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The Phenomenal Form of Contemporary Social Movements: An Interview with Georgy Katsiaficas

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Georgy Katsiaficas is the author of a trilogy of works on social movements: The Imagination of the New Left: A Global Analysis of 1968 (South End Press, 1987), The Subversion of Politics: European Autonomous Social Movements and the Decolonization of Everyday Life (AK Press, 2006), and a forthcoming work on movements in South Korea.  His website is www.eroseffect.com/.  I took the occasion of the publication of a new edition of The Subversion of Politics to interview him by email.

First, a couple of questions for readers who may be unfamiliar with Autonomia and the Autonomen phenomenon.  How do autonomous movements differ from traditional movements on the left?  What has been happening in the last thirty years that favors their growth?

Society today is changing more rapidly than ever before.  After World War 2, the US built the suburbs and the interstate highway system.  Once cities had been transformed by white flight and deindustrialization, gentrification occurred and inner city neighborhoods saw affluent people move back in.  Precisely being able to adjust to such rapid changes is one of the factors behind the USA’s enduring strength in the world economy.  We have seen entire industries relocate, first from the industrial Northeast of the USA to the South, then to the Third World.

Terms like “postmodernism” and “post-Fordism” indicate a radical realignment of the role of information media in our lives.  For social movements, the phenomenon I call the “eros effect” is one significant new dimension.  “People power” — that is hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets and remaining there until political change is enacted — is a new weapon in the arsenal of popular insurgencies, a weapon preconditioned by the tremendous new powers of the media.  Today millions of us act daily in synchronous thought and action — in mundane and monotonous ways for the most part, to be sure.  Yet, social life’s increasing synchronicity creates the situation in which vast popular movements can emerge with unprecedented simultaneity.  When I realized the synchronicity of movements during my empirical study of 1968, I developed the concept of the eros effect.  We saw this synchronicity in striking form in February 2003 just before Iraq War II when something like 30 million people took to the streets without any central organization calling upon them to do so.

Apparently, central organization is more and more superfluous.  Decentralized sources of information abound — this Web site is one small example.  Hierarchy and leaders are similarly less called for today than in the past — a reason why autonomous movements are key actors.  Independently formulated, self-guided actions are the phenomenal form of contemporary social movements.

What are similarities and differences in the trajectories of the movements in Germany and Italy?

In Italy, the movement resonated among workers in factories to a degree never realized in Germany, where autonomous movements remained largely confined to marginalized youth and women’s groups.  Although the armed struggle in Germany appeared to be intense in the days of the Baader-Meinhof group, in Italy it was many times more significant and led to a rapid decline of the popular movement even before the guerrillas were defeated.

Looking at these movements from a US perspective, it is hard not to be struck by the weakness of equivalent movements here.  Why do you think that is?  In thinking about this, it occurred to me that the effort to create communes in the seventies that embodied movement values has some parallels with the autonomous movements.  But that was a rural-oriented movement, while you focus on urban ones.  Were their similar rural movements in Europe?  If so, how do they relate to the urban-based autonomous movements?

To the extent that the “1960s” movements in the USA did not appear to generate intense next-generation activism, there is a great difference with Germany, where several new generations have massively dedicated themselves to activism.  While there are many people active today in the USA (in Noam Chomsky’s estimation, even more than in the past), a unifying focus does not exist.  Also, young people in the USA here have more options open to them than in Europe, where many cannot find a place to live outside their parents’ home until late in life, where good jobs remain scarcer than in the USA, and where higher education is not as widely available as in the USA.

Rurally based movements do exist in Europe.  The most famous is in Wendland — near the site of the Gorleben nuclear waste disposal site in Germany.  The local communities continue to fight a protracted struggle against the death culture of the industrial behemoth, blockading trains of nuclear waste, creating organic farms, and living communally.  Another well-known rural movement is in Larzac, France, from which Jose Bove comes.  People there stopped French military madness from turning it into a test site for nuclear weapons.

Your narrative ends, more or less, with efforts to struggle against neo-Nazis in the wake of German reunification.  What has happened since then?  Are there continuities between actors in the global justice protests (the White Overalls, the Black Bloc, the Pink Fairies, etc) and the autonomous movements of the seventies and eighties?

While their empirical histories and cultural contexts differ, these self-organized and tactically innovative movements are essentially manifestations of the same energy source.  Today in Latin America, autonomous movements are the source of the magnificent changes occurring.

If I understand you correctly, you suggest that one of the challenges of contemporary movements is to take the universalist element present in thedifferent movements (such as peace, anti-nuclear, and women’s movements) and re-forge a universalist left.  Do you think the global justice movementhas made progress in doing so?

