In tune with this logic, the call for a general strike on October 21, 2019 was not attached to one group, figure or union. Multiple active organizers I spoke with reflected that it just “seemed like the logical next step.” Media outlets also reported on the call for a strike as multi-sourced. Although I may find a story of origins if I research the question further, I would like to suggest that, like other effective mass movements, the general strike came together after decades of impossibility because it made sense to many and different people at the same time. In this sense, it becomes possible to consider the general strike as a collective performance.
It is exactly this nexus of collective cultural acts and popular political practice that might give us something to look towards, amidst the current exhaustion, rage, and difficulty of imagination. Reviving that kind of collective-cultural-political transformative work is essential in this moment of overwhelming despair.
“The force of performance,” queer and cultural theorist José Esteban Muñoz observed, is “the ability to generate a modality of knowing and recognition among audiences and groups that facilitates modes of belonging.” The strike as performance shifted modes of belonging towards class identification. The practice of together withholding our labor allowed us to think about the power that labor has in maintaining the system as it is, and to grasp its collective potential. It forces those of us who rely on a wage to see ourselves as workers (albeit of with widely varying conditions). Further, the notion that effective political praxis is not dependent on precise theory or slick communication, but rather must be wildly collective to work is a drastic shift from the party and personality-led politics that has dominated in recent decades. This narrative shift in our view of political economy, and our relation to it is enormous. It is at its core a cultural work with profound political implications. It is exactly this nexus of collective cultural acts and popular political practice that might give us something to look towards, amidst the current exhaustion, rage, and difficulty of imagination. Reviving that kind of collective-cultural-political transformative work is essential in this moment of overwhelming despair.
Political Work as Cultural Work
Cultural work is always political. As producers of cultural works, from written text to dance and cinema, our decisions, materials, references, language, and funding sources have profound impacts on the kinds of narratives we engage with, uphold, or challenge, even if these decisions are not fully conscious. These in turn impact how our work is received, what it does as it circulates in the world.
But politics, in turn, is also cultural work. The most effective repressive politicians know this well, as they play on existing frames like sectarianism to achieve material ends. Politics functions both at the level of material action (say building, or blocking a dam) and at the level of meaning and representation (the narrative that mega dams increase water access vs that they have immeasurable repercussions on livelihoods and ecologies). The kinds of material consequences we are willing to put up with, which economists call these “trade-offs,” and how we interpret them depends largely on our cultural frames that are always shifting. As Stuart Hall reminds us, cultural work is an important site of struggle. This is not only a dictum to produce subversive popular culture, but also to center the interplay between political and cultural work in creating the “possibilities of new subjectivities.” Creating new subjectivities, or ways of being together in the world, is exactly the substance of political change we need in times when everything seems bleak.
Such an expansive definition of cultural work allows us to see acts of solidarity and collectivity for their transgressive potential. Cultural works like the 2019-2020 general strike open up new paths and possibilities. Another example occurred in the immediate aftermath of August 4 when the Civic Defense refused to deploy their trucks against demonstrators demanding accountability. Moved by the criminal loss of their comrades days earlier, these civil servants briefly incorporated civil disobedience to the repertoire of dissent. Later in January 2020, women also performed cultural work when “The Women’s Front line” stood between the army and other protesters, insisting that violent escalation was strategically detrimental to the moment (and not only that “as women” they were “intrinsically peaceful”). All these works defy any one person or group’s claim to authorship.
Documentation alone cannot convince those who still do not acknowledge the system’s violence, or those who, while desiring change do not see an alternative to entrenched realities of colonial and feudal dependency. We need to disrupt and transform our relation to those histories with a vastly different logic, through political and cultural work alike. But how?
When we shift our frame in this way, it becomes possible to think of cultural production in the more traditional sense as capable of amplifying, echoing, making possible, and opening spaces for these and other kinds of cultural practices to multiply. I am not only referring to dedicated cultural groups producing work to support the struggle. This is essential work, like work that processes trauma. Yet, if the revolutions since 2010 have shown us anything, it is that art which documents political violence, celebrates mass gathering, or tracks individual character transformations through a stagnating political situation remains insufficient to bring about change. Documentation — certainly has its uses for future aspirational war crimes trials and for rallying outside opinions — but alone cannot convince those who still do not acknowledge the system’s violence, or those who, while desiring change do not see an alternative to entrenched realities of colonial and feudal dependency. We need to disrupt and transform our relation to those histories with a vastly different logic, through political and cultural work alike. But how?
Amidst this uncertainty, I’d like to imagine the implications of the general strike as form. What would inserting the strike’s insistence on our mutual dependence do to the shape and process of more traditional cultural work? What would art become if we strove to be as widely comprehensive and functionally inclusive as the general strike’s most utopian aspiration? What would art become if we also took seriously the general strike’s critics who insist that the comprehensive strike must also involve reproductive and care work, that is, the Women’s Strike? To begin with, it would mean embracing the notion that no artistic work is entirely self-authored. It would do away with the myth of artistic genius. It could also mean reorienting art-making and circulation along the principles of care and solidarity.
Romanian film journalist Diana Mesesan writes that strikes are the ultimate expression of solidarity, but also of its limits. I’ve understood this metaphorically and practically: collective action is almost never comprehensive, and those who don’t participate (or say, break strikes) often have convincing reasons, even if we don’t like them. The aftermath of a lost labor struggle usually isn’t pretty. These are important reminders. Even as I celebrate the general strike, I am not romanticizing its real-world dynamics. But perhaps since our current reality has transplanted unimaginable horror into the heart of the everyday, we would do well to dream beyond the limits of solidarity. We could take those limits as a provocation to be even more rigorously self-critical and generous with one another. These aspirations could guide our cultural production and political practice alike, even as the comprehensive, economy-stopping, regime-overthrowing general strike eludes us, for now. What is more expansive than mutual trust and collective care, than putting our fate in one another’s hands? Isn’t this the implication of a general strike?
As in earlier crises, global capitalism and our governments are already attempting to solve today’s overlapping crises by insisting that we return to how things were, as they profit from crisis resolutions.
As in earlier crises, global capitalism and our governments are already attempting to solve today’s overlapping crises by insisting that we return to how things were, as they profit from crisis resolutions. It has never been more obvious that our lives now — through the pandemic, the explosion, and the financial crisis — are the logical result of how things were. We have to resist the narrativization of our suffering to justify more of the same. To not seek alternatives is to refuse to believe we could live any other way. It is all our responsibility (and not just those who work in “culture”) to do this difficult, anonymous, collective cultural work to create those possibilities, even and especially at this time when they seem most impossible. It is all our responsibility to amplify the small transformative political-cultural acts happening all around us, and to force open more space so that they might show us a different way forward.