We Are The Real Emergency
Not so long ago, we had the governments of the world terrified, their leaders trapped in a hotel, begging for soldiers to rescue them.
I‘m not so old. Almost 40. Not so old I that I can remember the 80’s very well, but the 90’s are a lot clearer. The beginning of alt-rock, the birth of web-browsers, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, NATO’s obliteration of Yugoslavia. The world changing rapidly, globalisation and cell-phones and this strange exuberance repeated by the leader of every Capitalist country in the world that we were at the “end of history.”
That idea comes from a man name Francis Fukuyama, a policy advisor to Ronald Reagan. He wrote an essay in 1989 on the topic, and then later an entire book on it in 1992. His main premise is pretty simple. Let me quote him:
What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.
I bolded the last sentence. Mind if I pull it apart for a moment? First, he says that we’re witnessing:
“the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution.”
Though you can’t really apply evolutionary theory to ideas, that’s never stopped people from trying. In fact, it’s the basis for all of Western political and economic thought since the Enlightenment. Before men like Hobbes and Locke and Bacon and Descartes, we were all stupid and backwards and primitive in our thinking. After them, because of them, we’re basking in the light of reason. That’s why it’s the called the ‘Enlightenment,’ after all.
The important part of Fukuyama’s theory is the end point. You see it in the next part of that sentence, where he tells us we’re now going to see:
“the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
Final. You hear that? We’re done. We arrived. Liberal Democracy is the end point of history, our final form. All that’s left is to keep making it better and spreading it to the rest of the world. Ideology doesn’t matter any more. Western capitalist government is the height of all our human evolution!
Sound ridiculous? Well, it is. The thing is, everyone believed him, or acted like they believed him. The Liberal Democratic leaders from the 90’s and early 2000’s, Clinton, Blair, Bush, Chirac, Schroeder, etc., all treated this as true. Democracy won. Capitalism won. Now we just all needed to wait for the rest of the world to catch up and evolve.
But, well, something else was happening…
The Revolt of Turtle Suits and Fairy Wings
In the last months of the 90’s, 60,000 people stood around in the grey, rainy streets of Seattle, shouting at international bankers and world-leaders inside a hotel. Inside that hotel, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) was meeting, a Liberal Democratic body created by a trade-treaty called GATT.
60,000 protesters is a lot for any city, but Seattle had just under 540,000 people, so this was 11% of its total population. And Seattle also only had 1000 police officers, so 1 cop for every 60 angry people.
You seeing this in your head? 60,000 angry people. Some of them dressed like sea turtles, others held massive puppets. Some wore union t-shirts, some wore fairy wings, some wore black hoodies and masks. All of them shouting, demanding a better world. That’s pretty intense.
Long story short, they shut the meeting down. The US Secretary of State at the time, Madeline Albright, was trapped in the hotel and called Bill Clinton, demanding he call up the national guard. So he did, and tear gas filled the streets. Soldiers chased protesters uphill from downtown Seattle into the gay neighborhood. Queers leaving bars got gassed, while old women and drag queens threw bottles out of windows at the soldiers and cops.
It took weeks to clean up the city afterwards. The police chief was fired, the mayor didn’t get voted back in, and the WTO eventually began meeting behind large concrete barriers topped with razor-wire.
Seattle in 1999 wasn’t the end of this. In the years that followed, the G8 meeting of world-leaders saw even larger protests wherever they met. In the United States, the Democratic and Republican National Conventions were also under a constant state of siege. Everywhere the wealthy and the political-elite met, regardless of where they were in the world, they were attacked.
Not everyone believed history had ended.
An Other-World Is Possible
Many of those protests were called Anti-Globalisation protests. That was the way the media and the politicians spun them, anyway. In Europe, the same movement was called Alter-Mondialisme or Alter-Globalisation, a better name. It meant ‘alternative’ or ‘other’ globalisation, and its rallying cry everywhere was the phrase, “Another World Is Possible.”
What’s Globalisation, though? The definition is pretty varied, depending on who you ask. Some (especially if you believe Silicon-Valley Tech CEOs) see it as the breaking-down of distance between peoples, the spread of technology and information. Facebook is supposed to be part of that, and Twitter, and all those companies that make lots of money from our communications with each other.
