|English | Español||May 23, 2017 | Issue #34|
Carnival: Resistance Is the Secret of Joy
Essay #4 from the Book We Are Everywhere
By the Notes From Nowhere Collective
November 1, 2004
“The goal of the revolutionary artist is to make revolution irresistible.”
– Toni Cade Bambara
“We will make revolution irresistible,” assured a bit of Direct Action Network propaganda, in the final days of November 1999. Writing those words late at night, I was hunched on the floor of the near-empty warehouse in downtown Seattle with a friend and a laptop, with only thirty minutes before going to print, and eight hours before we opened the convergence center – a networking hub and training facility for activists – to the world. After having gone for months with too much to do and too little sleep, I grumbled about how utterly resistible this particular aspect of “revolution” seemed, before getting on my bike and weaving my way home – to yet another meeting. Organizing a Festival of Resistance didn’t feel particularly festive that night.
But the nights flew past and the day, November 30, 1999, a date fixed in our heads for months and now engraved into the history books, dawned. Bleary-eyed, my affinity group gathered at 7.00 am. Running late, we hurried to catch up with the main march as it headed down the hill into downtown Seattle. The perspective from above was incredible – all we could see was people – our people – spilling out of the streets and onto the sidewalks, a cacophony of color and exhilaration. Sleeplessness didn’t matter anymore. We passed a tripod blockade, a man dangling from its apex, a line of cars immobilized impatiently, not yet understanding how futile they were that day. Those were the last cars I saw for 12 hours.
As we entered downtown something shifted. It was partially the fresh air blowing off the Puget Sound, unpolluted by the choking exhaust that was the normal scent of the city. We controlled the streets, all of them, and in every direction we looked were more and more of us, and thousands still arriving. There were stilt walkers dressed as butterflies, a giant inflatable whale blockading an intersection, a hip hop crew rhyming through a mobile sound system, a stage being built to double as a road blockade where performances would take place all day long, giant puppets, butoh dancers, acrobats. The sounds were incredible – the sound of drums resounding off skyscrapers, the sound of chanting and singing, the sound of laughter – no honking, no engines roaring.
I looked up at the high-rise hotels where the world’s trade representatives were just waking up, preparing to go to work, turning on the TV or looking out the window and perhaps beginning to realize that they weren’t going to make it to work that day, that they were trapped in their hotels. Perhaps they had already figured out that the city streets, normally the domain of cars and capital, of commerce, trade, and profit, were ours now; perhaps the delegates recognized that for once, they were the excluded ones, the ones with no place in our ideal society. The dominant color of the city was no longer a shade of dark suit, and making history was triumphing over making money. Just then the rain let up. I think it was in that moment that we all realized that we really were going to do it, that history belonged to us that day, that we really were going to shut down the WTO. Later, left-wing journalist Geov Parrish would write, “‘Seattle’ became a one-word rallying cry, used to invoke horror by free trade advocates, used to evoke inspiration by those new generations around the world.”
Almost all of us that were in Seattle on November 30 felt like we were personally responsible, like our participation in the day’s events was crucial to things unfolding as they had. Goethe wrote that carnival “is not really a festival given for the people but one the people give themselves,” and we gave ourselves the best we could. We came away in triumph, not only having succeeded at bringing to a halt the trade negotiations of the WTO’s millennium round, but also at withstanding the brutal repression unleashed upon us. For many of us, it was the first time we had directly experienced the state’s power, and it changed us for life. But a deeper imprint was left by the experience of the carnival – halfway between party and protest, resisting at the same time as proposing, destroying at the same time as creating. Our “carnival against capital” brought together the volatile mixture of carnival and revolution, creativity and conflict, using rhythm and music to reclaim space, transform the streets, and inject pleasure into politics.
Turning the World Upside Down
Reinventing tactics of resistance has become a central preoccupation for the movement of movements. How do we make rebellion enjoyable, effective, and irresistible? Who wants the tedium of traditional demonstrations and protests – the ritual marches from point A to B, the permits and police escorts, the staged acts of civil disobedience, the verbose rallies and dull speeches by leaders? Instead, why not use a form of rebellion that embody the movements’ principles of diversity, creativity, decentralization, horizontally, and direct action? These principles can be found at the heart of a ancient form of cultural expression – the carnival.