Yes, the global justice movement has identified the world economic system as the common enemy of all humankind.  Millions of us today work to transform it — a universalism not present in social movements for nearly a century.  If we can speak of one global movement, we must celebrate its diversity as one of its key features.  This diversity contradicts the standardization of that world economic system.  Within the particularity of every strand of the global movement, the universal resides.  Black music, for example, is everybody’s music.  Feminism is in the interest of men and women.  Environmental activism benefits all forms of life.

Do you see parallels between the European autonomous movements and the Korean social movements you are currently studying?  How has the book been received in Korea?

Autonomous movements in South Korea in the 1980s and 1990s were far more widespread, effective, and vibrant than anywhere else in the world.  I am continually astonished by how many different kinds of people were activists.  Although thousands and thousands of people suffered imprisonment, torture, and degradation, they persevered and won democracy, expanded liberties, trade union rights, and a modicum of affluence.  My two books sold better there than anywhere; discussions were more critical and intense there.  As a result of activists’ interest in my work, I am working to finish the third book in my trilogy (the first on the global imagination of 1968 is still in print in Korea and in the USA) about uprisings in East Asia in the 1980s and 1990s.

A few skeptical questions — one relates to the question of direct action.  Radical activists, drawn from marginalized youth, had considerable successsquatting abandoned buildings and turning them into living spaces and places for movement activity.  But what if this isn’t the most urgent need of theurban population?  For example, the elderly or disabled people may have urgent housing needs, but they are unlikely to squat buildings and fight offthe police behind barricades.  How do the needs of those not able to articulate themselves in the language the movement is accustomed to get metin this completely decentralized milieu?

The democratic character of autonomous movements means open general assemblies are one of the most important places where decisions are made and the movement’s direction determined.  These types of meetings are in principle open to everyone — unlike the pseudodemocracy of bureaucratic organizations with their delineated hierarchical structures of authority and closed meetings.  Marginalized groups like seniors and disabled people should be encouraged to make their needs known in such open meetings and be part of the discussions about what the movement as a whole should do next.

A second question revolves around questions of deliberate self-marginalization through extreme dress codes (including hair and bodilycomportment), radical tactics, etc.  If these movements are to transform society (perhaps the world), how can they do so by appearing as something strange and frightening to much of the population?  At the same time, it is easy to see how the movement could lose its élan and reason for being if it expended much energy trying to figure out how to communicate with a hypothetical ordinary citizen.

Freedom is first the freedom to think and act differently.  The phenomenon to which you refer is a product of the prejudices and conformity of the integrated majority who enjoy consumerism without questioning its basis in a global system in which a billion people are near starvation and another billion in extremely precarious situations.  To stand outside the conformity of this acceptance of injustice often requires looking differently.  The marginalized position of alternative understandings to the mass media’s untruthfulness dictates the movement’s “strange” character.  As alternative thinking becomes more generalized, the movement’s character will appear less “strange.”

A third question involves the question of the exercise of power on the national or even international level.  These movements seem extremelysuspicious of any sort of bureaucracy, which is understandable.  And yet it is difficult to see how many of the most pressing national or globalproblems can be addressed without some sort of large scale institutions redistributing resources or mediating some disputes.  Indeed, in the veryfirst few pages of the book, you mention not ruling out exercising power.  Can you expand on this?

Redistributing international resources is one of humankind’s most pressing needs.  In the first place, centralized nation-states with military powers should be criminalized.  Workers should stop producing weapons of mass destruction — everything from nuclear weapons to land mines to “normal” bombs.  To do this, international agreement is also key.  No area could long maintain a form of domination if others simply isolated it — as the anti-apartheid movement did to South Africa.  Perhaps this needs to happen to the USA for this country to cease propagating wars on humankind.

Rather than permitting centralized organizations to manage the task of redistributing resources, human needs should be articulated as much as possible from below; bio-regional institutions should be facilitated; organs of direct democratic popular power built.

In some ways your analysis parallels that of Hardt and Negri, who, after all, gain much of their credibility through their association with themovements in Italy.  Like you, they highlight a focus on direct action in the present rather than a long march to state power, and they even mentionthe need for an ethic of love among revolutionaries.  Can you clarify your differences with them?

In a nutshell, Hardt and Negri have modified their Althusserian roots without rethinking their implications.  They embrace the notion that we should become “cyborgs’ while belittling “humanism.”  I see their work as having an impact very similar to the role Progressive Labor (PL) played inside the 1960s movements — orthodox, dogmatic, sectarian, and self-righteous.  While they serve to unmask dimensions of the system’s need for transformation, their more recent embracing of Machiavelli is one indication of an attachment to power.  I recently published my understanding of their work, which interested people can find at: eroseffect.com/articles/negricritique.htm.


Steven Sherman is a sociologist living in Carrboro, NC.  He can be reached at threehegemons@hotmail.com.



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