By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
What is underpinning the unrest that has swept the globe? In reality it’s reducible to three factors. Firstly, the neoliberal economic model has collapsed, and this has then been compounded by persistent attempts to go on making neoliberalism work: to ram the square peg into the round hole, thereby turning a slump into what looks like being a ten year global depression. Secondly there has been a revolution in technology that has made horizontal networks the default mode of activism and protest; this has destroyed the traditional means of disseminating ideology that persisted through two hundred years of industrial capitalism, and has made social media the irreversible norm. Thirdly, there has been a change in human consciousness: the emergence of what Manuel Castells calls ‘the networked individual’ – an expansion of the space and power of individual human beings and a change in the way they think; a change in the rate of change of ideas; an expansion of available knowledge; and a massive, almost unrecordable, revolution in culture.
What we are seeing is not the Arab Spring, the Russian Spring, the Maple Spring [Quebec’s Printemps érable], Occupy, the indignados. We’re seeing the Human Spring.
Perhaps. Although we might consider firstly that the the 0.01% is doing quite well under a collapsing neo-liberalism, thank you very much; secondly that social media can be used by bad guys as well as good; and thirdly that a “change in the way they think” is just that: “Change,” much as speed is only speed, and not velocity. We might remember, also, that oligarchs and heads of state are “Human,” all too human; as are fascists.
So, in this post, I want to gently interrogate Mason’s theses, by using the following Real News Network interview as a forcing device; I’m going to take the entire transcript and interweave other examples of “unrest” with it, along with commentary. The RNN interview also has the advantage of covering Venezuela in some detail, which our famously free press is not doing, and so is useful for that purpose alone, besides being an armature for discussion. And, readers, I hope you’ll chime in with additions, corrections, and refinements; I’ve blogged a lot on “unrest,” ever since the Tahrir Square, but that, and an appropriate level of
cynicism realism, are my only qualifications!
Paul Jay of the Real News Network interviews Miguel Tinker-Salas, professor of History and Latin American studies at Pomona College in Claremont, California, and Alexander Main of CEPR:
JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.
Both pro- and anti-government forces are rallying in Venezuela today ahead of a peace conference called for by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
Now joining us to discuss this are two guests.
In Caracas, we’re joined by Miguel Tinker Salas. He’s a professor of Latin American history, Pomona College, author of The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture, and Society in Venezuela from Duke University Press. His forthcoming book is Venezuela: What Everyone Needs to Know.
And in Washington, we’re joined by Alexander Main, senior associate for international policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, where he focuses on U.S. foreign policy in Latin America and the Caribbean. And he’s also consulted for the Venezuelan government and the City of London.
Thank you both for joining us.
And let’s start with Miguel. So, Miguel, you’re in Caracas right now. There’s reportedly both pro- and anti-government rallies happening today ahead of this peace conference called for by Nicolás Maduro.
While “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war,” it’s not clear that such events can always resolve what are, in the end, crises of legitimacy. (“All dreaded it, all sought to avert it…. And the war came.”) We’ve recently seen the results of one such settlement in the Ukraine. On the other hand, in Thailand, a proposal for a live debate actually seems to have at least postponed serious civil strife.
Give us the latest. And if you can, also comment on Governor José Vielma Mora–and a lot has been made about this in the Western media. He’s a supporter of Maduro, but he’s criticized some of his what he called violent methods of cracking down on protestors.
On protest during the “Human Spring”: One thing I’ve finally realized, being here in Thailand during what amounts to an insurrection, is that just because a protest movement uses some of Gene Sharp’s 198 methods of non-violent protest and persuasion, that doesn’t mean that movement auto-magically merits support. Sharp, after all, opposes violence, but that doesn’t mean that he opposes the use of force, and force can be used for bad or good ends.
It is true that there are always two sides — those who will kill for their beliefs, and those who won’t — but at least in Thailand, people on the killer side (“the militant wing,” the “hard men”) were also on other sides (not all, but most, and certainly the most powerful). I’ve also finally realized that just because protesters want to overthrow the State — even if they’re wearing V for Vendetta masks! — that doesn’t make them auto-magically right, either. What if the protesters want to install a Fascist regime? Suppose the defeated Confederates had not turned to night-riders and terror in resisting the Union, but to method #196: Civil disobedience of “neutral” laws. Would their protest merit our support?
MIGUEL TINKER SALAS, PROF. LATIN AMERICAN HISTORY AND CHICANO/CHICANA STUDIES, POMONA COLLEGE: Well, no. Vielma Mora said he was against using repression against the population, and I think most people in Venezuela, including most supporters of Nicolás Maduro, would agree with that statement. So I think that Vielma Mora was clarifying his position in relationship to what’s happened in Táchira, where the protests have been–by the opposition–have been, somewhat, very violent in confronting the National Guard.