Throughout history carnival has been a time for inverting the social order, where the village fool dresses as the king and the king waits on the pauper, where men and women wear each others’ clothing and perform each others’ roles. This inversion exposes the power structures and illuminates the processes of maintaining hierarchies; seen from a new angle, the foundations of authority are shaken up and flipped around. The unpredictability of carnival with its total subservience to spontaneity, where any individual can shape her environment and transform herself into another being for an hour or a day, ruptures what we perceive to be reality. It creates a new world by subverting all stereotypes, daring imaginations to expand their limits, turning the present world upside down, if only for a moment.
It is in the capricious moments of history when we can best see that carnival and revolution have identical goals: to turn the world upside down with joyous abandon and to celebrate our indestructible lust for life, a lust that capitalism tries so hard to destroy with its monotonous merry-go-round of work and consumerism. In its immediacy, carnival refuses the constant mediation and representations of capitalism. It opens up an alternative social space of freedom where people can begin to really live again.
This also means turning what we consider to be political on its head. Mention the word politics and many people will imagine a world filled with words, and debate, a sterile, pleasureless world of talking heads. The pleasures of the body have been banished from the public sphere of politics and the excitement of the erotic pushed into the narrow private confines of the sexual realm. But carnival brings the body back to public space: not the perfect smooth bodies that promote consumption on billboards and magazines, not the manipulated plastic bodies of MTV and party political broadcasts, but the body of warm flesh, of blood and guts, organs and orifices.
During carnival the body sticks its tongue out as far as it can; it laughs uncontrollably, sweats and farts as it dances in the heat of other bodies. It’s a body that refuses the static images of itself developed by capital, frozen in immortal youthfulness, aloof from natural cycles of eating and shitting, being born and decomposing. In carnival the body is always changing, constantly becoming, eternally unfinished. Inseparable from nature and fused to other bodies around it, the body remembers that it is not a detached, atomized being, as it allows its erotic impulse to jump from body to body, sound to sound, mask to mask, to swirl across the streets, filling every nook and cranny, every fold of flesh. During carnival the body, with its pleasures and desires, can be found everywhere, luxuriating in its freedom and inverting the everyday.
We live in a world already turned on its head, writes Eduardo Galeano, a “desolate, de-souled world that practices the superstitious worship of machines and the idolatry of arms, an upside-down world with its left on its right, its belly button on its backside, and its head where its feet should be.” In this upside-down world, children work, “development” impoverishes, the poor pay the rich, and people are bombed in order to be “liberated.” In this grotesque looking-glass wonderland, “free” speech is paid for, cars are in streets where people should be, public servants don’t serve, “free” trade is a monopoly, the more you have, the more you get, and a handful of the global population consumes the majority of the resources. And, Galeano asks: “If the world is upside-down the way it is now, wouldn’t we have to turn it over to get it to stand up straight?”
Everything was topsy-turvy in London on June 18, 1999. The world’s largest financial center, a square mile district known as the City of London, is normally a place resounding with the sounds of profit. The ringing of mobile phones, the click of high heels on the sidewalks, the clink of wine glasses over power lunches, the hiss of espresso machines on every corner, the hum of CCTV cameras turning to follow movements. A modern-day fortress, with police checkpoints at every entrance, the City is one of the most heavily surveilled square miles in the world. It is a tribute to the acquisition of wealth, with a foreign exchange turnover equal to that of Tokyo, New York, and Paris combined.
Yet this Friday was different. Mobile phones were still ringing, but for a very different purpose. The clicking high heels were replaced by the sounds of boots pounding pavement, the clinking wine glasses by the cascade of shattered windows, the hiss of steaming milk by the whoosh of water let loose from a fire hydrant, and all to the beat of the overarching samba rhythm, resounding off the fortress’ walls. The City was occupied by 10,000 people wearing carnival masks, who evaded the police by splitting into four different groups, all headed for a secret location – one of the most important financial hubs, the London International Financial Futures Exchange (LIFFE). One of London’s 75 buried rivers was freed and water spurted 30 feet into the air, cooling off the dancing crowd, flooding the street, and flowing into the basement of LIFFE. Around the corner, another entrance to the Exchange was being bricked up as if it were an abandoned building, obsolete in the post-capitalist world the carnival hoped to help bring about.
