Protest as the Foundation of Ethics, Research Time, 25/06/2018

Jeremy Gilbert's book on the history of resistance to neoliberal politics and economics in the British academy doesn’t end very hopefully. It was published at the end of the W Bush Presidency, for one.

It was a time when so much of the West’s progressive visions of humanity were destroyed, for one. The deranged patriotism following the Sept 11 attacks and during the Iraq invasion and occupation brought conservative patriotism to a horrifying extreme. The US government was so anemic from austerity that they couldn’t even repair a humanitarian disaster. Unrestrained investment bankers collided with poorly-considered mortgage policy to crash the economy as millions sunk into debt.

That's not what Gilbert was considering when drafting his book, though. How he crafts his history conditions how partial is his view. Because he focusses specifically on explicit resistance to neoliberal economics and politics, he focusses on the protest movement.

Remember how the conditions for the present madness lie in the
madnesses of the past. I'm not talking about learning your history,
just remembering the meaning of the history you actually lived
is hard enough for some people.
The key connection is that of Cultural Studies academe to the protest movement. But it’s primarily about the protest movement. It’s another case where he’s not wrong, but his focus misses so many other important vectors of history.

And I think that narrow vision plays into his pessimism. He asks whether protest against unjust economic systems can work in creating any significant change at all. The best a protest can do, he writes, is express an alternative morality. Such an expression is totally separate from real political organizing against that economic system.

In the decade since he wrote, there’s been plenty of progress in building opposition to that economic system. We don’t always call it neoliberalism every time we talk about it. But we know what’s going on.

I also think Gilbert’s book is wrong to dismiss as politically useless the expression of an alternative morality. The whole reason neoliberal thinking about economics and morality could become a default among many people’s thinking was the popular conclusion that no other way of thinking was genuinely possible as a sustainable system of human life.

Genuinely successful protest actions demonstrate by their existence that there can be sustainable ways of social thought beyond rabid mercenary individualism. Occupy and Standing Rock were events that created such alternative ways of life.

No political movement ends with protest, of course. You have to build alternative institutions, like communication networks, places of trade and exchange, places of education and outreach to bring people a new way of thinking. Work together to develop strategies to create other such places and networks. Finance, build, learn, and grow.

There’s going to be a lot of resistance to this project. Your way of life may seem monstrous or hypocritical to a lot of people who aren’t open-minded. The powerful people in the mainstream system – the oligarchs and the people who make decent livings serving their interests – will fight. And they’ll enlist as many oppressive arms of the state as they can to do it. No outcome is inevitable – not yours nor theirs.

You can create an alternative and change your society for the better. But you can’t put any of that work in when no one believes that it can come to anything at all.

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