We Won't Bow Down
Now, I believe that community is a subversive force. To understand what I mean by subversive, let's go back to the defeatists. They, like much of our society, speak a language in which everything but a pie-in-the-sky kind of victory is defeat, in which everything that isn't black is white, in which if you haven't won, you've surely lost. If you asked them, they'd say we live in a capitalist society. In fact, we live in an officially capitalist society, but what prevents that force from destroying all of us is the social aid and pleasure we all participate in: parents don't charge their children for raising them; friends do things for each other, starting with listening without invoicing for billable hours; nurses and mechanics and everyone in between do a better job than money can pay for for beautiful reasons all their own; people volunteer to do something as specific as read to a blind person or as general as change the world. Our supposedly capitalist society is seething with anticapitalist energy, affection and joy, which is why most of us have survived the official bleakness. In other words, that's not all there is to our system. Our society is more than and other than capitalist in a lot of ways.
To say that Carnival reconciles us to the status quo is to say that it affirms the world as it is. Now, for people in Rex, their Mardi Gras probably reinforces their world, but for those in some of the other krewes and rites, the same is true, and the reinforcement of the survival of the mutual aid societies that emerged after slavery is not reaffirmation of capitalism, domination, etc. It reinforces, in other words, their ongoing survival of capitalism and racism. Carnival also reinforces joy and ownership of public space and a kind of confidence in coexisting with a wide array of strangers. New Orleans itself is the place where, unlike the rest of the United States, slaves were not so cut off from chances to gather and chances to maintain their traditions. Jazz and jazz funerals, second-line parades and more derive in many ways from this subversive remnant of a non-European tradition. They didn't bow down. This is something to celebrate, and it is what is celebrated by some of the people in the streets.
In 2006 and 2007 Mardi Gras in New Orleans was also proof to the city that it had survived Katrina, that it had not died. The parades were full of scathing political commentary, even the mainstream ones (and Krewe du Vieux started parade season this year with the theme "Fired Up!" which brought in a lot of sexy devil costumes and floats depicting local political institutions as flaming hells). To say Carnival of New Orleans is to speak of dozens of disparate traditions and agendas braided together. Which makes the willingness of anyone to generalize about Carnival—which includes the Latin American, Caribbean, European and New Orleanian versions—troublesome.
Really, I shouldn't even be saying things so obvious except that defeatisms so obviously based on misapprehensions keep getting thrown into my face. Of course our society's dominant culture of media and entertainment serves consumerism and the belief in our own powerlessness. But if the status quo is the world as it is, it also includes myriad subversions and strategies for survival, and these seem to me to also be reinforced by Carnival. Fifteen years ago a subversive group called Reclaim the Streets (RTS) began turning British political demonstrations into something festive and inventive and even joyous, with a raucous in-your-face joy. "We are about taking back public space from the enclosed private arena. At its simplest it is an attack on cars as a principle agent of enclosure. It's about reclaiming the streets as public inclusive space from the private exclusive use of the car. But we believe in this as a broader principle, taking back those things which have been enclosed within capitalist circulation and returning them to collective use as a commons."
I'd argue that Reclaim the Streets in mostly Protestant Britain reclaimed the street festival, the Carnival spirit, as something deeply subversive. The group even called one of its demonstrations, the famous one on June 18, 1999, the Carnival Against Capital, held in London's financial district, which was much disrupted that day by the masked, festive throng. The participants saw taking back public space, making it inclusive, giving it a function other than its everyday one, as radical. This is what Carnival does, and so by RTS's terms Carnival is radical, not reconciling us to the status quo but subverting it. Carnival is inherently against capital.
The Fine Art of Raising a Ruckus
Clowns and puppets, theater and drumbeats—street spectacle carves out space for experiencing a new world.
From another perspective, the June 18 street party was a bunch of rowdy white kids, but it had sister actions in dozens of countries, including Nigeria, and it prepared the resistant world for the profoundly successful attack on corporate capital at the Seattle WTO meeting later that year, which, with its famed giant puppets, costumes, marching bands and banners, was very Carnivalesque. The Carnival for Full Enjoyment faced off the G-8 meeting in Gleneagles, Scotland, with similar tactics for subversion, notably CIRCA, the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army, whose tactics were infinitely subversive and never oppositional and threw the police into confusion (but not rage). The performance theorist and activist Larry Bogad calls this "tactical carnival" and notes that in 2001 the FBI listed Carnival Against Capital as a terrorist group (failing to recognize that it was a concept, not an organization, but correctly recognizing that it doesn't really reconcile us to the status quo).
Former RTS organizer John Jordan points out that quite a lot of peasant uprisings began during festivals. In his book Carnival and Other Christian Festivals, Max Harris recounts the theological basis for Carnival's inversion of hierarchies, the passage in the Magnificat where Mary says (in Luke 1:52), in celebration of the impending birth of her son, "He hath put down the mighty from their seats and hath exalted the humble." Carnival, he says, is a festival of inversion. Some inversions are symbolic, decorative, recreational and temporary, but to discount even those is to discount the way that culture can provide us visions, invitations and tools to make such things more real and enduring, whether a full-fledged revolt, as at the Seattle WTO, or the survival of such things as aid and pleasure and pride and solidarity. Just to disrupt business as usual, as jazz funerals and second-line parades have always done in New Orleans, and as Reclaim the Streets did for a few years in a few countries, is subversive.
Carnival doesn't necessarily reconcile us to the status quo. But theories that defeat is inevitable, is our legacy, our history, and our future, do. We have arrived in a future that is itself science fiction: we have turned our planet into something far more turbulent and uncertain than anyone anticipated, and to survive it and bring it back to something livable will require a massive subversion of the status quo of corporate production and excess consumption, will require innovation, imagination and profound change. The defeatism that says there is nothing we can do or that we have no power sabotages our survival. It is pre-emptive surrender. "Status quo" in Latin means "the state in which," and the state things are usually in includes dominance, acquiescence, and refusal to bow down, in various mixes. More than ever we need Carnival at its most subversive to survive, and to make resistance a pleasure and an adventure rather than only struggle and grim duty. This is the revolution that Emma Goldman wanted to dance to, the one that draws people in. Don't bow down. To capital. Or to cliché or oversimplification or defeatism. Try rising up instead. It's more interesting.
Rebecca Solnit is the author of twelve books, including A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster and Hope in the Dark, as well as a regular contributor to Tomdispatch.com.
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