A recent article from the site ‘Dangerous Minds‘ about a pro-union flashmob at Walmart in North Carolina got me thinking about sites of struggle. How this particular moment shook the imagination of the site whereas a simple workplace strike would not nowadays do so as much. There seems to be an incipient joy in the disruption of not just the particular productive relations but a disruption of the symbolic places and localities of the post-modern form of Neo-Liberal Capitalism. The flash mob form may not have been particularly radical (ten minutes of fairly good-natured disruption) but the associative force was powerful. A kind of ‘what if?’ chain reaction took place in my mind. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FuCNH7dqZxg
What if the disruptions become more radical so that the consumerist loci are attacked from all angles? What kind of examples from history do we have of this kind of struggle?
Firstly, we can look to the history of Italian struggles of the late 1960s and 1970s with their invaluable concepts of ‘esproprio proletario’ (proletarian expropriation) and ‘autoriduzione’ (self-discounting). A post by Srdjan Cvijic here gives as essential a definition of what proletarian expropriation amounts to in practice:
What is proletarian expropriation? It is a form of civil disobedience intended to represent a form of protest against a disproportional raise of prices and despite stagnating or lowering personal income. It aims at emphasizing the necessity of a Welfare State or more broadly social solidarity and justice. People who practice proletarian expropriation seize commercial goods, and then declare such goods either “expropriated fully” or demand an automatic discount. In their thinking, this practice ensures that they, not the “market.” that determines the “just” price of goods.
Sometimes this can have an essentially necessary character but it can also have a certain ludic character as in this case which Cvijic recounted:
In Venice as a punishment against a restaurant owner that organized a gala-dinner for the representatives of the NATO-parliamentary assembly, the same group booked, several nights later, the whole restaurant for 50 people, they eat and drank the most expensive champaigne and then went out without paying, although leaving the waiters an extremely generous tip.
More recent but sporadic examples of this practice (which has died down) are still known as in an irruption into supermarkets and bookshops in 2004. Of course, these Robin Hood actions striking as though they do at the very heart of capitalism are particularly severely repressed but they can also potentially enlighten consumers to the fact that consumerism can be challenged. Rendering the soulless localities of late capitalism as potential sites of struggle.
However, as this little snippet indicates the 1970s were followed by an era of ‘recuperation’ with businesses trying to organise false incidents of proletarian expropriation to get themselves business into the press. Of course, there has since been the case of the Andalusian mayor of Marinaleda, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m4iV9V46DaM, who has led groups of villagers to supermarkets to expropriate what they needed. Another report suggested that he was ready to move from supermarkets to banks.
As well as the practice of proletarian expropriation, a number of actions by the Russian ‘Voina’ group also took place in supermarkets. One of the most radical of these was the Decembrists Commemoration action in which two Jews (one of whom is gay) and three illegal migrants were publicly ‘hanged’ in a Moscow supermarket:
As the site of the groups publicist Alexei Pluster-Sarno put it this action was carried out in 2008 to mark the death of a forgotten Decembrist who was one of the more radical exponents of the early nineteenth century Decembrists and to highlight the homophobia and xenophobia of the Russian state which has become so obvious in recent months:
On September 7, 2008, on Moscow City Day, the Voina group came to the city’s biggest supermarket, where in the department of “Light” organized an execution by hanging of 3 illegal Central Asian migrant workers and 2 homosexuals, one of whom was a Jew. The lynching was a special gift to the Russian corrupted authorities, who incite homophobia, misanthropy and anti-Semitism. As a result of this policy the killings of Central Asians guest workers that have become an everyday reality in Russia.
The action, held under the slogan “No one gives a fuck about Pestel!”, was to remind about five Decembrists – the Russian revolutionists, who were hanged in 1826. One of them was an outstanding nobleman PavelPestel, who wanted to free the enslaved peasants in Russia. The group wanted to make the Russians remember the libertarian ideals of the country’s first revolutionists.
The group stated: «This action is a gift to the city’s mayor, who pursues the policy of xenophobia and homophobia and who spreads slavery. The banner «Nobody gives a fuck about Pestel» should remind about execution of the Decembrists movement leaders, who demanded a Constitution with civil liberties and freedom for the enslaved peasants in 1825, and about their liberal ideals. We are accused of amorality, but in fact we portray and symbolically execute this amoral society, that approves slave labour and xenophobia!»
In many ways Voina’s actions were the most radical attempt to subvert the symbolic space of recuperated capitalism within its specifically Russian context before the well-known Pussy Riot act in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Yet the potential radical fallout from turning supermarkets into sites of struggle are surely not negligible. Rather than snobbish attempts to boycott and choose other outlets for Middle Class clicktivists, the site of mass consumption is also a potential site of struggle. The symbolic order of the supermarket and other localities that Marc Auge’ called the sites of hypermodernity can surely make excellent locations for disrupting both the Symbolic and the Real.