Reflections on Tyranny versus Crowd Power

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Sacrificial Crowds and Radical Power: A Meditation

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.

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