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New Social Movements and the Spectre of People’s Power

December 29, 2004

In Richard Linklater’s inspiring film Waking Life, there is a scene
where an impassioned academic expounds at length his theory that a ‘new
evolutionary paradigm’ is developing in the world. This paradigm sees
human traits such as trust and honesty growing while greed and mistrust
are ‘de-emphasised’. Despite everything, all the pain and ugliness we
are experiencing, humans are slowly becoming more conscious.
“And that is what we hope to see”, he finishes. “That would be nice”.

It would indeed be nice if people started to live more socially and less
But is this happening, or are we fooling ourselves? I am inclined to
agree with him – call me an eternal optimist, but I really do think
things are getting better. The question is only will they get better
fast enough to save the Earth from environmental catastrophe?

My favourite set of evidence for this is the fact that when the Great
War broke out nearly a hundred years ago, thousands of people around the
world went onto the streets to demonstrate – in favour of a war that
ripped aside the old world and led to a century of barbarism.
Yet on 15 February 2003, before the US invaded Iraq, an estimated 15
million people around the world demonstrated against the war – including
yours truly with the War is a Drag posse. We didn’t manage to stop the
war, but it was still the biggest unity of people in history. Clearly,
we’ve learnt something in the last 100 years.

One of the ingredients of this new consciousness, this new level of
global engagement, are what are broadly, and vaguely, called ‘new social
movements’ – organisations of ordinary people around issues that concern
them. So we have fishermen’s organisations, peasant movements, anti-war
coalitions, Aids treatment campaigns, Queer rights groups and many more,
all tumultuously adding to the symphony that has been described as “One
‘no’ (neo-liberal capitalism), many ‘Yesses'”.

Are the ‘new’ social movements really new, or have they just escaped our
notice before?
Perhaps they have always been there, but they have not commanded our
respect and attention before. We couldn’t see them because they were
outside of our frame of reference. The 20th century was a century of
grand narratives – communism, socialism, fascism, capitalism, democracy
– and we viewed everything through the polarising prism of these ideas.
The result is that alternate ideas have been devalued and less
empowering concepts have dominated. Most of the great social theories of
the 20th century are not innately empowering to ordinary people: Marxism
needs a vanguard party, social democracy needs a labour party.
In other words, the multitude cannot be trusted with its own liberation,
which needs to be managed and mediated by a class of do-gooders –
politicians and professional revolutionaries.

It’s now time to learn to deprogramme ourselves from these old ways of
thinking in order to get a feeling for what is happening now. What is
happening in the world does not follow the formulas we have learned –
once again, the old world has broken down, and we are on the threshold
of something new and very different. We cannot use existing tools and
theories to analyse it.

The international anarchist movement, which has enjoyed a popular
resurgence recently, likes to claim that these new groups are anarchist
(see diss below). In a way, they are, but they don’t claim to be
anarchist, nor do they buy into the symbols of the circle A and the red
and black flag. Their anarchism is an instinctive rejection of hierarchy
rather than an adoption of an ideology.

If these groups were to become ‘anarchist’, it would be another
ideological imposition which would contain the movement in a
pre-existing framework – albeit a fairly sound one. It is ironic that
even the ideology of freedom can become a prison once it is codified and

An analogy can be made here with religion. Religions usually start with
an epiphany, a divine realisation – a human being, or a group of people
has direct experience with All That Is, the great pulsating love muscle
at the core of the universe. They teach the methodology of achieving the
insight – what worked for them – and over time, the road to this
epiphany is sanctified and becomes a doctrine or article of faith.
Before you know it, millions of people are following the form while
never in their lives truly touching the heart of their religions.
Even worse, they kill each other over differences.

At the heart of religious epiphany lies perhaps the same thing which we
find in a truly revolutionary grassroots movement, and which existential
philosophy seems to point to: A sense of immanence. A feeling of the
tremendous power which we, as human beings, can grasp at any moment if
we breathe and take the world with both hands, and, linking arms with
our neighbours, mould it to suit our desires. We do this by taking
responsibility and living with authenticity and passion.

Others are doing it, and changing the world street by street. The
spectre of people’s power is stalking the barrios, townships and
indigenous communities of the world. You’re not seeing it in the media,
which is dominated by big and scary things, but change is happening.
This is your invitation to get involved – not by joining a group, but by
confronting your own boundaries.

“You know the UDF started in Rocklands, which is just down the round
from Tafelsig,” says Ismail Peterson of the Anti-Eviction Campaign. “So
you can say the struggle is coming home again”.


We live in exciting times. Our challenge is to live passionately, and
with conviction.

Incidentally, try to see Waking Life.

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