G20 Protests: Utopia and Magic

At all G8/G20/WTO summit-and-protests affairs, the following sort of dialogue pops up, around the theme of ‘utopian’ demands:

Protesters: “We demand the total abolition of poverty! And an end to war! And a world free of injustice and exploitation!”

Onlooker: “Sure, that would be nice, but how do you suggest that be done?”

Protesters: “By means of justice! And solidarity! And co-operation! And justice!”

Onlooker: “Wait a sec, you lot don’t actually have a coherent, concretely meaningful set of demands, do you? Why on earth do you bother protesting then?”

How the protesters reply at this point is very variable – different people would say different things. But here’s one suggested reply – what I would say in such a discussion.

“We have no coherent, concretely meaningful demands because demands are concretely meaningful only in relation to an agent, some person or individual who is actually capable of carrying them out. You don’t ask your parents to provide social housing across the country, and you don’t ask your government to love you sincerely.

Don’t think we’re directing our demands at the leaders of the G20 countries – that we’re “calling” on them to’ xyz. To call on someone is an expression of trust, as the Ghostbusters know so well.

We know that directed at the G20, our demands are utopian. The G20 functions to safeguard the shared global interests of people we might variously refer to as ‘capital’, ‘elites’, ‘the rich’, or ‘the powerful’. Its set-up reflects this and makes it incapable of acheiving the things that we demand.

Our utopian demands amount to the demand for an organisation, to which they would no longer be utopian: an organisation that would equal the scale of the G20, but represent those who we might variously, and approximately, refer to as ‘the working class’, ‘the masses’, ‘the oppressed’, or just ‘(the) people’. An organisation democratic in structure, progressive in mindset, and global in scope.

In relation to such an organisation, slogans like ‘make poverty history’ would become realistic, and would resolve themselves into a million precise and practical issues of planning and implementation. In its absence, they remain formless and serve only to mark the space where it is needed. Workers of the…etc.”

One final note: rather than ‘utopian’, we might apply to the protests the term ‘magical‘, in a particular sense. Magic works by simulation and re-enactment: if I harm a representation of a person, I harm them; if I want to make X happen, I do something that resembles X.

Similarly, one way to think of ‘summit-hopping’, following the G20 around the world, is as ‘acting out’ the existence of a global democratic force that could challenge the G20. It’s miles away from being such a force in reality, of course: it’s a mere handful of people, and more to the point it doesn’t actually do anything, doesn’t provide any direct benefits to its members the way the G20 can.

But maybe a lot of the psychology of protests and demonstrations is like that: by gathering people together into a rough-and-ready simulacrum of a society, espousing your desired beliefs, you hope to induce society to share those beliefs. And let’s not forget ‘be the change you wish to see in the world’. Of course, this leaves open the question whether such ‘magical thinking’ would be sensible or not.

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