INTERVIEW: Humour and the Carnivalesque in Anti-Austerity and Anti-Capitalist Social Movements

This is an interview that I gave to a Polish Radio Station on the Carnival Against Capitalism Protests in June 2013 that was never aired. I decided, therefore, to make it available here.

Why do you think protesters use a ‘carnivalesque’ rhetoric? Are there any mutual elements that we could find in the Carnival and the anti-capitalism movement?

First let me say something about the link between the carnivalesque and anti-capitalist movements. The “Carnival against Capitalism” has roots in the UK that go back to protests organized by Greeenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, who in 1983 and 1984 engaged in a Stop the City Campaign to protest against the military-industrial complex, under the slogan ‘Carnival Against War, Oppression and Destruction’. This later inspired groups that were very active in the British anti roads movement like reclaim the streets and critical mass to call for Global anti-capitalist campaigns, such as the J18 Carnival Against Capitalism. The June 18, 1999 protests in the City of London formed part of the Global Carnival Against Capital, an international day of protest whose slogan was ‘Our resistance is as transnational as capital’, and which was timed to coincide with the G8 summit in Cologne Germany.

So we can see a line of movement continuity all the from the Greenham Women’s Peace Camp of the early 1980s through the british anti roads movement of the 1990s and through the Global Justice Movement to the present wave of protests. In all cases activists are questioning the neoliberal ideology that underlies global capitalism and the practices of economic and political elites, represented in the G8, and use the political carnivalesque to do so.

Humor, satire and irony are important political tools that have long been used by social movements and the political carnivalesque has a long history. Activists in the Global Justice Movement often projected a carnivalesque atmosphere in their direct actions including circus like clowning elements (through groups like the Rebel Clown Army, the Ruckus Society, Reclaim the Streets, and Art and Revolution) and satirizing political and economic leaders through puppets and masks. The same is true now. The political carnivalesque takes official wisdom or official truth and tries to show that it is false and serves the interests of the dominant groups in society, so for example anti capitalist activists  take dominant narratives such as the idea that capitalist globalization benefits everyone, reduces poverty and so on, and invert it and show that actually global capitalism benefits the wealthiest in society, it increases social inequalities globally, it destroys the environment in the endless search for profit etc.  But the carnivalesque does so in a way that makes the dominant ideas and the people who disseminate them on the global stage look ridiculous, and exposes those official serious statements to be false.

Another important aspect of the carnivalesque is the refusal to accept hierarchies, ranks and privileges, the carnivalesque seeks to cultivate an attitude of creative disrespect towards authority.

Traditionally carnival was the time when for a few days the social order could be turned upside down and the common people were allowed to be free and act without prohibitions. Once carnival was over, the rich and powerful would go back to ruling and the common people would go back to their allocated place on the bottom.  Political carnivalesque takes the idea of turning the social order upside down, but not to return to the social order once carnival is over, but instead to try to change people’s hearts and minds so that the world will change for the better after carnival is over. It is about fun and satire but also about anger and injustice.

– Have these movements been evolving anyhow in the course of the past years? Maybe becoming more violent or better organised?

 

Well I think the spirit and nature of the movements has not changed too much, although with technological advances some of the forms of organizing have changed. Movements use a combination of online and offline media tools to coordinate and disseminate actions. Groups who organize global days of action are highly organized, and always have been, you have to be to coordinate the actions of people through global networks and groups face many challenges just to be able to engage in protest, which is their democratic right.

In terms of violence, there are very few anti-capitalist protesters who engage in property violence, although some members of the black bloc do, and practically none who engage in personal violence as a protest tactic.

I would say that it is the police that have become more repressive. Police have always been violent against protesters, you only need to look around the world to see that, but in democracies it seems the space for protest is shrinking and police have developed repressive techniques that have become more widespread and routinized. In the UK, for example police use a technique called kettling, which is confining peaceful protesters for hours on the streets and not letting them move beyond a restricted area, not letting them go home and denying them access to toilets, food or water. This is a common practice, despite many arguing that kettling denies people basic human rights.

The use of rubber bullets, water cannon, pepper spray, and baton charges are widely used around the world against peaceful protesters, even in democracies like the UK, the US and across Europe. This is extremely alarming- protest is an essential democratic right and is being repressed, and this is very bad for democracy, it weakens it. It is also counter-productive in many ways from the government’s point of view, because when ordinary citizens see peaceful protesters being attacked by their own police they often become much more critical of their governments. Look at what just happened in Turkey with Occupy Gezi Park. When people around Turkey found out about the police brutality against the protesters they came by the thousands, and people all over the world protested in solidarity with the Turkish protesters. They started off asking for a park to be saved and ended up asking for a new government.

What is the importance of these movements today?