On violence and social media in the “Human Spring”: There has been considerable violence in the Ukraine, to say the least, confronting the government, and to a lesser extent in Thailand, too. Violence, and especially the distribution of (sometimes fake) images and videos of violence, both by and against the government, through social media plays a huge part driving activists on all sides forward and shaping world opinion in each case of “unrest.” (I wish I could write “unrests,” plural. “Unrestfulnesses” doesn’t make it.) Thailand is intensely socially mediated, and this image of an anti-government protester choking another Thai trying to go vote played very badly on the international stage. The post-nuclear images of Maidan, on the other hand, seemed to evoke a sort of awe; protesters going up against police with wooden weapons and tin shields! (Some Thai protesters go up against police wearing, I kid you not, armor made from X-Ray film). I suppose that the producers and consumers of all this media could indeed be called “networked individuals” — the Thai protesters, at least in the beginning, were notable for the massive volume of their selfies — but I’m not sure that adds up to Human Spring. Their selfies celebrated beauty, but not everything in the protests was beautiful.
Now, he also was very critical of the mayor, which is an opposition mayor in San Cristóbal, who took the cadaver of a victim who fell off of a second-story building and paraded it through the city. So we have that.
“So we have that.” Yeah, well. Parading a cadaver through the streets seems a little over-the-top to me, no matter which side did the parading. The quest for martyrs, the demand for dead bodies, has always existed, but the sucking maw of social media really brings out the dead now, along with the bloody and the maimed. Certainly true in Maidan, but also in Thailand.
But what’s happening in Venezuela today have been a series of protests and counterprotests on the part of the opposition. It was “Women for Peace”–interestingly enough, last Saturday, the government and Maduro and others had also a rally of “Women for Peace” on the government side. Today there was a protest sponsored by the Patriotic Pole and the government. The Patriotic Pole is the group that includes all of the supporters of the government, and it was the social movements and peasants (campesinos), who gathered in Caracas on the eve of a peace conference.
On class in the “Human Spring”: The peasants support the Venezuelan State. No wonder the political class in the United States wants to destroy it, oil aside! Of course, to immediately complicate matters, Ukraine seems to be fracturing along national/linguistic/historical lines, and so class doesn’t seem a useful prism to view unrest there through (except for the class interests of international bankers, of course, but that’s just a constant). In Thailand, it can be useful to view unrest as a conflict between multiple networks based in opposed bourgeoisies, the one settled and ascendant, based in Bangkok, and the other aspirational, based in the Northeast. (In other words, the unrest isnot a simple conflict between rich and poor, as it is often portrayed.)
What you have is much of the protest reduced to essentially 18 different municipalities. And even within those municipalities, it’s not the entire municipality. Friends tell me in western Venezuela that, for example, it’s a tale of two cities: whether it’s San Cristóbal or Mérida, actually one side or some neighborhoods are actually with barricades and others are functioning as if it was a normal day of work. So that’s–I think it’s a misnomer to consider that we’re confronting a massive outpouring by millions of people. In fact, we have pockets of protest taking place in Caracas and in the interior of Venezuela.
On the media in the “Human Spring”: As we see, the media focus is highly selective. For whatever reason, coverage on the ground is in Venezuela is rare, and what there is, is bad. For whatever reason, coverage on the ground in Thailand is good, and the BBC, Reuters, and Times all have real reporters here. Could be that ASEAN is more important, could be that Bangkok is a more desirable posting than Caracas, could be that there’s a news blackout at the editorial level. And Kiev? Who’d want to go to Kiev? (Somebody should do a study on how correspondents are distributed; protests aren’t dangerous enough in Bangkok for the real adrenalin freaks, but they’re dangerous enough for people who want to do more than work the phone; reporters have come under fire in here, even though the city is in no sense a war zone.)
On the “revolution in technology” in the “Human Spring”: One of the most amazing technologies of the Thai unrest (besides the X-ray film) is that private drones (not government, not official press, but private) have been used over the protest sites. Drones are useful to get a good sense of crowd size (all sides over-estimate their “millions” horribly), to track marches through the city (useful if you want to avoid them), and to document events. Bangkok is also awash in CCTV; whenever there is a violent or even a dramatic event, CCTV footage promptly appears in FaceBook and twitter. Of course, you should never trust digital data of unknown provenance, but that’s just part of the revolution. (The streamers played a similarly important role in Occupy.)