Carnival’s mockery, chaos and transgression have always threatened the sobriety and seriousness of the state, which is why it was often banned or heavily controlled. What carnivals remain in most parts of the world have themselves become spectacles – specialist performances watched by spectators – with police lines and barriers placed between the parade and audience. Thus the vortexed, whirling, uncontrollable state of creative chaos is shoe-horned into neat straight lines and rectangles. A visit to many contemporary carnivals sanctioned by the state (such as Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, or the Notting Hill Carnival in London) where consumption and corporate sponsorship has taken over from the creativity and spontaneity is enough to illustrate how carnival under capitalism has lost its vitality. But carnival has been with us since time immemorial and it has always refused to die. Reappearing in different guises across the ages it returns again and again. Freed from the clutches of entertainment, the anticapitalist movements have thrown it back into the streets, where it is liberated from commerce for everyone to enjoy once again.
Participate, Don’t Spectate
– Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and his World. Indiana University Press 1984
Passivity disappears when carnival comes to town, with its unyielding demand for participation. It is the time for celebrating the joy of collectivity, the exhilaration of creating something that snowballs into something much bigger and more amazing than previously imagined possible. It is a moment when we can break free from the alienation that capitalism enforces in so many ways. We find ourselves separated from each other and from our environment as we move from place to place in the isolation of private car or the silence and averted eyes of public transport.
We face it at work, forced into competition with our colleagues, under constant threat of being “downsized,” “laid off,” “made redundant.” We suffer from it even when we try and relax, watching television or movies, which promote lifestyles we can’t afford, and which require that we sit silently, passive recipients of someone else’s visions. Consequently, we leave important questions about politics, economics and foreign policy up to experts, having been told that these matters are too complicated for us to understand.
That sense of belonging to – that the carnival belongs to me, and I to the carnival – generates a feeling of collective ownership, of responsibility, of being part of a community and caring deeply about the fate of the whole. Participants may be dancing or blockading, reading poetry or writing graffiti, breaking windows, or playing drums; they may be long-term activists or curious neighbors, students, or trade union organizers, yet they all come together, albeit briefly, in the space opened up by carnival.
It is the spontaneous eruption of joy that draws people into carnivals, the limitless play – which as it freewheels and spins outside the drudgery of everyday life, gives us the possibility of changing our goals and, therefore restructuring what our culture states to be reality. This playfulness works as a charm, protecting resistance against hierarchy and mediation; it’s the opposite of a barricade in that it prevents separation rather than enforcing it; it doesn’t allow for abstraction, for distancing yourself from your beliefs, your dreams, and your struggles. It demands that you take yourself less seriously and have a good time.
In fact, recent research by psychologists at the University of Sussex found that people who participate in political demonstrations experience psychological benefits which may help reduce stress, pain, and depression, the most common ailments of late capitalism. According to Dr John Drury, “Participants [in collective action] experienced a deep sense of happiness and even euphoria in being involved in protest events. Simply recounting the events in the interview brought a smile to the face of the interviewees.”
Terrorists in Tutus
– Mikhail Bahktin
Québec City’s Carnival Against Capital, during the Free Trade Area of the Americas summit in April 2001, is in full swing. Suddenly undercover police officers break through the crowd. Brandishing telescopic batons, they pounce on their target, bundle him into an unmarked van, and drive away at speed. The man they have arrested is an organizer with the Anti-Capitalist Convergence, one of the key groups organizing the carnival. When he appears in court, he is charged with possession of a dangerous weapon, and denied bail.
The weapon in question is a 25 by 10 foot catapult. It was smuggled into the most heavily fortified city in Canadian history by a group calling themselves the Medieval Bloc, who wore pots on their heads and carried the lids as shields. During the action they wheeled the wooden catapult up to the fence that surrounded the summit and fired dozens of teddy bears over it. A dangerous act, indeed, and yet one the kidnapped organizer had nothing to do with. But the police just don’t get it. Not understanding the tactics or the means of this movement, they assume that as an organizer, he must have had something to do with the catapult. They are confounded when teddy bears turn up in droves at the jail, many of them locked up in birdcages, with notes demanding the release of the innocent organizer.
