The ‘Why’s’ and ‘What for’s’ of People taking to the Streets

“The Arab Spring triggers popular rebellions against autocrats across the Arab world. The Israeli Summer brings 250,000 Israelis into the streets, protesting the lack of affordable housing and the way their country is now dominated by an oligopoly of crony capitalists. From Athens to Barcelona, European town squares are being taken over by young people railing against unemployment and the injustice of yawning income gaps…” – so wrote Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times on 12 August 2011.

People took to the streets. And public squares. First on Prague Vaclavske Namesti, well back in 1989, and right after in one after the other capital of Soviet bloc countries. Then, famously, on the main Kiev city square. In all those places and some others as well, new habits started to be tested: no longer a march, a demo, from a gathering point to the destination. Rather, a permanent occupation of sorts, or a siege lasting as long as the demands are not met.

What has been tried and tested has recently turned into a norm. People tend to settle in public squares with the clear intention to stay there for quite a while – for as long as it takes to achieve or be granted what they wished. They take tents and sleeping bags with them, to show their determination. Some others came and went – but regularly: every day or evening, or once a week. What did they do once on the square? They listened to speeches, applauded or booed, carried billboards or banners, shouted or sung. They wished something to change. In each case, that “something” was different. No one knew for sure whether it meant the same for all those around. For many, its meaning was anything but crystal clear. But whatever that “something” was, they savored the change already occurring: staying on the Rothschild or Tahrir square day and night, surrounded by crowds evidently tuned-in to the same wavelength of emotions, was such a change already happening and enjoyed. Rehearsed verbally on Facebook and Twitter, now finally experienced in flesh. And without losing the traits that made it so endearing when practiced on the web: the ability to enjoy the present without mortgaging the future, rights without obligations.

The breathtakingly intoxicating experience of togetherness; perhaps, who knows, solidarity. That change, already occurring, means: no longer alone. And it has taken so little effort to accomplish it – little more than pushing in a “d” in the place of the “t” in that nasty word “solitary”. Solidarity on demand, and as long lasting (and not a minute longer) as the demand endures. Solidarity not that much in sharing the cause chosen, as solidarity in having a cause; I and you and all the rest of us (“us”, that is people in the square) having purposes, and life having a meaning.

Several days ago young people at vigil in the tents pitched around Wall Street sent a letter of invitation to Lech Wa??sa, the legendary leader of the equally legendary Polish “Solidarity” Movement, famous for setting in motion the dismantling of the Soviet empire by shipyard-workers, miners, and factory workers stubborn to stay inside their factories, mines or dockyards until their demands are met. In that letter, young people gathered on Manhattan streets and squares underline that they are students and trade-union members of most variegated life-stories, races, and political ideas, united solely by their wish to “restore moral purity to American economy”; that they have no leader except the shared belief that ninety-nine per cent of Americans can’t, and they wish that they won’t, tolerate any longer the greed and rapacity of one per cent. The authors of the letter say that the Polish “Solidarity” set an example for how walls and barriers can be demolished and the impossible can be made possible; an example which they intend to follow.

The same or quite similar words could be written by the throngs of young and not so young people of the 15th May movimiento los indignados billowing through the city squares of Madrid and its replicas in 951 cities of more than 90 countries. None of those movements has a leader, they all draw their enthusiastic supporters from all walks of life, races, religions and political camps, united solely by their refusal to allow things to go on as they currently do. Each one of them has a single barrier or wall in mind earmarked for shattering and destruction. Such barriers may vary from one country to another, but each one is believed to stretch across the way to a better kind of society, a kind more hospitable to humanity and less tolerant of inhumanity; each selected barrier is viewed as the one whose dismantling is bound to put an end to all and any kind of sufferings that brought protesters together: as a link one needs to pull to set the whole chain in motion. On the shape of things thereafter one should ask once that has been done and the building site for the new and improved society is cleared.  As the English use to say, “we’ll cross that bridge once we come to it”.

