On Friday, I randomly stumbled a cross a community notice for the local monthly Critical Mass bike ride – about an hour before it was due to start. My first reaction was to get my bike ready. My second was should I bother. I have tried to give some thought to why I had the second reaction, with it obviously being more than the simple implications it embodies.
I rationalised that I should attend to support alternate transportation, the provision of safer and dedicated bike routes and that, as I am on the other side of the world to where I am from – very much out of my comfort zone – I might meet some more people. On arriving, the turnout was low (ominous looking weather, and unseasonably cold). There was a local media photographer around: the day before, a 12-year-old boy was struck and killed by a car whilst riding his bike (yet to hit the media, a another young boy, in a neighbouring town was in critical condition after being hit by a car that afternoon). A tragedy makes good news as always…
Given this, I still had feelings along the lines of why bother. They emanated from current ponderings I am having as to whether actions/events like Critical Mass actually achieve anything. I have read a number of books of late, with a few more to follow, touching on this to varying degrees – both theoretical and praxis based (i.e. community/grass-roots action) looking at power relations, prefigurativity, and social change. I have also given a lot of thought (for more than a year now – I think too much some times) on the notion of civil disobedience in this regard.
A bike lift was staged for the journalist at what is pretty much the main intersection in the city, and this made my thoughts on why are we doing this/does it really achieve anything more profound. Being in Canada where people are more receptive to such things and more open as opposed to individualistic and self-centred, as my experiences in many other places have shown, many asked what we were doing and why – they were genuine. On this level I can see such events as having some type of impact, given the reception.
Where my feelings are coming from is at a deeper level. I think I can draw from the peace rally in Sydney, Australia that coinciding with demonstrations around the world, to indicate the roots of them (the theme is ever present in them all, to varying degrees). At that event, there was somewhere of the order of 20% of the population present. Such a percentage of participants is effectively unheard of at any public event/demonstration. Two things happened. Those involved went home as if they had done their civic duty via demonstrating, and that was all they needed to do. Secondly, the government didn’t care/did nothing. They are both interlinked an many levels, yet where my sense of disaffection emanates from may not be clear…
This relates to the notion of protesting being seen as a civic duty, participating in democracy. I have heard some perspectives that civil disobedience such as this peace rally was based on do little but prop up electoral politics the notion of democracy it embodies. I am coming to support such a notion. This extends well beyond my personal rejection of the state and wishes for its demise. Such demonstrations create a façade of democracy in the sense that we have a say. That it has come to the point that people feel that speaking out is all their civic duty requires really emphasises it for me. Are we at a crossroads? What are we to do? How can we achieve effective social change based on prefiguration as opposed to propping up the state and doing our civic duty as it appears to be all that we are achieving?
For me, and many others I have heard professing an opinion – learned or other – such actions are compartmentalised and do not challenge structural relations in any way. As such no change is forthcoming. They merely create a façade of democracy as mentioned. Whilst waling around Toronto today, I gained an insight from, effectively, people watching.
Is it the self-aggrandising and rampant individualism that is increasingly visible in many levels of our relations – for me a clear product not of capital, rather the outcome of post-modernity, specifically uncritical deference’s to pluralism – that is the cause of this? I think it might be (at least in part). Compartmentalisation is certainly a part of this – both an outcome of capital and post-modernist musings. So we have two different locales ideologising (whether visible as such of not) individualist, compartmentalised, self-centred and inward looking ways of relating in society – one conservative, one apparently apolitical (or progressive depending on who you ask).
So this was my mindset with regards to critical mass. Is it just a means for like-minded people to come together and wallow in our ineffectiveness? I know this sounds very pessimistic… Having people we can relate to it crucial to enjoying life and working towards sustainable and prefigurative social change. Yet does it achieve anything outside of this? Are we actively constructing, or at least perpetuating structured compartmentalisations and thus removing our ability to relate beyond the individual? Can we see beyond these small, if yet important, aspects of why we do things? If not, is there a broader social impact?
I have at times also thought that we have become caught up in waiting for the structural relations and the system to devour itself. The power of capital and its relations lie in its dynamism and flexibility – as we can see in looking at the last few years, and many periods historically. Clearly the system is shifting to the misplaced individualism of post-modernist musings, which at best are misinterpreted. If we are just waiting, the dynamism will shift to a point where our waiting will lead to us being nowhere again. Antonio Negri writes of multitude locales of a third position that is outside such relations. Whilst, following Michel Foucault, he eschews prescription – as I think we all should – such multitudes of this third position appear to reinforce the do nothing mindset… How can we actively contribute to a better society beyond compartmentalised actions? These are essential for social change, yet it seems that we are not linking them to bigger issues/broader change – we cannot see past the compartments we are structuring ourselves
How can we address the bigger picture with regards to systematic and structural relations at the same time?
These are questions I do ponder, yet am finding myself caught up, in the post-modern sense of being stuck in pondering them. ‘dime store’ ideological perspectives do little to address these, as do many of the established and well-though out ones. Whilst I can see foresight in Antonio Negri’s multitudes, how can actual change, rather than multitudes of resistance that do little to challenge structural and systematic equality, be actively sought out of our everyday increasingly compartmentalised actions?
To return back to critical mass, is it that I am expecting too much? The why bother I was feeling is the manifestation of long-held conflicting feelings in many regards and multitude locations. Am I getting too caught up in the bigger picture? I often have serious concerns that such thoughts are very weak and themselves shallow post-modern musings of uncritical pluralism and self-indulgence.
In reflecting on this, I attempt to live as prefiguratively as possible and can draw from this – to overcome the sense of pessimism it fosters. More-so, I know many people who live everyday small-scale positivity and are very grounded in their actions. Some of them continue to help me with my meta-thoughts and inspire me with their actions. Others just outright inspire me with their approaches to living the change in everything they do. I draw both inspiration and guidance. I benefit immensely from knowing them and always try to embody the small within my meta thoughts.
To try and draw this rambling to some form of coherency, do events like critical mass achieve anything. My experience at this recent one was yes – it all comes down to the attitudes of those involved. Do they undermine structural and systematic oppression – I doubt it. They are, however, part of the boarder social change necessary before we can truly foster revolutionary shifts in mindsets to overcome these oppressions. The challenge is to remove the compartmentalisation…
To ironically tie things together somewhat, we need a non-compartmentalised critical mass… The question still remains, what is such a critical mass???