On “the people” in the “Human Spring”: And so, in Venezuela, we have what appears in our famously free press to be a mass movement, is parts of some municipalities. Interesting! In Thailand we don’t have that misrepresentation, because coverage is better; reporters actually went up-country and interviewed some of the Red Shirts there, instead of staying in Bangkok and tacking dictatation. We do, however, have delusion: The Bangkok protesters call themselves “the great mass of the people” but in fact the political party that represents them hasn’t won an election in twenty years, and even in Bangkok they have only 60% of the vote. They also call themselves “the people,” which gets to the heart of the matter: Only they have the right to speak for Thailand. I’d be interested to know if the Venezuelans use the same rhetoric. And I know very little about the Ukraine, but what I do know is that the country does not split neatly down the middle, West/EU vs. East/Russia. So the question “Who speaks for the country?” could have a very painful answer, just as in Thailand, or in Venezuela.
NOOR: And Alexander, I wanted to bring you in the conversation. What’s your response to what Miguel said? And, also, you know, you could describe the Western media as being almost rabidly anti-Maduro in their descriptions and how they’ve focused on the opposition and what they’ve made of José Vielma Mora’s comments. And they’ve highlighted the fact that he’s spoken out about some of the repression, but not about his support, his ongoing support for Maduro.
ALEXANDER MAIN, SENIOR ASSOC. FOR INTERNATIONAL POLICY, CEPR: Yeah, absolutely. Well, in terms of what Miguel said, I mean, he’s absolutely right. We’re not looking at a generalized phenomenon in terms of these protests. They’re taking place in, you know, very small pockets.
On the media and the State in the “Human Spring”: “Very small pockets.” Didn’t we read about this in The Ugly American? The photogenic event, images carefully cropped?
And, you know, an important thing to note as well is that they’re taking place essentially in middle-class and upper middle-class neighborhoods.
On the tactics in “Human Spring”: See under “The revolt of the middle class”. In Bangkok (I don’t know about Maidan), the protests are driven by middle- and upper-class people (“hi sos”), although they don’t protest in their own neighborhoods. And protesting in their own neighborhoods strikes me as a crazy notion; does Caracas have no public space? No public transportation? No central square, a la Maidan or many locations in Bangkok?
So it’s a rather strange thing that we’re seeing–I mean strange from the U.S. point of view, at least, where when one sees riots (because that’s essentially what we are seeing here), you really see that in poor neighborhoods, and, you know, often poor neighborhoods take the brunt of the damage that’s caused. In this case, it’s middle-class students–not necessarily students; young people, at any rate, who have taken to the streets in very small numbers. But they’re, you know, blocking traffic, they’re burning rubbish, putting up barracades.
On the corruption and class in “Human Spring”: As I remember, last year in Brazil, protests about costly public transportation were initiated by anarchists but were immediately co-pted “middle class” protests against “corruption.” That is the theme of “middle class” protests in Thailand as well, but I’ll believe they’re serious when they stop paying “tea money” to get their kids into the right schools.
They’re putting up barbed wires around intersections that have already caused, apparently, three deaths, including the beheading of a motorcyclist that went by.
On violence and social media in the “Human Spring”: That’s very bad. When the bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie get blooded, they tend to go on with it and start slaughtering their opponents; Paris, 1870. (That’s why hate speech is important; it gives a license to kill.)
TINKER SALAS: Two motorcyclists.
MAIN: Is it just two motorcyclists?
TINKER SALAS: Two motorcyclists now that have died.
On class in the “Human Spring”: If Caracas is like Bangkok, the motorcyclists are not on the road for recreation, but providing essential and efficient public transport. So, some workers lost their lives.
MAIN: Okay, yes. So, at any rate, you know, these are, you know, sort of dangerous barricades that have been set up, but that also are paralyzing things in these neighborhoods. I mean, you go in there, you know, it’s, you know, very quiet because traffic can’t go through there. I mean they really blocked things in a lot of these neighborhoods. But it is a micro-phenomenon in Venezuela, and I think that’s important to, you know, keep in mind given the sort of huge coverage that it’s been getting over the last few days.
On the tactics in “Human Spring”: I’m not sure that blocking the city, let alone one’s own neighborhood, is ever a recipe for success. It hasn’t been in Bangkok, so far. What is the endgame?
And in terms of, you know, the government response to that, you know, there have been allegations that there was a lot of, you know, very heavy repression. I think there are certainly cases of abuses on the part of the state security forces. I think in a lot of cases, you know, in these neighborhoods, there’s perhaps a lack of any sort of intervention taking place on the part of state security forces. They, I think, are wary of going in there and clashing with these students, causing, you know, more casualties, potentially.