In this combination of focusing on a single task of demolition with leaving vague the image of the world the day after the demolition, lies the strength of people in the streets – as well as their weakness. We have already ample proof that movements of the indignant are indeed all-powerful in acting as demolition squads; however, the proof of their capacities as design-and-build teams is still outstanding.  A few months ago we all watched with bated breath and rising admiration the wondrous spectacle of the Arab Spring. It is late October when I write these words – but we are still waiting, so far in vain, for the Arab Summer…

Were Marx and Engels, two youngsters from the Rhineland, setting today to pen down their almost two-centuries old Manifesto, they could have well started it from the observation that “a spectre hovers over the planet; the spectre of indignation”… Wherefrom that spectre rises, is a moot and contentious question. One can however surmise that a common denominator of their many sources and inflows is the humiliating, self-esteem-and-dignity-defying-and-denying premonition of our ignorance (no inkling of what is going to happen) and impotence (no way of preventing it from happening). The old, allegedly patented ways of tackling life-challenges don’t work anymore, while new and effective ones are nowhere in sight or in abominably short supply.

Our fathers could quarrel about what needs to be done, but they all agreed that once the task has been defined the agency will be there, waiting to perform it – namely the states armed simultaneously with the power (ability to have things done) and politics (ability to see to it that the right things are done). Our times, however, are prominent for the gathering evidence that such kind of agencies are no longer in existence, and most certainly not to be found in their heretofore usual places. Power and politics live and move in separation from each other and their divorce lurks behind the corner. On one hand, power safely roaming the no-man’s global expanses, free from political control and at liberty to select its own targets; on the other, politics squeezed/robbed of all or nearly all of its power, muscles and teeth. We all, individuals-by-decree-of-fate, seem to be abandoned to our own individual resources, sorely inadequate to the grandiose tasks we already face and yet more awesome tasks to which we suspect of being exposed unless the way of stopping them is found. At the bottom of all crises in which our times abound lies the crisis of agencies and instruments of effective action. And its derivative: the poignant feeling of having been sentenced to loneliness in the face of shared dangers.

Having lost faith in a salvation coming from “on high” (that is, parliaments and governmental offices) and looking for alternative ways of having the right things done, people took to the street onto a voyage of discovery and/or experimentation. They transformed city squares into open-air laboratories, in which tools of political action, hoped to match the enormity of the challenge, are designed or found by chance, put to the test, perhaps even pass a baptism of fire. And for a number of reasons city streets are good places for setting such laboratories, and for quite a few other reasons the laboratories set there seem to deliver what has been sought elsewhere in vain.

Under the date of 14th July 1789, the king of France Louis XVI entered in his diary but one word: Rien. A crowd of Parisian sans-culottes flooded that day the kind of streets which was not in the habit of les misérables to visit, not en masse at any rate – and certainly not to loiter on. This day they did, and would not leave until they overwhelmed the guards and captured the Bastille.

But how was Louis XVI to know? The thought of a crowd (that “great unwashed”, as Henry Peter Brougham was to dismiss some other people taking to some other streets a good few decades after the fall of Bastille) turning history back to front or front to back depending from which side you looked, was not yet an idea to be taken seriously. Much water needed to flow under the Seine, Rhein or Thames before the arrival and the presence of “mob” (a sobriquet coined from “mobile vulgus”, “rabble on the move”) on the historical stage was to be noted, acknowledged – and feared, never to be dismissed again. After warnings and alarms raised by the likes of Gustave le Bon, Georges Sorel or Ortega y Gasset, writers of diaries would not write “rien” when hearing of crowds roaming the squares of the city centre; most likely they would replace it however with a huge question mark. All of them: those who contemplate, with Hillary Clinton, a vision of a democratically elected parliament rising from the ashes of the popular fury, and those who nervously scan the crowd flooding Tahrir Square for the would-be founder of the next Islamic republic, and those who dream of the crowd righting the wrongdoers’ wrongs and doing justice to the makers of injustice.

Joseph Conrad, a man-of-the-sea by choice, is remembered to proclaim that “nothing is so seductive, so disillusioning or so enthralling as life on the sea”. Whereas a few years later Elias Canetti was to choose the sea (alongside fire, forest, sand, etc.) for one of the most poignant and illuminating metaphors of human crowd; especially fitting perhaps for one of the several varieties of crowds he named: the reversal crowd – that, so to speak, an instant re-volution that turns things momentarily into their oppositions: jailed into jailers, jailer into jailed, herd into a shepherd, (lonely) shepherd into a sheep – and squeezes/congeals a bagful of crumbs into a monolithic whole while recasting the crowd into an individual: an in-divisible subject of the “Nous ne sommes rien, soyons tout” sort. One could stretch that “reversal” idea to embrace the act of reversal itself: “In the crowd,” wrote Canetti, “the individual feels that he is transcending the limits of his own per­son.” Individual does not feel dissolving, but expanding: it is he, the negligible loner, who now reincarnates as the many – the impression that the hall of mirrors tries, with but limited and inferior effect, to reproduce.

