Carnival against capital: Remembering a living past (June 18, 1999)

Carnival is a pageant without footlights and without a division into performers and spectators. In carnival everyone is an active participant, everyone communes in the carnival act… The laws, prohibitions, and restrictions that determine the structure and order of ordinary, that is noncarnival, life are suspended during carnival: what is suspended first is hierarchical structure and all the forms of terror, reverence, piety, and etiquette connected with it… or any other form of inequality among people.

Carnival is past millennia’s way of sensing the world as one great communal performance. This sense of the world, liberating one from fear, bringing the world maximally close to a person and bringing one person maximally close to another (everything is drawn into the zone of free familiar contact), with its joy at change and its joyful relativity, is opposed to that one-sided and gloomy official seriousness which is dogmatic and hostile to evolution and change, which seeks to absolutize a given condition of existence or a given social order. From precisely that sort of seriousness did the carnival sense of the world liberate man.

Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics

L’histoire moderne ne peut être libérée, et ses acquisitions innombrables librement utilisées, que par les forces qu’elle refoule : les travailleurs sans pouvoir sur les conditions, le sens et le produit de leurs activités. Comme le prolétariat était déjà, au XIXº siècle , l’héritier de la philosophie, il est en plus devenu l’héritier de l’art moderne et de la première critique consciente de la vie quotidienne. Il ne peut se supprimer sans réaliser, en même temps, l’art et la philosophie. Transformer le monde et changer la vie sont pour lui une seule et même chose, les mots d’ordre inséparables qui accompagneront sa suppression en tant que classe, la dissolution de la société présente en tant que règne de la nécessité, et l’accession enfin possible au règne de la liberté. La critique radicale et la reconstruction libre de toutes les conduites et valeurs imposées par la réalité aliénée sont son programme maximum, et la créativité libérée dans la construction de tous les moments et événements de la vie est la seule poésie qu’il pourra reconnaître, la poésie faite par tous, le commencement de la fête révolutionnaire. Les révolutions prolétariennes seront des fêtes ou ne seront pas, car la vie qu’elles annoncent sera elle-même créée sous le signe de la fête. Le jeu est la rationalité ultime de cette fête, vivre sans temps mort et jouir sans entraves sont les seules règles qu’il pourra reconnaître.

The liberation of modern history, and the free use of its hoarded acquisition, can come only from the forces it represses: the workers without power over their conditions, the meaning or the product of their activities.  In the nineteenth century the proletariat was already the inheritor of philosophy; now it inherits modern art and the first conscious critique of everyday life.  It cannot suppress itself without realising, at the same, art and philosophy.   To transform the world and to change the structure of life are one and the same thing for the proletariat – they are the passwords to its destruction as a class, its dissolution of the present reign of necessity, and its accession to the realm of liberty. As its maximum program it has the radical critique and free reconstruction of all the values and patterns of behavior imposed by an alienated reality. The only poetry it can acknowledge is the creativity released in the making of history, the free invention of each moment and each event:  poésie faite par tous–the beginning of the revolutionary celebration. For proletarian revolt is a festival or it is nothing, because the life that it announces will itself be crfeated under the sign of festival.  The game is the ultimate rationality of this festival, to live without a dead time and to enjoy without limits are the only rules that it recognises.

Situationist International, On The Poverty of Student Life

If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.

Emma Goldman

Is it possible to imagine revolution as a carnival?  Those who suffer from the spirit of seriousness would dismiss the idea categorically.  And yet, what is, or what was, carnival if not the inversion of all hierarchy and social roles?  Ephemeral yes, but all revolution, until institutionalised is transitory.  The question then is if the spirit and practice of carnival can be made institutional, and if so, in what form?  The question remains open, but until then, what revolution there is without transgression is not …

From the Crimethinc collective, we share the following text,  Flashback to June 18, 1999: The Carnival against Capital: A Retrospective, Video, and Comic …

When nationalist billionaires attempt to pose as rebels against the global elite, it’s important to remember all the genuine grassroots movements that pose a real threat to those institutions. In that spirit, today we recall how eighteen years ago, demonstrators shut down London’s financial district in protest against the injustices of global capitalism.