Such actions defy interpretation, and are intensely problematic for police to control because of their inherent ambiguity. When people dressed as ballerinas, clowns, nurses, or Santa Clauses confront police who are dressed like the villains of your worst nightmares, the result is inevitably hesitation and confusion – no police department wants a reputation for beating a battalion of ballerinas or arresting a sleigh full of Santas.
When politics leaves the space of boredom and bureaucracy, when resistance becomes joyful and not a sacrifice, then the process of changing the world becomes dangerously infectious, so it should have been no surprise that a year after Seattle, the FBI added Carnival Against Capital to its list of “most wanted” terrorist groups. This may seem absurd now, in the midst of the seemingly endless “war on terror,” that carnival could be considered such a dire threat. Even more absurd – not only is Carnival Against Capital nothing to do with terrorism, it’s not an organization at all. It has no cells, no leaders, no ten-point programs. It is a tactic, nothing more. It is the embodiment of the spirit of contemporary resistance to global capitalism. It is: a pink fairy, a pie in the face, a man in a devil suit holding hands with a nun, a fire breather, a driving samba rhythm.
Meanwhile, subversion, ridicule, and joy erupt all over the global South, in addition to their widespread appearances across the North, benefiting long term struggles for subsistence and survival. In India, 50,000 farmers from all over the state spent an entire day outside the Karnataka state government, laughing. The government, unable to handle the ridicule, was replaced the following week. In Mexico City, shortly after the Zapatistas emerged from the jungle and declared war against neoliberalism and for humanity, 100,000 people marched in solidarity with the rebels, shouting “First world, Ha! Ha! Ha!” Not only were they expressing open solidarity with the Zapatistas, they were also identifying the roots of poverty, rejecting the opening of the Mexican market to foreign investment, and thumbing their noses at the possibility of repression.
Carnival works all over the world, as political action, as festive celebration, as cathartic release, as wild abandonment of the status quo, as networking tool, as a way to create a new world. One of the key reasons for its wild success was overheard during the WTO shut down in Seattle, “Even if we are getting our asses kicked, we’re having more fun than they are.”
– Murray Bookchin, Post-Scarcity Anarchism, Black Rose Books, 1986
Carnivals of resistance didn’t begin with this movement. Many of the great moments of revolutionary history were carnivalesque – revelatory and sensuous explosions outside of the accepted pattern of politics. From the clubhouses of the Paris Commune of 1871, to capoeira –martial arts disguised as dancing to keep it secret from Brazilian slave owners, from the seven mile long Suffragette parades that brought early twentieth century London to a standstill, to the colorful be-ins of 1960s Berkeley – if you look hard enough, you can find carnival between the cracks of many of history’s unpredictable moments of rebellion.
In nineteenth century south Wales, farmers facing extraordinary hardship banded together to protest against proliferating and expensive tollgates. Men and women dressed in bonnets and petticoats, called themselves Rebecca, after a Biblical prophecy that the seed of Rebekah would “possess the gate of those which hate them,” (Genesis 24,60), and performed street theater in front of the despised gates before destroying them. The Rebecca Rioters, as they became known, operated for five years, inspiring others to refuse to pay the tolls.
Parisian students lit the spark of rebellion with a spontaneous uprising in May, 1968. They decorated Paris with graffiti deeply influenced by the Situationists – an international network of radical intellectuals and artists, whose poetic slogans included: “I take my desires for reality because I believe in the reality of my desires,” “Be realistic: Demand the impossible.” The Situationists called for the immediate and constant transformation of everyday life, through celebrating creativity, and constructing “situations” which disrupted the status quo, jolting people out of customary habits and thoughts. The students’ rebellious carnival quickly spread to the factories, where it became one of the greatest general strikes in history. While workers nationwide were occupying the factories, students occupied the Sorbonne University and held enormous council meetings, taking decisions collectively, and calling for the dissolution of power.
The fall of Communism across central Europe in 1989, often described as something that occurred out of the blue, was in fact preceded by years of planning and playfulness. Much of it was influenced by groups using carnivalesque tactics. One such group from Wroclaw, Poland, was called the Orange Alternative. On Carnival day in 1988, a crowd of about 5,000 was enticed by a flyer, reading, “Dress for a party. This time the police won’t touch us. We’ll say a magic word and either they’ll disappear or they’ll join the carnival.” A makeshift orchestra with a giant drum kept time while a Red Riding Hood danced with a wolf, a group of Smurfs cavorted madly, and people chanted, “Police, party with us!” and “Hocus pocus!” in an effort to disappear the police. According to the newspaper of the main opposition group, Solidarity, “This was a scene to make any surrealist’s head spin.” Other fusions of culture and politics proliferated across central Europe, setting the stage for transition, and acclimating a fearful population to taking to the streets and expressing its hopes and desires in public.
