by Justin Rogers-Cooper, 19 May 2011
Advocate (CUNY Graduate Center)
In early January the BBC reported that Mohammad Bouazazi, a Tunisian college graduate who illegally sold fruits and vegetables in Sidi Bouzid, had died from his self-inflicted burns. He had set himself on fire by dousing his body with petrol when police confiscated his produce. He didn’t have the proper permits. Public protest had been rare in Tunisia before. When he died, the BBC reported that “a crowd estimated at 5,000 took part in his funeral.” The crowd chanted the same message together, out loud: “Farewell, Mohammad, we will avenge you. We weep for you today, we will make those who caused your death weep.”
Safety copy below the line–note ending on Bush-Obama “crowd control” plans.
As the crowd marched toward the governor’s office, a cordon of police blocked them, and opened fire. The police also shot at protestors in Menzel, another town, after members of the crowd lobbed Molotov cocktails at them. Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali reacted by condemning the demonstrations and appointed a new youth minister to help solve the rising unemployment problem. But first he tried to destroy the revolution by declaring a state of emergency, and authorizing the police to fire on the crowds. Al-Abidine resigned nine days later and left the country. Reuters reported that he fled because the crowds in Tunis “were not satisfied with his promise” to step down in 2014.
The revolution in Tunisia made visible decades of seething frustrations within its population. And while all local and national revolutions occur differently, they share many of the same qualities. To be successful, crowds require masses of bodies all emotionally invested with the same singular affective sensations. The intensity of experiencing emotions publically in a crowd drowns out the fear of death. The crowds share the same social emotions — the same affects — by relentlessly attaching those shared passions to symbols, bodies, and words. The affective experience of sharing one’s body with the crowd has the effect of framing the entire world in the present moment. This is what distinguishes the time of the crowd from the planning of the movement.
The intensity of the crowd excites the body to act without fear and it is this fearlessness that allows crowds to defy the police, and to walk towards gunfire. This is what makes the police useless, and when the police are useless, the state has no protection. Shared excitement in a crowd can be transmitted to others — what the Financial Times and others call “contagion.” This excitement is the ultimate weapon against the state. The final confrontation between state police and huge, emotionally excited crowds is a structural feature of radical political change. Crowds are the agents of revolution. They have radical political power.
The Tunisian opposition did not drive Ben Ali from power, despite years of resistance and organizing. Neither did Mohammad Bouazazi overthrow the Tunisian government. The BBC and others attribute that agency to the people, whom they simply call “crowds.” In a paradigm that can only imagine individuals, the vocabulary and analysis of crowds is under-theorized. But crowds are agents in themselves. They are physical assemblages wired to diffuse networks. They emerge from digital communications but their power is necessarily and entirely physical. This is because bodies must come together and act to assert radical political power. The movements that create crowds are well understood because one can trace documents, paper, Facebook pages. It is much harder to archive crowds. They are temporary organisms, and they have distributed intelligence. Perhaps each crowd has its own name, like a star. Perhaps the crowd at Mohammad Bouazazi’s funeral should be called “01092011-Garaat Bennour-Sidi Bouzid.”
Crowds speak together: “we will avenge you!” They move together in the same direction. They gather courage from those that died before them. Imagining the source of their common feeling excites them. Each act against them intensifies their feelings. It is not the time of dispassionate argument. It is not the time of voting and electoral manipulation. It is not the time of economic stability, of regular paychecks. It is not the time of comfort. It is the time of solidarity, the time of action. Crowds create the world for which they were waiting. They create their own sense of time, severing the past from the present, and connecting the present to the future. This is done by physically acting in ways that define the speech acts that end the past and call the future into the present. They do not transfer that power to another — to a president, to a party, to an army. Crowds are their own armies.
These crowds might resemble the crowds at a rock concert or sports match. They all talk together. Their chants are like music; sometimes they sing. They react to symbols and rhetoric that collapse the complexity of events into simpler emotional signs. At an NFL game, it doesn’t matter how many times Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers has previously thrown a successful pass. Each time he accomplishes this it’s time to cheer, and nothing else matters except cheering. All the electronic screens in the stadium flash with stimulation. Green Bay fans know each other by their green shirts. They reinforce the intensity of victories and losses through physical proximity and the replication of the same sign: the Packers symbol, the cheesehead. They come to the stadium to be together, to share the common feelings, and to participate in an event. But political crowds aren’t mere spectators: they are themselves the participants.
