Art Of Confusion?

Right, Left, Right....

Raúl Zibechi

Recent mass demonstrations, instigated by the rightwing in a variety of countries, indicate their capacity to co-opt symbols that they used to scorn, to the confusion of many on the left.

Patrick Tyler, writing in a New York Times column for February 17, 2003, about what was happening on the streets across the world, noted that "...the huge antiwar demonstrations around the world this weekend are reminders that there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion".

"Take a look around and you'll see a world at the boiling point" writes Tom Engelhardt, US editor of [the online] Tomdispatch. In effect, ten years after the famous Times article, which circled the globe on the back of the anti-war movement, there is hardly a corner of the world that is not at the boiling point of popular unrest, especially since the crisis of 2008.

One could mention the Arab Spring that overthrew dictators and swept through a good part of the Arab world; Occupy Wall Street, the greatest critical movement in the United States since the 1960s; the Greek and Spanish indignados that marched against the social disasters provoked by mega-speculation. Right now, Ukraine, Syria, South Sudan, Thailand, Bosnia, Turkey and Venezuela are scenes of protest, mobilizations and street actions under the most diverse banners.

Countries that had not seen social protests for decades, such as Brazil, expect demonstrations during the World Cup, after 350 cities have witnessed significant unease in the streets. In Chile, there is a strong students' movement that shows no signs of losing strength, while in Peru the conflict over mining is still very much alive after more than five years.

When public opinion has the force of a superpower, governments have attempted to understand what is happening in order to dominate, manipulate, and lead it into areas that are more easily controlled than street uprisings, aware of the fact repression alone does not achieve much. Because of this, know-how that was once a monopoly of the left, from political parties to trade unions and social movements, has now been taken up by others, capable of moving masses but with goals diametrically opposed to those of the left.

From March 20 to 26, 2010, there was an event in the Uruguayan Department of Colonia called the Campamento Latinoamericano de Jovenes Activistas Sociales ("Latin American Encampment of Young Social Activists",'). The convocation promised "a space for horizontal interchange" to work for a "more just and solitary Latin America." Among the hundred or so activists who responded, no one suspected the source of funds for travel and living expenses, nor who in reality had called for the meeting (Alai, April 9, 2010).

A young militant pursued an investigation as to who exactly were the "Young Social Activists" who had organized a participative encounter to "begin to create a live memory of the experiences of social activism in the region; to learn the difficulties, identify good local practices that could be adopted at regional levels, and to maximize the scope of creativity and the engagement of their protagonists."

The result of his investigation in web pages allowed him to ascertain that the event was supported by the Open Society Institute of George Soros and other institutions connected with it. The surprise was even greater because in the encampment there were round tables, campfires and collective work with flipcharts, against a background of whipala pennants and other indigenous flags. The decor and the style gave the impression of a meeting not unlike the Social Forums and many other activist events that employ similar symbols and ways of acting. Some of the workshops employed methods identical to those of Paulo Freire's popular education which, habitually, have been employed by movements against "the system".

It is clear that a certain number of activists were coopted "democratically", since all indicated that they could freely express their opinions, for objectives opposed to those of the organizers. This learning experience of the Soros Foundation was applied in various former Soviet Republics, during the "revolt" in Kyrgyzstan in 2010 and in the "orange revolution" in Ukraine in 2004.

It is a fact that many foundations and widely varied institutions send money and instructors to similar groups to mobilize and work to overthrow governments opposed to Washington. In the case of Venezuela, on a number of occasions such agencies have been denounced, such as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) created by the US Congress during the Presidency of Ronald Reagan. There is also the Spanish Fundacion de Analisis y Estudios Sociales (FAES) associated with ex-President Jose Maria Aznar.

Now people are faced with a more complex reality: how the art of street demonstration, above all that which is directed toward the overthrow of governments, has been learned by conservative forces.

The journalist Rafael Poch describes the deployment of forces in the Maidan square in Kiev: "In the most massive moments there were some seventy thousand gathered in this city of four million people. Among them there is a minority of several thousand, perhaps four or five thousand, equipped with helmets, iron bars, shields and bats to confront the police. And within these groups there is a hard nucleus of perhaps one thousand or fifteen hundred individuals who can only be described as paramilitaries, people who are ready to kill those who represent another category, or to die. This hard nucleus has made use of firearms" (Vanguardia, Februry 25, 2014).

This disposition of combat forces on the streets is nothing new. Throughout history it has been employed by a variety of antagonistic forces to achieve objectives that are also opposed. What has been seen in Ukraine is repeated in part in Venezuela where armed groups mingle with demonstrations in order to overthrow a government, generating situations of chaos and ungovernability to achieve their goal.

The Right has learned from the vast insurrectional experience of the working class, principally European, and from the popular uprisings in Latin America since the Caracazo of 1989. A comparative study of these two moments should reveal the enormous differences between the workers' insurrections of the first decades of the Twentieth Century, led by parties and solidly organized, and the uprisings of popular sectors over the last years of this same century.

In any case, the Right has been able to create a "people's" mechanism, such as that described by Rafael Poch, to destabilize popular governments, giving the impression that these are legitimate mobilizations that have managed to overthrow illegitimate governments, even though these governments were in fact elected and still have the support of an important segment of the population. Here confusion is a decisive tactic, as was the tactic of insurrection that in other times was employed by revolutionaries.

A very similar tactic was displayed by conservative groups in Brazil during the June demonstrations. While the first marches were hardly covered by the media, except to point to the "vandalism" of the demonstrators, from June 13, when hundreds of thousands appeared on the streets, there was a variation.

The demonstrations made headlines, but there was something that the Brazilian sociologist Silvia Viana defines as a "reconstruction of the narrative" towards other goals. The theme of bus fares moved to second place, while Brazilian flags and the slogan "down with corruption", which had not featured in the original calls for action, took the headlines (Le Monde Diplomatique, June 21, 2013). The mass media also buried the originators of the call for action and emphasized social networks in their place, criminalizing the more militant sectors for their supposed violence, even as police violence was played down.

In this way, the Right, that in Brazil has no capacity for mobilization, attempted to take over mobilizations whose objectives (denouncing real estate speculation and the huge construction projects for the World Cup) they were far from sharing. "It is clear that there is no political struggle without a dispute over symbols," said Viana. In this symbolic dispute, the Right, which now attempts to paint their assaults as "defence of democracy", learned faster than did their opponents.

Vol. 46, No. 41, Apr 20 - 26, 2014