unable to think fluidly, boxed in by hierarchical structures, they are incapable of comprehending the diverse dynamism of carnival, where anyone can have leadership momentarily before dissolving into the sea of the crowd again. And as they attempt to isolate, influence and infiltrate groups in a great effort to break these varied and diverse movements, our spontaneity, unpredictability and irresistibility are blossoming, scattering seeds of inspiration across cultures and continents. We learn to work together, we become better at being human, and we are able to live prefiguratively, in the most radical of all carnivals – a world which will not wait for the future, a world which embraces paradox, a world which contains many worlds.
John Jordan and Jennifer Whitney can often be found together organizing
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