Zibechi: the limits of protest as a form of struggle

2021 Tax protest in Colombia. Photo: Al Jazeera

By: Raúl Zibechi

With his usual lucidity, William I. Robinson wonders if the worldwide wave of protests and mobilizations will be capable of confronting global capitalism (https://bit.ly/3MjvBsl). In effect, there has been an endless chain of protests and popular uprisings since the 2008 crisis. He recalls that in the years before the pandemic there were more than 100 large protests that brought down 30 governments.

He mentions the gigantic mobilization in the United States after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, which he defines as: “an anti-racist uprising that brought more than 25 million people, mostly young people, into the streets of hundreds of cities across the country, the largest mass protest in the history of the United States.”

In Latin America the uprisings and revolts in Ecuador, Chile, Nicaragua and especially Colombia, had an extension, duration and depth rarely seen on this continent. The Colombian protest paralyzed the country for three months, showed impressive levels of popular creativity (such as the 25 resistance points in Cali) and ways of articulation between peoples, in the street, below, absolutely unprecedented.

Robinson recalls that the dominant classes pushed the cycle of mobilization back at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the ‘70s, “through capitalist globalization and the neoliberal counter-revolution.” That was in the north, because in the global south they did it with pure bullets and massacres.

Towards the end of his article, he wonders “how to translate mass revolt into a project that can challenge the power of global capital.” The question is valid. In principle, because we don’t know how, because the governments that emerged after large revolts did no more than deepen capitalism and promote the disorganization of popular sectors.

Although we participate in large mobilizations and in riots, which are part of the political culture of protest, it’s necessary to understand their limits as mechanisms for transforming the world. We’re not going to abandon them, but we can learn to go further, to be capable of constructing the new and to defend it.

Protest in San Francisco after the murder of George Floyd. Photo: San Jose Mercury News.

Among the limits that I encounter there are several that I would like to place in discussion.

The first one is that governments have learned to manage protest, through a range of interventions that range from repression to partial concessions that redirect the situation. For two centuries now, protest has become habitual, so that the ruling classes and the government teams no longer fear it like they used to, but above all they know how to see in it an opportunity to gain legitimacy.

Those above know that the key moment is the decline, when the fires of the mobilization are being extinguished and the tendency to return to daily life gains strength. For the protestors, demobilization is a delicate moment, since it can mean a setback if they have not been able to construct solid and lasting organizations.

The second limit derives from the trivialization of the protest due to its transformation into a spectacle. Some sectors seek to impact public opinion through this mechanism, to the point that the spectacle has become a new repertoire of collective action. Dependence on the media is one of the worst facets of this drift.

The third limit is related to the fact that the protestors don’t usually find spaces and times to debate what was achieved in the protest, to evaluate how to continue, what errors and mistakes were made. The most serious thing is that this “evaluation” is often carried out by the media or by academics, who are not part of the movements.

The fourth limit I encounter is that protests are necessarily sporadic and occasional. No collective subject can be in the street all the time because the wear and tear is enormous. So, the times for irrupting must be chosen carefully, as Native peoples have been doing, they demonstrate when they believe the time has come.

An equilibrium must exist between outside and inside activity, between exterior and interior mobilization, knowing that this is key to sustaining ourselves as peoples, to give continuity to life and to affirm ourselves as different subjects. It’s in moments of internal withdrawal when we affirm our anti-capitalist characteristics.

Finally, autonomy is not constructed during protests, but before, during and after. Especially before! Protest must not be something merely reactive, because in that way the initiative is always outside of the movement. Autonomy demands a long process of inner work and demands a daily tension to keep it going.

I feel that we owe ourselves, as movements and collectives, time for debate, because not reproducing the system supposes working intensely, without spontaneity, overcoming inertia to continue growing.

Zapatistas protest against all wars on March 13, 2022 in Ocosingo. The banner reads: “No to wars! Stop the wars! Stop! Because it is so unjust. Because it leaves horrible destruction of human lives: invalids, orphans, high prices, hunger and diseases and all for capitalist interests.


Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada, Friday, May 20, 2022, https://www.jornada.com.mx/2022/05/20/opinion/015a1pol and Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee

One Comment on “Zibechi: the limits of protest as a form of struggle

  1. Pingback: Zibechi: the limits of protest as a form of struggle – The Free

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