Crowds represent the shadow public power in every state. They are everywhere, and everywhere their potential is political. Everywhere they must be managed. The Super Bowl goes to great lengths to associate its signs and symbols with those of the United States military. As with rock concerts and sports games, it is necessary to create and control crowds to win political elections. Elections necessitate the redistribution of crowd enthusiasm from democratic audiences into individuated tasks, like passing out leaflets or making phone calls. Voting is the ultimate way to channel the power of crowds. Voting summons crowds only to siphon them off, one by one. It transforms crowds back into individuals, who then transfer their power to representatives. These representatives then crowd together in highly organized political rituals, appropriating and consolidating that original power for themselves. Public opinion polls constantly measure shadow public power for how it feels. Lawyers and judges debate how “fair” trials can be when people “feel” bias toward events and persons. Emotional excitement is necessary to win campaigns and sometimes even court cases. But public emotions must be produced, managed, and measured constantly. They must be redirected. In this sense much of what we call politics is not “rational,” but highly affective.
And so the present wave of revolutionary insurgencies against Middle East despots has revealed a political truth for authoritarian states and democracies alike: crowds have radical power. They can overthrow governments. They are the visible force of radical social movements. They are the ever-present alternative to institutional politics. Radical political change is difficult without them. Crowds do not assemble to vote so that change can be institutionalized. This fact that crowds are a force in and of themselves explains, perhaps part of the failure of the Iraq War protests in 2003. Crowds cannot simply protest and go home. Crowds must understand that their power comes from their capacity to escalate and intensify their demands. The Iraq War crowds failed because ultimately the people participating could live with the war. Crowds only work when people decide they can’t live with the status quo.
Crowds emerge when authorities lose legitimacy. The Iraq War signaled the end of any legitimacy the George W. Bush administration may have had after 9 – 11, but it also showed that the United States is not a united state. It is fragmented. Political parties depend on mobilizing broad sections of the population into narrow, winner-takes-all electoral victories. Americans don’t change this system because they make decisions everyday that suggest that they can live with it. They also believe, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, that the next regime will somehow be different.
Crowds can also drain legitimacy from authorities through their presence. The Madison crowds at the state capitol protesting Governor Walker’s union-busting bill, for instance, visibly demonstrated their opposition. These crowds made the law appear non-democratic even when it was passed through the use of “democratic” procedures. Crowds act on the legitimacy of their own authority. Their presence repeals the consent at the heart of representative or authoritarian government. They strip the law of its legitimacy by exposing the illegitimacy of state power. They create new social conditions. The law must follow the crowds, or else the state must disperse the crowds, arrest the crowds, fire on the crowds. Crowds strip away the consent of the governed. Govenor Walker’s smartest tactic was not calling the National Guard against the Madison crowds.
Crowds author revolutions, and revolutions usher in new states. Violence is the ultimate sign of this authorship. Violence is powerful and is inevitably managed by both sides. Nonviolent protest ultimately depends on the presence of crowds and state violence to succeed in its goals. Individual nonviolent protest is not nearly as effective as state violence directed against large crowds. To succeed, nonviolent crowds must go where they are not allowed. When they arrive at that point the police will
be forced to either confront them or let them pass. If the police turn on the crowd they will create martyrs and turn popular sympathies against state power.
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birmingham campaign in 1963 is a good example. In Birmingham in 1963 King arrived in the city to organize non-violent, direct action protests against the city’s segregation policies. King wanted to draw national attention. King said that the purpose of direct action was to “create a situation so crisis-packed that it opened the door to negotiation.” When the initial crowd didn’t strongly materialize and with the campaign in doubt, King invited young students to join a new march. To prepare the children, King’s contemporaries described how his speeches inspired the students by taking the fear out of the room. He made them unafraid to march. They went to demonstrate and were hosed a
nd beaten. Media coverage of the event led television audiences to feel sympathy for the crowds. As national audiences “felt” the coverage, King immediately began to organize the March on Washington. The next year the Voting Rights Act was passed. The crowds in Birmingham and the crowds in Washington forced a crisis of legitimacy for the United States federal government.
Ultimately, all conflicts between states and crowds come down to a biopolitical confrontation: each ultimately manages life or death decisions. Governments must decide whether crowds are “the people” or whether they’re enemies of the state and crowds must decide whether or not overthrowing a regime is worth the sacrifice of their bodies and lives. Even in extreme totalitarian or authoritarian states, where freedoms are few, crowds can at least control their own bodies. They can decide to live or die.
They do not have the technological advantage. Before the Libyan rebels found weapons they were crowds who only had the power of their potential sacrifice. As in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere, they had only their bodies to sacrifice. Dying in the crowd and for the crowd is not suicide, however. It is martyrdom. Martyrdom excites new crowds because it removes the fear of death – it manages it, displaces it, and produces shared feelings more powerful than the fear of death. In Iran, Neda Soltani became a martyr. In Tunisia it was Mohammad Bouazazi.
