Disquieting Absences

(about movements that make no sense)

Disclaimer: This was mostly written before the anti-lockdown/ anti vaccine mandate protests that broke out in Narrm on Monday, September 20th, 2021. While those protests added extra layers of complexity, I am still comfortable putting the ideas contained in this piece forward as being relevant to the whole mess we’re in.

Slowness

Another lockdown drags its weight through the winter and into spring, embellishing hours into days and days into weeks. I endure time by going for runs, strumming my bass, reading, writing, cooking. Materially comfortable enough for now. Missing those I love. Staying close to the few I love that I’m able to. Sometimes bored, sometimes worried. Just passing time.

There’s another post saying not to complain about lockdowns because there’s people in jail or in detention centers or dying. I half nod, caught out by the instinctive call and response posture. Then I shrug. There’s always the guilt of someone worse off. These words are emptied of meaning precisely because of their transcendent righteousness.

Their emptiness is a mirror of the baffling mess that they critique – the anti-lockdown demonstrations. Whereas the righteous words sit in a hollowness of their own creation, of being so correct that they (seek to) leave no space for any other feeling, the protests are all feeling at their core with little interest in the sense they make or in being able to grasp something that holds true. And so we have a constellation of narratives seeking to unearth the greatest conspiracies, possibly entertaining if not for the darker endpoints they often lurch towards.

Does this mean we should abandon every one of those feelings that pre-empts anti-lockdown mobilisations? Why are desires for liberation being derided as selfish with finger-wagging moralism from so many on the Left? Who is this ‘we’ I reference? What affinities hold us together and in times of crisis do we have to accept the tenuousness of our positions, that cracks may appear when placed under duress, that new alliances and compositions of struggle may catch all of us unaware?

One year and a half ago

COVID-19 entered our lives at once like a creeping pall, slowly encroaching from faraway, yet at the same time moving upon us so quickly relative to the flow of those lives – a matter of months from Wuhan to being in these streets. Between these two conflicting relations to the passing of time came a kind of cognitive disjointedness that occurs when the news that we follow closely, but that remains at a distance, suddenly appears as a visceral part of our day-to-day existence. 

We scrambled to respond with networks of mutual aid and support, attempting to find space between the threat of the virus and the control of the State to extend collective care. But as the reality of the pandemic extended to shroud all the foreseeable future these efforts mostly withdrew. The truth is, it’s felt like even more ordinary check-ins and acts of sharing have diminished as lock-downs have proved ongoing.

We still do our best to stay in touch with friends, to not lose the varied influences of brilliant, difficult, chaotic people on our lives. We try to remember who might be doing it tough – and realise that’s an ever-growing number. I sporadically send out unwieldy messages in an attempt to reach out and then feel anxious about how they might land, whether they’re unwanted intrusions or, if responded too, what exactly I can follow through on.

This devolvement reflects a continued sense of uncertainty and weariness about the present that we occupy.  The cadence of now is washed out and choppy, making it hard to find a rhythm that we can grasp onto. Are we simply holding time until a return to some kind of prior normal? This increasingly feels unlikely – even if this virus is brought under some kind of control there are all sorts of implications for what resistance can look like, for how the measures the State has now practised as a response to crisis have become ‘normality’.

On/ off streets

Meanwhile, it has been with a sense of bewilderment that I observe a movement that ruptures that ‘normality’ take its place on the streets of the city I reside in – while I stay enclosed in my room with no real thought to participate. At times these protests have started to look and feel like scenes from dystopian movies. Of course, not all movements that take to the streets deserve support or participation. There are reasons to be wary, to raise warnings about the potential of anti-lockdown mobilisations being a funnel to the far-right.

I understand some of the reasons why the political milieus I’m most connected to have abandoned the streets. I recognise the imperative of cautious separation for the sake of looking after each other during a pandemic. And, in general, I’m far less concerned with prioritising being on the street at all costs than many – I don’t think the endless cycle of repetitive rallies marching the same routes while corralled by marshals and the police builds the sort of militant, political culture I hope for.

Still, there has been a too easy, almost grateful retreat to online forums from many around me. Is there a point where this necessity has gone beyond that – necessity – and become a preference? The plethora of meetings, forums, discussions, fundraisers and even protests that occur in the digital realm suggests more than a functional, stop-gap measure. Is it possible to contort and re-align ourselves too far so that we’re all bent out of shape, jammed into physical, digital or categorical boxes that we were never meant to fit into? Adaptive preferences can reshape the world, limiting the perception of horizons. They can make the realm of what’s possible shrink as we adapt to what we’re forced to accept.