No one in Seattle was protesting the spread of information, of course. In fact, the WTO makes spreading information harder, enforcing patents and copyrights across the world. Worse, it makes it easier to claim common knowledge as private property. A company patented Basmati rice, for instance, something that had been grown for thousands of years in India. Indigenous healing knowledge, too: using tumeric as a medicine was patented by a US company until 2013. If globalisation were just about the open spread of information, it would have been the rich who were protesting it, not the poor.
Globalisation is actually the term for Liberal Democratic trade policy. Powerful and rich countries need open markets for their products and cheap supplies of resources (including workers). So, Liberal Democracies push for free-trade deals so they can exploit poorer countries. Coltan (essential to smart-phones) from Africa, cheap labor from China, and the destruction of local economies and environments all over the world are the result of free-trade.
Free-trade make things truly global. From here:
Liberal Democracy claims to be the highest evolutionary political state of humanity. If that were true, then of course it should spread throughout the world, and globalisation is the way it’s supposed to happen.
One of the excuses for globalisation is that it supposedly creates peace. Large white Liberal Democracies don’t go to war with each other very often. The United States and Canada don’t fight each other, because it would destroy each others economies. Same with France and Germany.
Of course, they still go to war, just with small African, South American, and Middle-Eastern countries that can’t really defend themselves. Darker skin helps make this palatable. So, too, does the oil and other resources those countries are sitting on. It’s okay to attack them, in the same way that you couldn’t attack other Christians in Europe during the Middle-Ages, but Muslims and heretics were fair game.
If all these wars seem to go against the very nature of Liberal Democracy, it’s only because we’ve bought the lie they sell us, just like we buy their products. Liberal Democracy is first and foremost capitalist government, and free-trade only ever favors the rich.
Privileging capitalism and free-trade is supposed to make all our societies more free and more democratic. But like other things, there’s a religious belief behind this: when the wealthy do well, everyone does well. A ‘rising tide raises all ships,’ or so they say.
Sounds nice, huh? It doesn’t work, though, because tides always go out, the rich always want more, and anyway the poor can’t really afford boats. Never mind that capitalism is raising sea-waters through global warming, either.
Those massive protests in the last decade weren’t trying to stop a rising tide; they were trying to stop the theft of the world, the expansion of capitalism, and the destruction of the planet.
All those people in the streets knew this, and they created an emergency…
In Case of Emergency…
Let’s go back to Madeleine Albright. Being stuck in a hotel in downtown Seattle with hundreds of other world leaders, corporate CEOs, oil execs, and heads of banks seems pretty scary to me. For Madeleine Albright, though, what was scarier were the tens of thousands of people on the streets (with puppets and fairy wings and turtle costumes) demanding living wages, environmental protections, and fair trade, rather than free-trade.
Maybe not so surprising she was scared. She is, after all, the same woman who told millennial women they were going to hell because they voted for Bernie Sanders, and also said this about half-a-million dead Iraqi children:
(this is what Liberal Democracy looks like)
So, Albright called the President and demanded he send soldiers to save her and everyone else in the hotel. And next thing you know, there’s a State of Emergency, the National Guard is deployed, and the beatings began.
States of Emergency are what leaders declare when they need to suspend regular laws for a little while. Liberal Democracies promise rights and protections and due-process, but they can suspend those at any time. Of course, they always say it’s just a for little while, but there’s little to stop them from making them permanent.
They do this more frequently than you might think. The United States currently has 32 declared National States of Emergency in effect. Some of them are old: one is from 1979, declared by Jimmy Carter. Another was passed at the end of 2001, in response to the terror attacks in New York City. Obama just renewed that one a few months ago.
It’s not just the United States that does this, though. Every Liberal Democracy in the world has the ability to suspend any part of its constitution for a ‘temporary’ period, and to renew those suspensions until the emergency is over (including Canada: check out the ‘notwithstanding clause‘). And almost every one of them passed some sort of emergency declaration in the last decade to fight terrorism.
“Terrorism” is a funny word, though. Like globalisation, it’s a cover-word for something else. Suicide bombers are terrorists, but so are people who release trapped minks on a fur farm. Mass-shooters are terrorists (well, when they’re not white), but so is someone who damages a bulldozer being used to uproot a community garden.
