Letter from the editor

Collective power and the responsibility to protest


“If civilization offers few forms of communal emotional connection other than those provided by the occasional televised war or celebrity funeral, it would seem to be a rather hollow business… . We pay a high price for this emotional emptiness. Individually, we suffer from social isolation and depression, which, while usually not fatal on their own, are risk factors for cardiovascular and a host of other diseases. Collectively, we seem to have trouble coming to terms with our situation, which grows more ominous every day. Half the world’s people live in debilitating poverty. Epidemics devastate whole nations. The icecaps melt, and natural disasters multiply. But we remain for the most part paralyzed, lacking the means or will to organize for our survival. In fact the very notion of the “˜collective,’ of the common good, has been eroded by the self-serving agendas of the powerful …
“People must find, in their movement, the immediate joy of solidarity, if only because, in the face of overwhelming state and corporate power, solidarity is their sole source of strength.”
— Barbara Ehrenreich, “Reclaiming what makes us human,” In These Times

As this issue goes to press, three thousand rallies are taking place in communities around the world calling for action in Copenhagen on climate change. In February, anti-poverty and indigenous rights activists will take to the streets of Vancouver to protest the Olympics. And in June, Stephen Harper will host a gathering of the G20 in Toronto, and has announced he would use the platform to “urge members to put economic recovery before efforts to protect the environment.” Protests can be expected.

In all of these cases, demonstrators will be dismissed in the press as naïve, idealistic, unreasonable or irrational. But frankly, the need for such rude disruptions of the status quo is dire. Business-as-usual is no longer tenable, but our governance structures seem incapable of changing course. In the face of steadily rising greenhouse gas emissions, soul-destroying poverty for millions, and the accelerating devastation of the biosphere in the name of economic growth, popular movements the world over are continuing to raise their voices, but in most places their activism has yet to translate into the popular power capable of bringing real change.

Until that critical mass is reached, those calling for radical change are left with only impolite options: marches and protests, civil disobedience, direct action. Spoiling the party. Sowing the seeds of broader revolt. Speaking passionately about the need for a new paradigm, and building alternatives in whatever spaces are available. Mass demonstrations will play a critical role in this process. As Elaine Brière observes in this issue, “Demonstrations are a unifying experience in a culture that thrives on feelings of isolation and loneliness… . [They] empower us with their potent physicality and assure us that we are not alone; that many, many others share our convictions and our hopes for a better world.”

In the wake of the global convergence in Copenhagen and looking ahead to the anti-Olympic demonstrations in February, Briarpatch sets out in the following pages to assess the state of social movements today. Where are the emerging opportunities for collective action and popular empowerment? What have we learned in the ten years since Seattle? How do we translate the convergences in Copenhagen, Vancouver or elsewhere into ongoing political pressure and social transformation? There are no easy answers to these questions, but there is some urgency in their asking.

Dave Oswald Mitchell is a freelance writer, editor, and researcher. He co-edited the book Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution (OR Books, 2012) and edited Briarpatch Magazine from 2005 to 2010.

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