The abandonment of the anti-lockdown movement hasn’t only been about not being physically present. What is unnerving are the takes that begin to look like siding with State control, that function from the basis of an incomplete (and boring) narrative that ends with moralistic finger-pointing and dualisms of good/ bad or fascist/ anti-fascist. It feels more than ever like the uncertainties of this time should be too complex to resort to basic binaries. In a pandemic world, where so much has changed, it should be possible to allow for the sense of confusion that has manifested in people taking to the streets (and fighting the police), in ways that do not fall within the lines of known political positions. It should also be possible to ascertain that the force of legitimacy that the police have been handed – not to mention the use of new crowd control weaponry – continues to be the most authoritarian trajectory that exists in front of us.

The forms of opposition to the lockdown cannot be made easy sense of. It seemingly contains aspects that run the spectrum from those that I might find it possible to support all the way to their negative corollary that I am fearful of: anti-State control alongside Australian flags; significant numbers of BIPOC alongside known far-right activists; distrust of authority flowing into anti-semitic conspiracies; people struggling to pay rent alongside landlords and bosses desperate to open up for the sake of capitalist continuity; an openness to non-western forms of knowledge alongside cooked white people co-opting the bits that are convenient to them while insisting vaccinations have been implanted with micro-chips to control us.

It’s a mess. But the world is messy and I prefer it that way. Or, at least, I think it’s necessary to engage with the mess.

Becoming institutionalised

I bristle when I hear the criticism that a ‘lack of demands’ proves the inherent emptiness of meaning or intent at the core of a protest. I remember it levelled against the counter-summit, anti-capitalist movement that existed at the turn of the century (something I reflected on here). Some of the Left have used this charge against uprisings that they couldn’t make sense of, let alone control: the French banlieue riots of 2005, the UK riots of 2011 and the Ferguson insurrection of 2014.

Those making this accusation tend to claim a lack of demands shows the participants to be some combination of politically illiterate, morally empty, immature, selfish, overly-emotional and irrational. On the surface, some of these descriptions have seemed apt for what we’ve seen of the anti-lockdown protests. I’m not here to deny that as an immediate perception even while considering what else lies beneath. In any case, I’m more interested in what such accusations might say about those making them, especially when they seem to be regularly coming from perspectives I otherwise expect to have affinity with.

Maybe it confirms an uneasy suspicion about how ‘the Left’ is anchored to the liberal political order, choosing alliances under the veneer of progressivism even while the further radical potential of those are a dead end. Here in Narrm, it’s almost impossible to not be drawn into the trappings that the institutionalisation of progressivism offers. There’s funding for projects, arts grants, employment, spaces to use, services and a series of other hard-to-pin-down niceties that make for a comfortable life. I’ve certainly felt the pull and the malaise that results.

Part of that comfort involves becoming conditioned to expect the forms of ‘safety’ that are produced by the State leading to ideas of liberation that look less like abolishing or escaping State control and instead focus on including more people within its protective embrace. In doing so, attempts at ‘radical’ politics remain entrenched in deep cyclical conversations with the State, where the very act of ‘being in conversation with’ reinforces the legitimacy and dominant position of the colonial, capitalist order. The expectation of demands as proof of political coherence circles back on itself, ensuring that ‘politics’ is expressed within a framework that makes sense within terms defined and established by the dominant social order. The trap has been laid and it’s difficult to break free from.

There is also an obvious hypocrisy in criticisms pointing out how the anti-lockdown movement’s lack of demands signals its disinterest in extending solidarity to other marginalised people. While it might be possible to deride the narrow self-interest that motivates those mobilisations, it’s impossible to avoid how other forms of collective ‘safety’ being promoted are predicated on enclosure and exclusion. That is, tacit support for ongoing, state-enforced lockdowns is invested in the capacity for secure border protection that this island nation has perfected through a history of racist paranoia.

It makes me fretful, floating through silent spaces where we no longer speak of abolishing borders or consider resistance and care to extend beyond nationalisms. Similarly, I accept the necessity of the vaccine but can’t countenance it as some kind of social good when the cost of being safely vaccinated here is the lack of access to vaccinations in other parts of the world – the same parts of the world who have always had the least access.

The issue here isn’t about perfecting demands – no set of demands can capture a totality of solidarity and it is disingenuous to suggest otherwise. It’s about accepting ambiguity and contradiction while doing our best to hold on to the ethics that ground us, as well as the connections to others that challenge us, preventing the dogmatic certainty that fuels a desire to claim how everyone else is doing it wrong. The issue is about allowing things to not make sense, recognising that politics never arrives fully-formed – in fact, that any pretense to a fully-formed version of politics should be met with distrust.