Whatever rhetoric he spews about “globalism,” Donald Trump is not an opponent of capitalist globalization, but one of its foremost practitioners, updating it for the 21st century. In contrast with his opportunism, anarchists have always maintained a principled position against so-called “free trade,” coordinating with others around the world to resist its prerogatives and demonstrate other ways of relating to one another and circulating resources. One of the most important clashes in the history of these movements took place on June 18, 1999, in downtown London.

An outgrowth of the free festival movement and the British Earth First! and Reclaim the Streets groups, the Carnival against Capitalism was scheduled to coincide with the 24th summit of the G8 in Birmingham, England and coordinated anti-capitalist demonstrations in forty different countries. It was one of the Global Days of Action called by the People’s Global Action network, which grew out of a series of international meetings initiated by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) in Chiapas, Mexico.

Participants distributed a paper, Evading Standards, expressing their critique of capitalism in the format of the London newspaper, The Evening Standard—the nearest thing to hacking a website in the era of print media. Reclaim the Streets also produced a 32-page pamphlet, Squaring up to the Square Mile, identifying the functions (and locations!) of all the institutions, banks, corporate headquarters, and watering holes in downtown London that were integral to the functioning of globalized capitalism. A new version appeared for the 2009 G20 summit in London.

On June 18, 1999, thousands of demonstrators converged at the Liverpool Street train station. Organizers distributed masks in four different colors and the participants broke up into four different marches in order to divide and confuse police; a spontaneous fifth march emerged, as well as a Critical Mass composed of hundreds of bicyclists. The marches converged on the London International Financial Futures Exchange (LIFFE), where they hung banners, set off a fire hydrant to symbolize the liberation of the river beneath London’s streets, adorned the walls with graffiti, disabled surveillance cameras, and set up sound systems for DJs and punk bands to perform. A raucous afternoon of dancing, exuberance, and street fighting followed, during which participants bricked up the front of the LIFFE building, broke in and trashed its ground floor, and nearly succeeded in destroying the London Stock Exchange itself. In response, police attacked the general public with tear gas and horse charges and ran over one demonstrator with a riot van, breaking her leg.

Afterwards, participants reflected that they had come very close to occupying the trading floor of the Stock Exchange. This is a reminder to bear in mind that sometimes our crazy plans succeed—and to prepare accordingly.

The events of June 18, 1999 set the stage for the historic demonstrations against the summit of the World Trade Organization in Seattle later that year. This catapulted the anti-capitalist movement—which timid journalists insisted on referring to as “anti-globalization”—into the public consciousness, contributing to the resurgence of anarchism at the beginning of the 21st century. For many years after the Carnival against Capitalism, no one was confused about who the real opponents of capitalist globalization were. These actions set a narrative that made it very difficult for nationalists to pose as rebels against the status quo. It took a decade and a half of successive waves of police repression to suppress these movements to such an extent that a demagogue like Trump could position himself as the foe of the global elite.

From our vantage point today, the Carnival against Capitalism is striking for its ludic, joyous character. It was confrontational, but it succeeded by drawing people together in lighthearted collective activity, contrasting sharply with the dour violence inflicted by humorless police. Today, when protracted state violence has forced social movements into a combative stance, we would do well to recall the inventive energy of those days—not to lose our way in a grim grudge match with fascists and the state, but to remember that our most important task is to engage with other people by demonstrating a more fulfilling way of living.

To illustrate the playful attitude of those times, we’ve tracked down a comic satirizing police violence and corporate media coverage of the June 18 protests, which appeared in the British radical print publication Schnews at the time. Today, when literalistic FBI agents and far-right trolls have rendered irony and caricature practically impossible, this comic appears as a vestige of a more innocent era. Enjoy!

Download a printable PDF version of the comic here.

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