You know, there are already a number of casualties. Each one is, you know, generally in the media and so on attributed to the government, although, really, if you look over who has been killed so far, it’s probably about 50 percent opposition supporters, and the rest are, you know, either pro-government or just not really as involved in politics. So, you know, these are things that are not really being covered in the mainstream media.
On the strategic hate management in “Human Spring”: Yes, on the casualties. Each side talks only of its own, never of the other’s.
NOOR: Right. Miguel, how much of these protests are expanding into the urban working class? Because if you just read the headlines in the Western media, they’re all about the protests broadening and growing, but the urban working class, which the majority, from what I understand, do support–they are Chavistas, but they’re about split on their support. So have they taken to the streets? Are they part of the protests now?
TINKER SALAS: They’re not part of the protests, per se. But, for example, in Minas de Baruta, in Caracas, a few days ago there were protests in what is essentially a very poor neighborhood, and people were complaining about scarcity and about other issues. I mean, there are some real issues in Venezuela the government needs to tackle, and these are primarily economic issues and primarily the question of being able to not have scarcity. And people are tired of confronting those issues. Inflation is also upwards of 50 percent. So those are real issues that affect broad sections of society, especially working class and poor segments of society. So they are concerned.
On class in the “Human Spring”: A “rule or ruin” strategy by the bourgeois and petty bourgeoisie, I would guess. (The economic tactics and effects of the protests in Bangkok would be really complicated to net out, so I won’t do that. In a lot of ways, though, it’s a Stop or I shoot myself situation.)
But again, what the opposition is offering as an alternative is simply street protest. They’ve actually pushed their people into a dead end. They have only one goal: overthrow the government. They don’t have short-term measures. They have not made proposals on crime. They have not made proposals on how to address economic issues. They have not indicated how they would govern the country differently.
On tactics in the “Human Spring”: Exactly the same thing in Thailand. The protesters are demanding “reform before elections,” to be accomplished by an unelected council of “good people,” with no program of reform! But not at all the same in the Ukraine, yes? I’m not sure how to give an account of the differences in each case of unrest.
And, in fact, just the opposite happens. People that I talk to tell me, if this is how they want to govern, by creating ungovernability, by making the city impassable, by disrupting society, then that’s a very poor example. So I think that’s the largest question they face.
On tactics in the “Human Spring”: I believe that reaction happened in Bangkok, too. In many ways, the protesters were seen as irresponsible. I can’t quite the word… Actually, the word is “asshole”; see this definition. Political speech is fine, but not in the Quiet Car, mkay? I’m trying to figure out the difference between Caracas and Bangkok protests, on the one hand, and Zucotti Park, on the other; funding issues aside, I’d say that although it was disruptive, Zucotti was also prefigurative, an element lacking with Caracas and Bangkok. In Bangkok, it was people who didn’t have to go to work that day bringing public transport and convenience to a halt for those who did have to go to work. I just don’t think that played well. In the Ukraine, obviously, the stakes and what people were willing to risk and put up with are very different.
And the electoral cycle does not benefit them this year, because for the first time in almost 15 years there are no elections scheduled in Venezuela. So, again, let me reiterate: they have taken their movement and their people into a dead end, because they don’t have anything else to offer except oust Maduro by undemocratic means, because at the heart of their position is they refuse to recognize his election.
On tactics in the “Human Spring”: Exactly as in Thailand; I don’t think in Kiev.
And understanding that last December, 2013, from Municipal elections, the opposition made them into a plebicite on Maduro, they lost. They gained a couple of major urban cities, but they lost, and Maduro’s forces won close to 75 percent of the municipal areas, so that coming from that victory to now have a condition of ungovernability simply underscores and belies the fact that they are not willing to abide by the democratic process and they are looking for extralegal means to oust a democratically elected government.
On tactics in the “Human Spring”: And again, exactly as in Thailand. We have a party named the “Democrats,” who haven’t won an election in twenty years, boycotting a democratic election! That didn’t play well either, despite the protesters’s appeal that they were in favor of “true democracy” and would hold elections after reform.
NOOR: And I know we’re running out of time, but, Alex, let’s end with you. So there may be legitimate demands here, but is the call for the resignation for Maduro really a demand for destabilization?
MAIN: Well, absolutely. I mean, these are destabilization tactics. When you paralyze neighborhoods and smoke them out and terrify entire communities, which is what these small groups of young people have been doing for the past ten days or so, you know, that is the objective.
And, you know, I think it’s important to underline that this is not a new thing. This has happened many times now over the last 14 years, ever since, you know, Venezuela first elected, you know, Hugo Chávez, that the opposition has engaged in these destabalization tactics, sometimes with, you know, a temporary success, as was the case in 2002, during the April 2002 coup.