Ir/rational

The currents of resistance that have most inspired me have always exceeded the bounds of hegemonic, political rationality. Their desire to escape the State’s control, forces of oppression and methods of colonisation and containment have been deemed irrational precisely due to their rejection of the normative constraints of political discourse. In so many instances these struggles are grounded in forms of knowledge, mysticism and spirituality that cannot be understood within the frameworks of western liberalism or scientific rationality.

It’s there in Indigenous resistance on this continent from 1788 to now; in the role of ‘voodoo’ in the revolt of slaves that became the Haitian revolution; in slave revolts all across the USA; in the Ghost Dance and the anti-colonial resistance of the Oceti Sakowin Federation in the late 1800’s to Sioux attempts to vanquish the black snake at Standing Rock recently; in the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas; in the centuries of Irish rebellion against British rule; in the Mau Mau uprising against British rule; in the Boxer Rebellion; in the Algerian revolution; in the European peasant revolts of the middle-ages, especially women holding onto their knowledge in the face of witch-hunts, the Inquisition and enclosure; in countless, many more.

I do not draw any direct line between the struggles that I have named above and the liberatory potential of the anti-lockdown movement. I don’t have much hope invested at all in the anti-lockdown movement. I see the reactionary sentiments and understand the dangerous turns those can take. I am making a point about the histories that are discredited by clinging to notions of rationality based entirely in the institutions of liberal democracy and western, colonialist knowledge when speaking of radical potential.  

In Martinique a vaccination centre was burned to the ground. It came as massive union-called protests against mandatory vaccinations turned into riots. It was an act steeped in the history of resistance to French colonialism (this is the birthplace of Fanon after all), in distrust of the colonial state’s enforcement of public health measures with the knowledge that nearly the entire population has been poisoned by the use of pesticides for banana plantations controlled by French capitalists.

There is not a neat separation between medical expertise and the forms of control that capitalism and colonialism have inflicted upon marginalised populations for centuries. It would be preferable to simply take the benefits of medical science as beyond the reach of the political and social forces that shape the world. But that isn’t true and the fact of the pandemic and the fear of a highly contagious virus cannot simply lead to relinquishing this understanding. That doesn’t mean we have to discard all those benefits, but is should allow for an open-ness to the many reasons that people are hesitant or distrustful.

Public health measures necessarily expand beyond that which is directly medical, into the terrain of the social and economic. They are not a neutral zone of ‘good’ because they are concerned with health, they are a contested zone of conflict and struggle involving diverse forms of social coercion. The realm of biopolitical control is asserted as necessarily totalising for our safety and as the only way to respond to the pandemic. It is administered through the legal, medical, bureaucratic and violent arms of the State. In this context, slogans like “trust the experts” or “back the science” have as many – maybe more – potential reactionary outcomes as paths towards a greater social good. 

Without self-organised communities extending care and resisting the unceasing implementation of a biopolitical regime, its assumed neutral, legitimacy will bleed into the future as we face further crises, including the climate catastrophe. The forms of life it produces will be surveilled, policed, confined, categorised and digitised, shaping a social terrain centred on being able to most securely manage dangers that arise, focusing on statistical models as predictive of future threats. The state and capital are quite capable and happy to structure a society where we’re restricted to easily manageable units, kept in separated zones, from which we work and consume. Less chance of messy, spontaneous outbreaks of the masses coming together, spilling over, being uncontainable and therefore dangerous.

Uncertainty

I return to a question I asked at the beginning of the pandemic: what if the most effective response to the pandemic (or any crisis) is the most technocratic, authoritarian one? Does liberal moralism expect us to be good with that? And what of all the other struggles and aspirations for liberation when that is the case? Do we simply forego them?

It doesn’t easily align with what I have known of the world that desires for freedom from state control and distrust of authority have come to be associated as reactionary or right-wing positions. It has come to this because of the inadequacies in our capacity to step outside the comfort of state provisions and take the risks necessary to build any kind of power beyond its reach.

The anti-lockdown movement doesn’t have that sort of power either. Not yet, at least. What it does have is a fearless and loose randomness – without so many pre-established, formalised ways of relating to the State – that makes it leak out beyond what can be easily contained. This looseness could get ugly – maybe it already has – but it also stands in stark contrast to the rigid posture of so many declaring with all-knowing certainty what is what, who is what, what is fascist, who is right-wing, what is irrational, what must be done to ‘build a movement’.

This all leaves me feeling disoriented, like my mapping is out-of-wack. This is partially due to separation, with not being able to have the regular conversations with friends that help make sense of things. But I also remember that it might be necessary to leave known terrain if we’re to stumble upon revolutionary possibility. That we might have to be open to presumed affinities cracking under the strain of out of the ordinary conditions, just as new ones form.

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