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Activism and the Media
part 7

DIY Culture

"The struggle against mass culture can consist only in pointing out its connection with the persistence of social injustice." Max Horkheimer [48]

"To be radical is to grasp something at its roots. But for man the root is man himself." Karl Marx

According to Jon Dovey, the use of a technology is only as good as who is using it: the 1970's Utopian project of community video failed "because the political movements in which it was embedded failed." [49] In the mid-1990's there are new radical movements, which use video and computer technology, to doubly challenge the social and political status quo, and to offer a participatory alternative to the mainstream media itself. They reject what they see as an "official" culture sanctioned by the partnership of government, corporations and the media elite as being appropriate for public consumption. Further, they reject politics, believing that popular participation in the official political prcess is possible but pointless. [50] They use the tactics of direct action, and many were first influenced by the environmental movement. [51]

Direct action does work in the West to the extent that, since we don't live under the sort of oppressive regimes that exist elsewhere, propped up by Western-armed dictators and Western-owned multinationals, the activist is unlikely to be found headless and mutilated in a ditch. In the end, the main threat Western states can offer the activist is prison. According to activist Lotte Kronhild of Project Ploughshares, fear of prison keeps us inactive; by openly doing action which will send us to prison we break the power of the state. [52] In the eighteenth century, when the death penalty was laid down for crimes of property, particularly poaching, juries were reluctant to convict. Challenging the dominance of the State is not risk-free but it is not a life-or-death situation. However, the price of challenging the corporations can be high, for example, the gargantuan two-year libel suit McDonald's has brought against pro-vegetarian activists. [53] The main weapon Western regimes have toward activists is the weapon of silence, isolation. This doesn't always work., as activists have learned the skills of networking (e.g. persuading a popular music group to openly support them) and guerrilla publicity (e.g. AIDS awareness group ACT-UP).

Since the 1960s, the underground press, community television and radio, in small self-managed groups, usually co-operatives, have waxed and waned in the alternative scene. They have never entirely gone away. The underground press continues, especially in the USA, to thrive and produce interesting material. The promise of cable-access local television comes and goes; in parts of the US, several years ago, cable access was certainly serving the alternative movement, but the neo-Nazi alternative. Lately, however, the price of video equipment has dropped so dramatically that for the first time, real community and/or activist television is possible in the same way that pirate radio is possible. And alternative groups are making videos, setting up websites. Examples of current alternative campaigns are too numerous to describe fully, but instead of a single movement (e.g.socialist struggle) there are many, which together make up a sort of counterculture. The fact that there is no great plan or scheme is both a strength and a weakness. The Situationist ideas of direct democracy and reclamation of everyday life from consumer culture, are a large part of alternative practice. Do-It-Yourself culture is the expression of a generation which grew up into an adulthood of shrinking job opportunities, lowered expectations and a deep distrust of the political system, in which parties offer variations on the single theme of conservatism and the reign of "free market" economics at the expense of the environment, people and the future. "You don't sit around wait for something to be handed to you on a plate," says one woman involved in creating free festivals. However, rejecting the yuppie idea of "go and get it," the DIY culture attempts to provide as much as possible for free, funded by donations, or through co-operative means. They "create situations" rather than sloganeer and demonstrate (e.g. Reclaim the Streets festive urban street parties; the anti-roads campaign inhabiting Claremont Road and throwing vast free parties every week; Earth First proclaiming the "Cascadia Free State" in the Oregon forest, and so on). With the same sort of enthusiasm, the activist's disgust at the media's portrayal of them has led them to try and make an alternative media. How successful this will be remains to be seen.

The New Radicalism

In the past, governments relied on class divisions and the power of the state to crush popular radicalism, while at the same time it was buying allegiance with material goodies. Now, children of the middle classes reject as unattainable the certainties that their parents built their lives upon: career, marriage, nice home etc. since the reality they see is divorce, unemployment, underemployment, debt, environmental damage, corporate greed, homelessness and so on.

Alternative culture tries to counter the globalism of the media by forging grassroots global links with other groups around the world.

Alternative culture is carnivalesque. The whole ethos of DIY is to cast off passivity and embrace life, action, decision, in everyday life. According to Mikhail Bakhtin, the great theorist of carnival, carnival is oppositional. It is not simply a "break" from labour or everyday life, not a leisure or entertainment. It has no utilitarian motive. It is not to be observed, but to be lived. The point of the DIY culture as it exists in free festivals, squat centres and activist campaigns, is to live in a carnivalesque manner. Use of costume, mask and theatrical devices, which are "connected with the joy of change an reincarnation, with gay relativity and with the merry negation of uniformity and similarity," are common. [54] Gone is the sacrificial radicalism derided by Vaneigem:

Violence has changed its meaning. Not that the rebel has grown weary of fighting exploitation, boredom, poverty and death: the rebel has simply resolved no longer to fight them with the weapons of exploitation, boredom, poverty and death. For the first victim of any such struggle is anyone who engages in it full of contempt for their own life... If the ancient cry of "Death to the Exploiters" no longer echoes through the streets, it is because it has given way to another cry, one harking back to childhood and issuing from a passion which, though more serene is no less tenacious. That cry is "Life First!". [55]

Replacing the revolutionary tactics of the past, Vaneigem sees the activists of the present as "groups whose collective decision-making admits of no intrusion by political representation, shuns all organisers or leaders and combats all hierarchy."