Do you mean specifically carnivalesque techniques of protest or anti capitalist protests more broadly?

If carnivalesque techniques of protest, then I would say that humour is an effective way to do politics because it is not immediately recognizable as politics so people are more receptive to it than they would be when faced with serious politics, besides it is very fun and most people like fun. It is also a means of resistance under authoritarian and repressive regimes where more serious forms of politics are forbidden. Although it should be said that carnivalesque protesters are repressed in both democracies and authoritarian regimes.

A carnivalesque use of humour can be very effective in getting the message to the wider public, because it is funny but has a subversive political message, because it is colourful so media likes it and covers it, but also because it helps to defuse tension and conflict during mobilization, and it helps activists overcome their fear in the face of police brutality and helps builds feelings of solidarity and trust.

Fundamentally, it can be effective because it emphasizes the fact that the leaders and elites are just humans with flaws like everyone else, and not anything special so it strips away their veneer of being more knowledgeable than everyone else or having more right to decide what happens to humanity. On a very basic level it tries to expose lies that leaders tell the public.

I read in the Telegraph that the police were given permission to enter a squat in London where some of the carnival against capitalism activists had been staying, to search for masks and disguises, and that they entered with violence. Well if we call these items by what they really are which is masks and costumes, we see that we go from an official narrative of radical threat -of disguises that try to hide something for some nefarious purposes,  to a very different and much more accurate reflection of the protesters, which would be that they use costumes to try to expose official truths as false, and try to depict political and economic leaders as incompetent, corrupt charlatans, for example.

With regard to anti-capitalist protest more broadly:

I think in Europe anti-capitalist protest has become even more important now than it was during the global justice movement, because now people in many European countries are feeling directly the effects of the global financial crisis and the effects of austerity measures imposed by international financial institutions like the Troika (i.e. the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund).

People in Greece and Spain for example are losing their homes at a phenomenal rate, unemployment rates are soaring and so on, so people are beginning to question the neoliberal capitalist model, and have shown mass support for protests like the 15-M movement in Spain or Indignados in Greece. Whereas before people thought about global capitalism as this abstract thing no one really had much control over, now they realize that actually things like the global crisis are the result of a specific ideology and specific actions taken by political and economic leaders, like the ones who meet at the G8, and that even within capitalism there are different choices that can be made. A lack of political oversight of the financial sector and a lack of regulation and accountability of the banking sector for example are seen as important contributing factors to the crisis.

So the questioning of this neoliberal capitalist model has become much more widespread although it is still obviously the dominant model in the world today. Even many of those who believe that capitalism is the best economic model do not agree that austerity measures are the right approach to take. From a scientific viewpoint there is hard evidence that austerity measures simply do not work. They do not help economies recover more quickly and that the long term social and economic costs to individual states is much higher as a result of austerity measures because the suicide, depression and health problems all increase dramatically and because they actually slow the economic growth cycle down. Greece, for example, has seen increases in HIV infection of about 200% since the start of the austerity measures, and has become an epicentre for HIV in Europe. In contrast comparative studies have shown that when governments respond to financial crisis by intervening with stimulus packages early on, not only do they help build the economic cycle over time but also avert health crises and increase the welfare of citizens (see Stuckler and Basu 2013).

From an ethical point of view many people do not feel the most vulnerable members of society should be asked to bear the costs of a crisis, while banks are bailed out with billions of euros of taxpayer money and continue to make profits of billions every year.

So anti-capitalist movements have been really important in bringing these issues to light and increasing public awareness of them.

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From J11 2013 Carnival Against Capitalism: https://www.anarchistaction.net/j11-carnival-against-capitalism/

“Traditionally, carnival is the time where the people take over the streets, the bosses run and hide, and the world gets turned upside down. It is a time to celebrate our resistance and our dreams, to bring music and colour to the streets. And also to show our strength and our anger.

The powerful feel safe in London so long as they go unchallenged. But the people looting our planet have names and addresses. On #J11 we will party in the streets, point out the hiding places of power, and take back the heart of our city for a day. Our streets. Our world.”

For more on humour, social movements and protest, see:

Flesher Fominaya C (2014) Social movements and globalization: How protests, occupations and uprisings are changing the world. Chapter 5, London: Palgrave Macmillan

Flesher Fominaya C (2007) The Role of Humour in the Process of Collective Identity Formation in Autonomous Social Movement Groups in Contemporary Madrid.International Review of Social History 52: 243-258

Hart, M and Bos, D (editors) (2007) Humour and Social Protest  Cambridge University Press

Romanos, E. (2013) Collective learning processes within social movements, in Flesher Fominaya, C and Cox, L. (eds) Understanding European movements: New social movements, global justice struggles, anti-austerity protests. London: Routledge

 

 

 

 

 

 

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