You can’t predict the outcome of a carnival and neither can you predict history. The history of the twentieth century was one of utter unpredictability – few could have predicted the Russian Revolution, the fall of the Berlin wall, the end of apartheid, the Internet. Who could have predicted that anticapitalism would be back on the agenda at the end of the twentieth century, which has seen capitalism touch, subsume, and subjugate everywhere and everything on the planet?
Judging from the early years of this century it seems that we are living in times that are just as unpredictable. But allow us to make one prediction. The time of waiting for the right historical moment for revolution is over, and movements will not repeat this mistake. This is one of the great lessons that we have learned from history, and it will influence the way political action is taken in the future. Carnival teaches us not to wait, but to live out the future we desire now, it implores to those who follow the path of previous repressive and ascetic struggles which postpone pleasure, along with racial and gender equality, until “after the revolution.” In its celebration of all that is moving and changing, in its hostility to everything immortal and complete, carnival reminds us to refuse the idea that revolution is a ready-made permanent blueprint that we wait for, but a process that begins right here, right now.
In fact, the urgency of the current ecological crisis makes it impossible to wait for the future, unless we want to celebrate victory in an uninhabitable desert. Instead of simply saying, “NO – we are against this,” carnival yells, “LOOK – this is what we are for and we are not going to ask for it. We are doing it right now.” It gives us a glimpse of what is possible, igniting our imagination, our belief in utopia – a utopia defined not as no-place but as this-place.
The revolutionary carnival may only last a few hours or days, but its taste lingers on. It is not simply a letting off of steam, a safety valve for society, enabling life to return to normal the next day. It is a moment of intensity unlike any other, which shapes and gives new meanings to every aspect of life. The everyday is never the same after one has tasted a moment that is ruled only by freedom. Tasting such fruit is dangerous, because it leaves a craving to repeat the exhilarating experience again and again.
The Indian movement against the Narmada Dam says that resistance is a process for creating something new, and carnival prepares us for this process, by changing our perceptions and behaviors, giving us confidence, and inspiring our passionate collective imagination. In a world dictated by the rationalism of economics, a world where we are mere cogs in a market mechanism, radical imagination becomes one of the rare human faculties that can rupture capital’s curse of “realism.” Realism can never be the foundation for envisioning a new society, because it determines limits before these limits are themselves known. Hindering free creative action and the possibility of searching for what is new, in the name of “realism” denies the fact that change is cumulative, not sequential; that the present is always conditioned on the future. They may well call those of us who have the courage to be “unrealistic” – romantics, dreamers, extremists. But as Herbert Read wrote: “What has been worthwhile in human history – the great achievements of physics and astronomy, of geographical discovery and of human healing, of philosophy and of art – has been the work of extremists – of those who believed in the absurd, dared the impossible.”
So if the FBI wants to infiltrate this movement – a movement of pink fairies in solidarity with Indian farmers, of taxi drivers and graffiti artists issuing the same demands, of indigenous Ogoni identifying the same targets as pie-throwing utopians – it may have to do so wearing tutus. And when it identifies “Carnival Against Capital” as a terrorist group, it exposes its greatest fear, and perhaps its greatest weakness. Unable to think fluidly, boxed in by hierarchical structures, frozen by the straight-jacket of “realism,” it is incapable of comprehending the decentralized dynamism of carnival, where anyone can have leadership momentarily before dissolving into the sea of the crowd again. And as it attempts to isolate, influence, and infiltrate groups in a great effort to break these movements, our spontaneity, unpredictability, and irresistibility are blossoming, scattering seeds of inspiration across cultures and continents. We learn to work together, we become better at being human, and we are able to live prefiguratively, in the most radical of all carnivals – a world which will not wait for the future, a world which embraces diversity, a world which contains many worlds.
This essay opens the chapter “Carnival” in the book We Are Everywhere. Other stories in this chapter include:
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Essays from We Are Everywhere on Narco News:
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