By Stefan Christoff
May 11, 2012
As attention turns toward the mass student strike on the streets of Montreal, ongoing for three months, the Quebec student movement clearly exemplifies the power that activism holds to shape our collective imagination.
The student protests distant from the halls of political power in Quebec City, are largely setting the terms of political debate on moves by the Quebec government to significantly hike post-secondary tuition fees.
Moments of Excess: Movements, Protest and Everyday Life, a standout collection of anarchist writings published by PM Press in Oakland, has been an excellent read on Montreal’s metro traveling between protests over recent weeks.
As a collective project, Moments of Excess is a meaningful read for readers in Quebec and across Canada, as students’ sustain a collective uprising to fight for accessible education, a movement clearly inspired by anarchist models of horizontal activism deeply explored in the book.
Moments of Excess also offers important reflections for participants in the grassroots Occupy movement for economic justice across North America, sparked by Occupy Wall Street this past fall. The mass Occupy collective actions have been rooted in anarchist practices, exemplified in the general assembly decision making model and vocalized by the human mic echoing on city streets across the continent.
In 11 essays, written from 2001-2011 by UK-based collective The Free Association, the book explores movement building, in relation to different mobilizations in Europe and globally, examining the complexities of protest movements too often made invisible in mainstream media narratives.
The curious title, “Moments of Excess” points to fascinating ideas on both the inspiration and challenges sparked by mass collective protest movements:
“Every now and then, in all sorts of different social arenas, we can see moments of obvious collective creation, where our ‘excess of life’ explodes,” writes The Free Association, ” in these moments of excess, everything appears to be up for grabs and time and creativity accelerates. From our own lives, we’re thinking of punk in the mid to late 1970s, and the struggle against the poll tax in the late 1980s/early ’90s, and the recent moments within the anti-globalization movement. At these times, which may have spanned several years or literally a few moments, we have glimpsed whole new worlds.”
Today in Quebec, as the student strike continues with inspiring night protests, we are clearly living in one of these moments.
Many of the essays in Moments of Excess were originally written to distribute at anti-capitalist mobilizations in Europe over the past decade, like the European Social Forum, the major 2005 protests against the G8 summit, or the 2008 Climate Action Camp actions promoting environmental justice via direct action. These powerful pieces are vivid—and reflect the energy of street protest and dissent.
“Anti-capitalist movements, then, are movement of social relations,” writes The Free Association in the “Anti-capitalist movements” essay. “One of the key characteristics about the current movement is its immediately global nature. In this respect ‘globalization’, far from being a one-sided extension of capital’s power, entangling the whole world in the logic of the market, is actually a response to the flexing of our muscles in the 1960s and 1970s—which temporarily forced capital on the defensive.”
Beyond outlining collective analysis recent activist history, Moments of Excess looks back at past left generations, while challenging concepts of linear history in unique ways.
used to thinking of time as a straight line,” writes The Free
Association in the “Event horizon” essay, “but history isn’t a straight
line. It moves in a series of uncontrolled breaks, jots and ruptures.
Every now and then we get events that seem to have popped out of an
alternate dimension. Events that don’t seem to belong to the time-line
we were just on. These events carry their own time-lines. Then they
appear, history seems to shift to accommodate them.”
Moments of Excess points to events, or brief periods in time, that fundamentally shifted the course of history, often through mass popular protest movements that resulted in social change. Beyond stereotypical images and understandings of historic events, the book challenges us to reflect on concepts of history and social change in fascinating ways.
Throughout the book a sense of urgency is reflected, an immediacy that is inspiring, words reflecting on the euphoria of collective power, writings that reject individualism, rising above state-sanctioned politics that compound cynicism.
Difficult questions directed to anti-capitalists are also presented in the book:
“If all forms of action are socially productive, and if capital is amoral and infinitely malleable, isn’t our resistance simply the creative cutting edge of capital? Will we turn round in ten years time to find that the things we’re fighting for now appear against us? Will we close down Starbucks only to find a chain of organic fair-trade coffee houses clogging up our cities? Are we stuck in an eternal return where all struggles are recuperated?”
At times Moments of Excess offers more questions than answers, a refreshing and totally anarchist inspired take on political writing.
Organizing tactics used and developed by activists at global justice protests, inaccurately labeled by mainstream media the ‘anti-globalization’ movement, seen in Quebec City in April 2001, are creatively examined in Moments of Excess, from spokes councils, to mass direct action led by autonomous affinity groups.
Ideas dancing around definitions of globalization in recent years, speak to a striking energy in Moments of Excess, a unique drive to collectively interrogate both the practices and terminology of protest movements that The Free Association authors are rooted in.
“One of the key novelties of the movement of movements over the past decade or so has been its openness, unity-in-diversity and sense of affirmation,” writes The Free Association. “From startling alliances on the streets of Seattle to experiments in political forms, we’ve been swept up in its global reach and sense of potential. At times it has gone far beyond the declaration that ‘another world is possible’, as we’ve found ourselves involved in the creation of actual new worlds.”
Clearly Moments of Excess is written by activists, essays like “On the road” reflect on direct actions taken by the Dissent! network to block access roads, via civil disobedience, around the G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland in 2005.
An open and artistic tone drives the collective essays in Moments of Excess, making the essays an interesting read for political minds across the spectrum.
As our attention turns to the mass student protests in Quebec, or as we reflect on the revolutionary street protest movements that have ignited across the world in 2012, from Tahrir Square in Egypt, to Zucotti Park in lower Manhattan, Moments of Excess sparks layered reflection, breaking open paradigms of mainstream political thinking.
Blurring the lines between political essay and philosophy, Moments of Excess is a uniquely inspiring book to critically read and re-read.—Stefan Christoff
For more information on The Free Association and Moments of Excess visit the website.
Stefan Christoff is a Montreal-based journalist, musician and community organizer who contributes to rabble.ca and is @spirodon.