Even Egyptian activist Wael Ghonim had his own martyr. Ghonim was the Google programmer that briefly provided American television networks with a focus during their coverage. He networked with others before the revolution by creating a Facebook page for Khaled Said, who was a businessman killed last year by Egyptian police. Murdering someone to protect state interests is so outrageous that it inspires more crowds by intensifying the passions that allow them to come together.
During an interview with Dream 2 television, Ghonim said, “I’m not a hero…the heroes, they’re the ones who were in the street, who took part in the demonstrations, sacrificed their lives, were beaten, arrested and exposed to danger.” He was then shown video of Egyptians dying in the crowds. He wept openly and left the studio. His tears inspired more Egyptians to enter the crowd. The significance of his tears is partly how they amplified the emotions of the Tahrir crowd at a crucial moment. They legitimized the actions of the crowd. The crowd transformed. Sometimes what matters isn’t that the crowd sustains the same emotion, but that it receives constant amplifications, stimulations, and sensations. Bodies must be excited.
The passions of life and death legitimize the right of the crowd. The radical power of the crowd operates through natural right. Right is co-extensive with power. This power is the law; the crowd enforces its own law as it creates it. Its law is not text, but instead it is affective, rhetorical, and corporeal.
They are only social agents potentially capable of acting outside the law. Crowds are the weird mirror of the police. Yet the police act on behalf of the state. So the crowd is really the antipode of the state. They are inverse to one another, in dialectal tension. Crowds and authoritarian states both act on the margins of the law because they both actively create it. Crowds are criminal in the same way state authorities are criminal; because their right is co-extensive with their power, they create the law in real-time. Yet the state operates outside the law because it claims to be the law. It conducts its desires through discipline and physical force. Crowds produce political change in the state through jurisgenerative acts. Crowds depend on producing passions that nullify old laws and create conditions for new ones. By creating new passions they create public feelings that expose old laws for unjust ones.
The crowd is always marching toward state capitols and the police are always meeting them there. The crowd is the only social agent capable of threatening the body of the executive. Only the crowd can take over his office. The assassin is not a social agent. The crowd is powerful precisely because its agency is distributed. You can isolate individuals in a crowd, but you cannot put a crowd on trial. This is also why crowds are somewhat beyond and beside the control of the law.
In dictatorships, the despot makes the law of the land. In an authoritarian democracy such as the United States, the President can wield “executive power” over and beyond the Constitution and Congressional law. He seems only partly bound by the threat of judicial sanction. This threat contains the distant kernel of punitive justice. Bill Clinton testified for lying about an affair, but Bush did not even have to testify under oath for the 9 – 11 commission. Those surrounding the executive have paid fines, gone to jail, testified under oath. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger was indicted for Iran-Contra but later was pardoned by George H.W. Bush. Ford pardoned Nixon before he could even be tried. Presidential pardons perform the radical power of the executive.
Digital networks and social media may allow for communication and organization, but American technology corporations are not responsible for democratic movements. They may provide mediums that help crowds communicate, but the companies themselves are not aligned with democracy. Google openly works with the NSA and the CIA. All the telecommunication companies, except the soon to be merged T-Mobile, work directly with the NSA and other intelligence agencies. The US military actively creates fake Facebook accounts for multiple purposes, with Facebook’s implicit consent.
It is worth noting that the US government understands the radical potential of American crowds. In 2007 George W. Bush passed the John Warner Defense Authorization Act, which activates the US military for any “incident” that overwhelms local or state police. The act specifically states that the military will be used to “suppress, in a State, any insurrection, domestic violence, unlawful combination, or conspiracy if such…a condition…so hinders the execution of the laws.” This act, of course, is an attempt to control crowds, not terrorism.
Bush also gave life to new “executive” powers that President Barack Obama has not yet rescinded. In Presidential Directive NSPD 51/Homeland Security Presidential Directive 20, Bush said that any “catastrophic emergency,” defined as “any incident” that resulted in a “disruption” to government function or the economy, could result in power solely residing in the executive. This power presumably includes suspension of the Constitution and martial law. This “incident” could presumably include a general strike. These laws marshal the full force of state power against the radical power of crowds. It will be a fateful irony if the continued consolidation of American power into the office of the President, together with the consistent collaboration with non-democratic corporations, produced a dysfunctional American democracy that necessitated the intervention of the very crowds these laws so obviously fear.