This is not so much reminiscent of the 2002 coup, when the opposition did manage to mobilize a really mass middle-class protest. I think it’s much more reminiscent of 2004, where we saw the phenomenon of the guarimba that took place at the end of February and the beginning of March. The guarimba is exactly what we’re seeing now. It is, you know, creating chaos with small groups of people that are setting up barricades, that are, you know, threatening anybody who comes close to them, that are, you know, burning things, that are damaging public property, etc., trying to provoke, actually, a very strong response from state security forces in order to sort of try to get a snowball effect and try to get a more generalized rebellion.
On tactics in the “Human Spring”: Guarimba is a useful word, but there’s no such thing in Kiev or Thailand, AFAIK (though the cycle of provocation and counter-provocation in Thailand is so layered and intricate and opaque you just have no concept.)
Well, as I said earlier, there hasn’t actually been much repression of these protests, at least not recently. I think it’s been, you know, fairly minimal. And so, you know, they’re not really managing, I think, to mobilize more support.
On violence in the “Human Spring”: In Kiev, the repression was massive. In Thailand — at least by the standards of the previous government, run by the protester’s party, that ended up killing around 90 people in a crackdown by the Army — the repression has been pretty minimal. The wind of protest blows through the tree of the State, and when the wind is gone, the tree remains (see this video).
But in the meantime, you know, I think the really tragic thing for the opposition is that the radical sector of the opposition sort of has the upper hand as the support of the private media in the country and so on. And, you know, they are not about elections, they are not about constitutional processes; they’re about, you know, getting rid of this government immediately. And that’s what they’ve made clear.
In Kiev, the government seems to have been gotten rid of. In Thailand, if the government is gotten rid of, it hasn’t been by the protests alone, although there are other methods under the heading of “checks and balances”; this has yet to play out.
Well, these are preliminary notes towards a comparative study of “middle class” and other unrest “kicking off” round the world. Maybe I’ll be able to add the Occupations, and especially Egypt, to the list. I’m not sure what the underlying dynamic is worldwide, or even if there is a single on, but this remark from Dmitri Orlov, writing on the Ukraine, struck me forcibly:
In light of all this, some people might wonder: were the people in Washington and in Brussels always eager to favor fascists, or is this a new thing for them? I believe the answer is that it doesn’t matter. Their assigned job is to destroy countries, and this they do well. They have destroyed Iraq, Libya and Syria, but these are small, and the beast is still hungry. They would love to destroy Iran, but that has turned out too tough a nut to crack. And so they have now set their sights on larger prey: Venezuela and Ukraine. And the reason they have to continue destroying countries is so that the process of wealth destruction, which is inevitable as the world runs short of critical resources, can run its course some place other than the West’s economic heartlands in the US and Northern Europe. It matters very little to them whether they have to support al Qaeda fighters in Libya and Syria or fascists in Ukraine; it’s all the same to them.
I dunno about that process of “wealth destruction.” But if you hypothesized that a small class of extraordinarily rich people (call them “oligarchs”) hated the State, as such, because the State gets in the way of their making any even shittier shit ton of money than they already do, given that the proles have some influence on the State, no matter how tiny, then events in the Ukraine and Venezuela — as well as Iraq and Afghanistan — take on some unity.
And returning to where I began, I think that’s one missing point in Mason’s article: The idea that the neo-liberals and their squillionaire owners — “Global trolls,” we might call them — can’t keep trying to “shove the square peg into the round hole” (Mason) and “destroy countries” (Orlov) for a very long time to come. They too can employ the “revolution in technology.” They too can infiltrate or even sponsor “horizontal networks. They too can leverage “social media,” exactly because it’s an irreversible norm. Finally, the “networked individual” is without moral content; heavily networked individuals involved in creating or leveraging unrest are surely working toward goals that Mason would oppose with every fibre of his being (as would I), just as surely as people Mason would support.
NOTE Thailand is a monarchy, and the lèse-majesté laws are enforced, even against foreigners. Therefore, readers, discussion of the Thai monarchy or royal family is off-topic. Guests in Thailand must obey its laws. Their house, their rules.
NOTE  It’s also a question whether gunmen perform for the cameras, of which there are rather a lot; I think they do.
NOTE  Greater Bangkok is a city of 12 million. It makes LA or Berlin seem small.
NOTE  Not in the Silicon Valley sense.
NOTE  Events in Thailand are about capturing the State, not destroying it. IMNSHO, the protesters in Thailand are not funded by the US. The tell is that their international presentation is, to say the least, gauche. Insulting women and blocking the ballot doesn’t play well, even among the international global ruling class.