Sunday, January 25, 2009

"Supermarket Picnics"

The forms that political direct-action take can vary widely from culture to culture. This is less a matter of temperament, I think, or even of habit and tradition, than the cultural context in which those actions mean or signify. The same goes for innovations in direct-action. In the US, shifts in policing attitudes resulted in a lot of changes for street activism in the 1990s. And then the watershed event of the Seattle WTO actions (which itself featured a lot of innovations) plus the prevalence of cell phones created another wave of change that made particular use of the Internet. Over the last few years, the Internet, text messaging, and now Twitter have become increasingly important for political activism in the US.

As you probably know, there's been a huge upsurge of direct action in Greece (labeled a "social uprising" by a majority of people) as well as in Sweden and France in the last couple of months, largely driven by the frustration and rage of young people, trapped in an economic and social system that offers them no hope of ever being able to make a decent living. The parties of the left in Europe are basically submitting to (if not actively embracing) the policies that serve the wealthy (just as both of the US's dominant parties have been doing for many years now), abetted by unions, which in Greece have been among the institutions targeted by the street activists. Last month, in Patras, a large urban center in Greece, the local trade union headquarters was occupied by protesters demonstrating against the pro-government policies of the unions and calling for an indefinite general strike. The previous day the headquarters of the General Confederation of Workers of Greece (GSEE) in Athens had been occupied. Here are a few links to old reports, in case you missed them when they first appeared: The Independent; EuropeNews; Z Magazine; Infoshop: anarchist news, opinion, and much more; The Boston Globe(this one has a lot of great photos).

This morning, though, I read about an innovation that made me think about how differently such a tactic would be understood and read were activists ever to use it in the US. An article in today's Sunday Observer focuses on a new political group in France, "L'Appel et la Pioche" (The Call and the Pick Axe) and its "supermarket picnics":

In exactly a week's time, in a supermarket somewhere in or around Paris, a couple of dozen young French activists are going to choose an aisle, unfold tables, put on some music and, taking what they want from the shelves, start a little picnic.... fruit and veg, dairy or the fish counter will have been transformed into a flash protest against global capitalism, rampant consumerism, bank bail-outs, poor housing, expensive food, profit margins and pretty much everything else that is wrong in the world.

The "supermarket picnic" will go on for as long as it can - before the security guards throw the activists out or the police arrive. Shoppers will be invited to join in, either bringing what they want from the shelves or just taking something lifted lightly from among the crisps, sweets or quality fruit already on the tables.

L'Appel e la Pioche call the media just before they strike, so that their action is rec
orded and reported. (Their website features a couple of videos.)

"Everyone is bored of demonstrations. And handing out tracts at 6am at a market is neither effective nor fun," said Leïla Chaïbi, 26, the leader of the group. "This is fun, festive, non-threatening and attracts the media. It's the perfect way of getting our message across."

Linked to a new left-wing political party committed to a renewal of politics and activism, Chaïbi's group represents more than just a radical fringe and has been gaining nationwide attention.

Chaïbi, who works on short-term contracts in public relations and is currently looking for work, told the Observer that the group's aspirations were limited. "I am not asking for thousands and thousands of euros a month as a salary or a vast five-room apartment. Just something decent."

In recent years, the problems of France's "Generation Y" or "babylosers" have made headlines. As with many other European societies, after decades of growth, this is the first set of young people for centuries who are likely to have standards of living lower than their parents. According to recent research, in 1973, only 6% of recent university leavers were unemployed, currently the rate is 25-30%; salaries have stagnated for 20 years while property prices have doubled or trebled; in 1970, salaries for 50-year-olds were only 15% higher than those for workers aged 30, the gap now is 40%. The young are also likely to be hard hit by the economic crisis.


New ways of working mean new ways of demonstrating, too. "We are already on precarious short-term contracts, so there's no point in going on strike," said Chaïbi. "But a supermarket is very public and we make sure the media are there to cover our actions."


With the French Socialist party in disarray, alternative forms of political protest on the left, particularly a breakaway communist faction led by charismatic postman Olivier Besancenot, have made inroads. Protests about the homeless or against the expulsion of immigrants have largely taken place independently of the Socialist party, which is mired in feuds and ideological incoherence.

I'm struck by the reported responses to these actions: checkout workers applauding, security guards "friendly." I ask myself what kind of response they'd get in the US, and I almost at once imagine security guards shooting the demonstrators for "looting" and the media going on a rampage, outraged by what they'd bill "a war against property." (Property, after all, is far more sacred in the US than the lives and welfare of human beings.)

In the meantime, I read an article in the Seattle Times this morning, reporting that the 16 banks in the Pacific Northwest who've received more than 1 billion dollars of Bush Administration's "bailout" bill are not using any of the funds to prevent foreclosures. In fact, they're not lending it at all, but sitting on it. I suppose that's better than lavishing it on bonuses for the executives who've done so much damage to our economy (as some recipients of bailout dollars have done), but giving money to banks to hoard was not what we were all told was the purpose of the plan Congress passed in the teeth of full-scale voter opposition. But we know "trickle down" policies of old, no? It's been one of the chief means of "creating wealth" for a few at the expense of the majority since the Reagan Administration brought the phrase into common parlance.

1 comment:

Josh said...

The fact that such protests are possible sheds a lot of light in why Dario Fo is read so differently here and elsewhere.