The crowd means also an instant liberation from phobias: “There is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown” – says Canetti. “He wants to see what is reaching towards him, and to be able to recognize or at least classify it. Man always tends to avoid physical contact with anything strange.” But in the crowd that fear of the unknown, paradoxically, is quashed by being reverted; the fear of being touched dissipates in the public rehearsal of squeezing out the inter-individual space – in the course of the many turning into one and one into the many, in the space re-cycling its separating/isolating role into that of merging and blending.

The formative experience that led Canetti to that reading of crowd psychology was his joining in 1922 a mass demonstration protesting the assassination of Walter Rathenau, the German-Jewish industrialist and statesman. In the crowd, he discovered “a total alteration of consciousness” that is both “drastic and enigmatic.” As Roger Kimball suggested (see his “Becoming Elias Canetti”, The New Criterion, September 1986), the way he described his first encounter with a crowd was little short of the kind of experience one finds recount­ed in certain species of mystic literature. It was an intoxication; you were lost, you forgot yourself, you felt tremendously remote and yet fulfilled; whatever you felt, you didn’t feel it for yourself; it was the most selfless thing you knew; and since selfishness was shown, talked, and threatened on all sides, you needed this experience of thunderous unselfishness like the blast of the trumpet at the Last Judgment. How could all this happen together? What was it?

Now we can guess why the crowd is, like the sea, seducing and enthralling. Because in the crowd, as in the sea but not on the built-up hard ground, crisscrossed with fences and fully mapped, everything or almost everything may happen, even if nothing or almost nothing can be done for sure. Alliances form as quickly and easily as they fall apart and dissipate. Visions dovetail as promptly as they split. Differences and contraries are suspended only to re-emerge with vengeance. Here, indeed, the impossible turns possible! Or at least appears to be turning.

People on streets presage change. But do they as well signal transition? Transition means more than mere change: “transition” means a passage from a here to a there – but in the case of people on street or city squares only the “here” from which they wish to escape is given, but the “there” at which they aim is at best wrapped in fog. People took to streets in the hope to find an alternative society; what they’ve found thus far is the means to get rid of the present one; more to the point though, to get rid of one of its features on which their diffuse indignation – resentment, vexation, rancour and anger – have momentarily focused. As demolition squads, people taking to the streets are faultless – or almost. The faults surface though once the ground has been cleared and laying foundations and the erection of new buildings is to follow. And the faults derive their prominence from the same things to which the demolition squads owe their uncanny efficiency: from the variegation, contrariety and even incompatibility of interests suspended for the time of demolition but coming into their own and pushing to the fore the moment the job is finished; and from achieving the feat of reconciling the irreconcilable through synchronizing emotions – qualities notorious for being as easy to arouse as they are prone to burn out and fade – burn out and fade much, much faster than it takes to design and build an alternative society in which the sole reason for the people to take to the streets will be to relish the joy of togetherness and friendship. Or, as Richard Sennett has recently described the modality of the urgently called-for variety of humanism: for the sake of an informal, open-ended cooperation. Informal: that is, rules of cooperation not being set in advance, but emerging in the course of cooperation. Open-ended: that is, no side entering cooperation with a presumption of knowing already what is true and right – each being reconciled instead to playing the role of a learner as much as a teacher. And cooperation: that is, interaction being aimed at the mutual benefit of the participants rather than at their division into victors and the defeated.

This programme is sounding, isn’t it, eerie, uncanny, nebulous, utopian, impossible? Well, contrary to the electronically inspired and boosted expectation, it takes time – a long time – to make the impossible possible. It also takes a lot of thought, debate, patience and endurance to accomplish. All such qualities remain thus far in a rather short supply – and in all probability will remain so as long as we are short of social settings more amenable to their production than the presently common ones.

  • mohammed anees

    great write up by professor.. I echo him that our hitherto norms which make us to fear the stranger should be rooted off. Those norms have given us nothing but guilty. Hope from the streets we shall learn new chapters of unity and oneness which we hesitated to take from grand walls of premiere universities..