“Who has the power? WE have the power. This is what democracy looks like!”
So went the chant of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) protesters outside SkyCity’s convention centre on Thursday. It’s not often the mantra of a protest group perfectly encapsulates the malaise, frustrations and niggling feelings of impotency in the wider modern society. And this one fails as well.
I watched this week’s protests “on the ground” as journalists like to say. I felt sorry for those thousands of people. Down to a person, each demonstrator was convinced their activity would be effective. That was a vague hope for many, because no two people appeared to have the same grievances, but it was hope. Why else would they participate if they didn’t think it would work? So it's a shame that all they did was help people like me make more money.
The reason “peaceful protests” don’t work anymore is because none of its participants have access to the machinery of power and, far worse, they let themselves be used by the machinery of power to become a slave and a battery. This machinery of power is the arm of the state commonly known as the media, and it controlled every step the protesters took this week.
I was prompted to talk about the intersection of the media with grassroots political action after I was overtaken by trudging TPP protesters on my way to the office on Thursday. Protesting is a perfectly respectable activity, don’t misunderstand me. But do not believe the lie that marching gives you power or a voice. It is a comprehensive surrender to the media.
Most people don’t realise that inviting media coverage of a movement will not “get your message out.” It never does: Instead, it gets the NZ Herald or NBR’s message out. Pithy chants and bright placards stand no chance of being delivered as intended when the journalist’s camera chooses what will be included inside the frame. All the emotion, all the rage, all the anxiety – brought to you by Kia and the editors at TVNZ.
It is impossible for protests to change anything because they are not designed to affect change. They are designed to dissipate the frantic energy of people who lack the power to change anything. The fact that protesters are allowed on to the streets of a major city such as Auckland is proof positive that they are operating 100% in support of the system. After all, the best place for a controversial movement is in plain sight.
I’ve noted in earlier pieces how the presence of the media at a protest is a sure indicator of the imminent failure of that movement. The media doesn’t care for nuance and reasoned debate: It wants a cage fight, because that makes for good clicking. The media’s job is to package a protest as a Manichean commodity, and which side is the light or dark is entirely up to the editors and journalists.
When the regime was stormed during the Russian Revolution, the message the revolutionaries carried was urgent and immediate. And before the press had time to catch up and interpret the new revolution, the movement’s message had already been digested by the public, changing the system irreparably. Only after the system was fully changed was the media then co-opted as a tool of the new power structure.
The way protests reinforce the system is perfectly captured in the picture below. It is a group of men selling Guy Fawkes masks, understood to be the international symbol of anarchist groups. Not only are these protesters selling the masks at $4, they are making a profit. I assume the irony of all this occurring at an anti-globalisation and anti-capitalist protest was entirely lost on them.
(Photo: Nathan Smith)
So it will never matter how many people walk down Queen St. Every placard is irrelevant. The only people who have any real power are people like me (a journalist), and I am stronger and faster than all of the demonstrators. I don’t care how quickly the TPP protesters overtook me when I walked to work, I will always be three or four steps ahead of them and forever in control.
Put a journalist in front of a teeming protest and hit record. Once it plays on YouTube the viewer won’t remember anyone else in the footage apart from the reporter. And for the majority of viewers, that is the only experience they will ever have of the protest – packaged as a commodity. The system has won.
In Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel Cosmopolis, the protagonist commutes through a city with a female aide when a violent protest explodes around his limousine. The resulting conversation shows how protest action is a tool, a commodity or at least expected:
Protesters were rocking the car. He looked at her and smiled.
"You know what capitalism produces. According to Marx and Engels."
"Its own grave-diggers," he said.
"But these are not the grave-diggers. This is the free market itself. These people are a fantasy generated by the market. They don't exist outside the market. There is nowhere they can go to be on the outside. There is no outside."
The camera tracked a cop chasing a young man through the crowd, an image that seemed to exist at some drifting distance from the moment.