You can’t really fight terrorism. Terrorists aren’t part of any government. They generate spontaneously. They also spread quickly, especially each time a drone strike kills children at a wedding or a Liberal Democratic bomb kills women at a funeral. You could stop the wars that create them, but then you wouldn’t get the oil and other resources those bombs are meant to secure. No Liberal Democracy is going to do that: like Madeline Albright said, half-a-million dead children is “worth it.”
So, if they won’t stop the reasons for terrorism, what can they do? They declare States of Emergency. There’s a problem here: suspending certain freedoms, certain rights, increasing surveillance, making lists and checking them twice, setting up secret prisons, torturing suspects…none of that actually stops terrorism.
So, why do it?
Pretend you’re a capitalist or a world leader for a second. Imagine what it must have been like in 1999, being trapped inside a hotel by people wearing masks and turtle suits and fairy wings. History was supposed to be over, Liberal Democracy had won, and most of all, you were the saviors of humanity. Yet people were revolting. Liberal Democracy, capitalism, Free-Trade: that’s supposed to be our final world, but somehow, everywhere you tried to meet, more and more people kept showing up to stop you.
This was a revolt. Of course, no leader would want to admit this. Calling it a revolt might have inspired more people to join in. This would have given the poor the idea that they they were winning. Liberal Democracy couldn’t just do nothing, though. The protests were getting bigger and it was getting harder and harder to stop them. Without a State of Emergency, Liberal Democracies couldn’t break enough of their own rules to stop the revolts.
Good thing the terrorists showed up, huh?
In the name of fighting terrorism, every Capitalist government could develop massive surveillance networks, increase the armaments of their police forces, curtail previously-promised rights, and arrest anyone who fit into their ever-expanding category of terrorist. Of course, this was all officially to protect us from dark-skinned Arabs who hated our freedom. But terrorism wasn’t the real emergency, though.
The Real Emergency
The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “emergency situation” in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history which corresponds to this. Then it will become clear that the task before us is the introduction of a real state of emergency…
Every Liberal Democracy has been building up massive police and surveillance states for the last two decades. The police have been militarized, governments collect data on almost everything we do, and each government has claimed the right to do even more. Though they’ve been telling us it’s to protect us from terrorism, they’ve actually been doing it to protect themselves from us.
To turn from a Liberal Democracy into an authoritarian state, you need only one thing: a State of Emergency. Every Liberal Democracy has that power. Suspend the usual rights and protections for a little while, promise it’s only temporary, and you can do whatever you want. Just like Mussolini did, and Hitler, and Franco. After all, Italy, Germany, and Spain were Liberal Democracies before they became fascist.
Every Liberal Democracy is one “Emergency” away from fascism. All those surveillance powers, suspensions of rights, and increased police and interrogation authority they’ve been building up for the last 20 years can quickly be turned on us. Watching what’s been happening at Standing Rock, or in the Black Lives Matter uprisings, it’s pretty obvious they’ve already started.
We’re what they’re afraid of. All our massive protests in the last decade scared them to pieces, and they’ve been trying to make sure we can’t do that again. Because they believe they’re the end of history, the highest evolutionary form of government, they pretend like their sudden mutation into their dark fascist twin is just a temporary state, a response to an emergency.
We should take heart, because that emergency is us.
Not so long ago, we had the governments of the world terrified, their leaders trapped in hotels, begging for soldiers to rescue them.
That time is coming again.
If this sounds scary, difficult, and overwhelming, don’t worry. Just remember Madeline Albright screaming into a phone at the president, begging him to save her and all the other world leaders and CEOs trapped in a hotel, surrounded by people dressed up like fairies and sea turtles.
Like, seriously: I think we got this.
Rhyd’s a co-founder and the managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He writes here and at Paganarch, or you can also read about his sex life on Fur/Sweat/Flesh, or read his near-daily “Anarchist Thought of the Day” on Facebook. He lives nomadically, likes tea, and probably really likes you, too.
Like this essay? You’ll really like Christopher Scott Thompson’s book, Pagan Anarchism, then.