One recurring theme in radical culture and the emphasis of many of the actions which are carried out, is a call for love and respect for the natural world. While there are echoes of a "golden age" mythology at work here, a hearkening after a lost state of innocence, it cannot be ignored that modern global capitalist practices are causing rapid depredation of both the natural environment and the cultivated/inhabited environment. Whether it is forced monoculture dependent on harsh pesticides, chemical-based animal-rearing practices, opencast mining, clearcut logging or pro-roads/pro-automobile policies, all of these practices are factored inot the global economy now. Short term profit there may be, but activists realise that the long term consequences are ones which we have to live with, in terms of health and quality of life, and these have the potential to be very dangerous. Instead of nostalgia, the activists of today seek to recoup that which we have lost and are losing by an insistence on direct democracy and radical action.

Anarchism is the one romantic idea that has not yet been tainted by corrupt practice, and so many people involved in creating alternative culture are self-confessed anarchists. Like the hippies of the late 60's, some glory in the fact that mainstream consumer culture recoils at their style and behaviour: a song accompanying an Earth First video of an action to protest Clinton allowing logging of old-growth forests had these lyrics:

"Hurrah for the riffraff. Come join our circle of jolly fools Squatters and crusties who make their own rules. Rebels and beggars, carousers and thieves. Our only motto: Anarchy!"

and has other references to Luddites and Diggers, and ends with "go ahead and stare, we're everywhere!" [56]

Rejection of the mainstream is more than just about wearing dreadlocks and mohawk hairstyles, or adopting veganism. One anti-logging protester says from his camp in the Oregon wilderness "the collective spirit that's evolved up here is nothing like anything that exists down below. It's truly the Cascadia Free State, nothing to do with the Babylonian US principles of individuality and everyone for themselves and greed." [57] As stated earlier, the rebels of the 1990's differ from those of the 1960's and early 70's in that they have much less to lose by rebelling. They know that most of the old hippies became yuppies, as Vaneigem notes, "became career bureaucrats and covered themselves with glory as cogs in the apparat of State and marketplace." [58]

Alternative culture is not afraid to use the mainstream. Undercurrents (of which more later) sells camcorder footage to television to help finance its activist video projects. The band Zion Train, interviewed at a free rave, acknowledges that the label they have signed to, Time-Warner, are "arms manufacturing completely cold-hearted capitalist pigs." Zion Train defend their decision to sign however, by saying that Time Warner can now "spread the message much further than we ever could, and that way we are able to provide an alternative to Quentin Tarantino, Ice T, the Fugees, glorifying sex, death and money, coz that's not what we're about! We've had chart entries and as a result we've had people come up to us who've never heard of Newbury or RTS [Reclaim the Streets] or anything like that and say "I've joined the animal rights movement," or "I was down at Newbury..." We do what we can." [59] In the summer of 1996, the activists opposing the Newbury bypass joined forces with mainstream group Friends of the Earth (prominently sponsored by Tory-supporter Andrew Lloyd-Webber) and a number of artists to create a huge one-day art festival on the land immediately adjacent to the bypass site, and spilling over into the site. The event was well-attended, as genteel Guardian readers mixed with dreadlocked stewards for a day of performance and visual art with an anti-automobile theme.

The representation of activists in the mainstream media has long been one of "shiftless, lazy hippies." This dates back to the 1960s when many in the counterculture adopted a distinctive aesthetic style which made them very easy to identify. Creating a common bond using subcultural style has its assets and its drawbacks. It can help to create a sense of an identifiable community, but it can also serve as a "uniform" which excludes as much as it includes. What is interesting in the contemporary scene is that increasingly people who might once have been identified as "straight" or mainstream are starting sympathise with alternative culture. [60]

In the video "Celtic Enemy" the dispute is between local people in rural Wales and Celtic Energy over open-cast mining in their area, documented on video and distributed by Undercurrents [52]. The locals, mainly elderly and middle aged, describe how they tried "all conventional routes as far as campaigning is concerned" but "for three years we tried all the legal channels and got nowhere." As news of their protest filtered outside of the community, numbers of activists arrived in the village. At first they shocked the locals by their appearance ("some of them had dreadlocks...") but soon the locals realised that "somebody cared" about what was happening, and together they embarked on a fierce protest. The vile images of environmental ruin wreaked in the end by the mine contrasts with the beauty of the countryside in its original state, but the locals state that they feel that the struggle has given them the courage to continue the fight. The video shows clearly the brutality of the police, directed by big-business interests and the government, and the equally-brutal destruction of the landscape; the vaunted "reconstruction" of the countryside after the mining companies have gorged their fill, is shown to be a surreal joke: the the new landscape is hideous and artificial and nothing like what was there before.

By making a video like Celtic Enemy, the activist video-makers and Undercurrents want to provide information about the struggle of the Welsh villagers against the Establishment of big business and the government, but also, and more subversively, they want to show the gradual alliance of the villagers with the counterculture activists.

Today the ennui of the assembly-line has been replaced by the ennui of the dole queue and the McJob. [61] Unless things change drastically, there is no real reason not to put energies into creating a viable radical critique and an alternative way of life.

 
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