"The market culture is total. It breeds these men and women. They are necessary to the system they despise. They give it energy and definition. They are marketdriven. They are traded on the markets of the world. This is why they exist, to invigorate and perpetuate the system."
The protesters in Auckland were operating in a world built on a set of rules they did not create; rules they lack the ability to name, let alone change. Because of this, they will never be as fast or as strong as a media that operates outside those rules and exists to reinforce the structure the protests are attempting to upend.
So here’s a tip to future protesters: if you want to effect real change, you must refuse the presence of all media. Yes, that includes your own smartphones. Put them away or, better yet, throw them in the sea because those devices represent the toxicity you so adamantly claim to fight against. Do not think organising and spreading your protest plans on Twitter is a good move. The social network is a commercial enterprise attached at the hip to traditional media.
This is what I mean by slavery. All the “activism” people think they’re undertaking is simply ad revenue for shiny suits in Manhattan and a fresh tsunami of data sucked up to sell your own warped ideas back to you.
Ideally you wouldn’t even start a protest in the first place, because if you had the power to change anything you’d go right for the jugular. You wouldn’t dawdle around the edges “getting your voice heard.” Playing inside a rule-box someone else created is to lose the game before it starts. So if a guy approaches asking you to sign something, punch him in the throat. He’s your enemy. Until you understand this, until you realise that what holds you back is your self-imposed slavery, until you know this – not feel it – you will never be powerful.
Once the protests expired, I watched city council workers clean up the discarded placards and calm people stroll through Auckland’s streets again as if nothing happened. The frantic energy of political impotency had dissipated and been replaced by the lingering illusion of democratic power.
A protest is just the system offering you a punching bag. Think back to that slogan they all chanted – “Who has the power? We have the power...” Then why is everyone acting in exactly the same way? Do you see? The choice to protest was no choice at all, it was facilitated by the system.
The conversation in Mr DeLillo’s limousine continued.
“How will we know when the global era officially ends?”
"When stretch limousines begin to disappear from the streets of Manhattan." Men were urinating on the car. Women pitched sandfilled soda bottles.
"This is controlled anger, I would say. But what would happen if they knew that the head of Packer Capital was in the car?"
She said this evilly, eyes alight. The protesters' eyes were blazing between the red-and-black bandannas they wore across their heads and faces. Did he envy them? The shatterproof windows showed hairline fractures and maybe he thought he'd like to be out there, mangling and smashing. "They are working with you, these people. They are acting on your terms," she said. "And if they kill you, it's only because you permit it, in your sweet sufferance, as a way to re-emphasize the idea we all live under."
"Destruction," she said.
On one of the screens he saw figures descending a vertical surface. It took him a moment to understand that they were rappelling down the facade of the building just ahead, where the market tickers were located.
"You know what anarchists have always believed."
"Tell me," she said.
"The urge to destroy is a creative urge."
"This is also the hallmark of capitalist thought. Enforced destruction. Old industries have to be harshly eliminated. New markets have to be forcibly claimed.
“Old markets have to be re-exploited. Destroy the past, make the future."
Truly radical action this week would have been to pile up every protester’s life-savings outside the building and set it alight. The smell of the burning plastic would expose the naked truth that money and rules are equally illusory and their power over us is self-maintained. To paraphrase Jean-Paul Sartre: “you weirdos are freer than you know.”
The melting heap would be painful but it would be a consciousness-raising example demanded by proper revolution – the kind of self-sacrifice every protester wielding a smartphone is incapable of performing.
And since this did not happen, the conclusion must be either that these people cannot see their servility or that power over the existing system is the real goal – not change. The first is forgivable but the latter is horrific. A small group will always use the crowd for a power grab. Their goals are rarely to usher in a fresh and egalitarian society. These people will simultaneously count you among their numbers even as they ask you to die for their goals. Or kill, depending on how much power they get.
Dear TPP protesters: Do you want change or power? What you did not fight for, and this is to my point, is the specific power of being taken seriously without the need to protest.
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