Friday, June 17, 2011
The Vancouver riots were a moment of rupture of the sanitized image that our local elites cultivate about Vancouver The Beautiful as a global brand. The corporate media lost control of the huge collective energies it contributed to releasing on the streets by glorifying sports as the main source of collective fulfillment. The media and all the decent citizens now blame the riots on “criminals” and “anarchists” and feel good about the “real Vancouver” that allegedly had nothing to do with them. And the usual suspects are now calling for a bigger and more repressive police state, with more cops and more restrictions on the use of public space. The mandate is clear: Vancouver The Beautiful, global jewel of the Pacific Rim, had nothing to do with the riots that violently emerged from within its urban core.
The riots were indeed a social phenomenon of pointless destruction and negativity, with nothing positive to offer. But those who blame the violence on “criminals” who are not part of “real” Vancouver are fooling themselves and do not know the nature of the city they live in, transformed by profound neoliberal reforms. As Jon Beasley-Murray pointed out on his blog, the crowds Wednesday night represented Vancouver’s social, gender, and ethnic diversity very well (I left downtown right before the riots started and got the exact same impression). And the nihilism that fueled the riots is that of a popular culture that places victory in sports above anything else, in an expensive and corporatized city that does not offer its youth other sources of collective passions and identifications.
The riots in Vancouver took place almost simultaneously to huge rallies in Athens that led to clashes with the police over the EU-imposed neoliberal sacking of Greek public assets. The images of people confronting riot police, of clouds of tear gas, and of urban debris in Vancouver and Athens were produced by radically different local conditions: defeat in sports and opposition to austerity measures. And the multitudes in Athens were guided by a positive defense of public interests against corporate encroachment that was indeed missing in the streets of Vancouver.
Yet riots are always social events that express wider affective and political conditions. And the Vancouver riots represent the alienation of large sections of a youth that faces a corporatized, privatized life and believed (and had been led to believe by the media that now demonizes them) that their cherished collective heaven (the Stanley Cup) was, at last, around the corner. The riots were partly produced because the huge, resonant multitude that had taken over downtown Vancouver (and of which I was part during most of the game) was not affectively prepared to face defeat. And many reacted to the abrupt end of their collective dream like a wounded, confused, betrayed creature, which could only vent its frustration through the random destruction of property. And this destruction targeted the material phantasmagoria that Walter Benjamin identified as the petrified life of the bourgeois dream world, solidified in the form of the corporate city. This is why the media now demonizes the same passionate, striving, but politically hollow creature it contributed to creating. Because it points that underneath Vancouver The Beautiful there is an affective current of despair, which the Canucks defeat transformed into collective rage.
While totally different and unrelated to each other, Vancouver and Athens are two sides of the same coin: the uncoded flows of collective affects that make up the neoliberal world in which we live, and the localized ruptures they create. These riots are events that bring to light our collective zones of rage, despair, pain, alienation, and, in Athens, hope.