By Mike Gonzalez
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The Language of Resistance

This article is over 18 years, 1 months old
The vocabulary of anti-capitalism is more than a passing fad.
Issue 280

There is a new language developing in the streets that our growing movement passes through. At the European Social Forum demonstration in Paris, there was a man distributing leaflets recommending Esperanto. The Esperantists are at most demonstrations – as they have always been since their great idea was first mooted by a Pole called Zamenhof in 1887. Their theory was that humanity was divided by language, and that a common tongue – coined out of all the other languages – would create understanding and unity.

It was a naive idea, perhaps. After all, in Angola the colonialists and the resistance both spoke Portuguese – but they fought a bitter war of national liberation. And the spoken English of the Caribbean (celebrated as ‘nation-language’ by the performance poets like Louise Bennett and Mikey Smith) was an instrument of defiance against the English of the Mother of Parliaments. A shared tongue, then, is no guarantee of shared purposes.

Michael Moore and George Bush, Martin Luther King and Colin Powell share a language – but they have filled it with a very different feeling and vision. That’s why all the nonsense about anti-Americanism rings so hollow.

There can have been few social movements, on the other hand, as multiple and different as anti-capitalism. We speak in Arabic and Aymara as we take to the streets of Nablus or La Paz; we have no difficulty moving our continuing debates from Florence to Paris to London in the multilingual environment we occupy. It is one of the great leaps forward of the last few years that a new generation recognises effortlessly the difference between a kind of artificial diversity and the real multiplicity of anti-globalisation.

The multinationals and their advertising companies were always quick to incorporate signs of otherness. Bacardi recreated a Cuba of the 1950s complete with cockroach races and salsa music. Honda and Orange claimed to exist in some global environment where everything could coexist – every face, every colour, every age – and yet it existed nowhere. The future – their future – is orange, which is to say colourless and odourless. It’s strange to reflect back now on how all-powerful that language of the universal commodity seemed just a few years ago – Naomi Klein’s No Logo was a cry in the wilderness against the global market place we were being herded into.

How far we have come!

In four short years the anti-capitalists are beginning to create a new language of their own. It isn’t Esperanto because it doesn’t start from a levelling down, a flattening of our enormous diversity into an easy glossary. In Paris we marched in front of a van (ironically it belonged to the French Communist Party) blasting out Manu Chao and some salsa band and a French hip-hop hit called ‘Stop the War’ with some verses in Arabic. The marchers danced and sang – some other words, or perhaps the right ones. It didn’t matter.

We have taken the emblems of the market and turned them on their head. ‘Anticapitalista’ takes the C out of Coca-Cola against a red background that is suddenly and decisively closer to the red flag than the fleece of a Santa Claus invented by the corporation to make itself a monument in the world. The tick of Nike is now a universal sign of sweated labour.

Against that we are developing a language of our own – and a vocabulary of symbols that fit into every struggle easily and with instant recognition. We’re finally rivalling the Nike tick! There were precedents to turn to. In the early 1990s black youth everywhere wore Malcolm’s ‘X’ to announce that the chickens were coming home to roost; in the 1970s a figure eight lying on its side evoked the hat that Augusto ‘César’ Sandino, the pioneer of Nicaragua’s anti-colonial struggle, wore.

In the third millennium it is probably the face of Che Guevara that encapsulates the spirit of the time. Over the years the image has become starker; a simple hatch of lines, a black beret with a star, a wispy beard is all that’s necessary. It’s true of course that the market has tried to take the image back – to make it fashionable, chic, mere style; but then, it always has done that. It made punk rock into a fashion statement, after all – or tried.

And yet, whether or not the T-shirts are mass produced, or the face of the dead revolutionary appears on cigarette packets, boxes of Kleenex or fridge magnets (and it does) the icon seems to escape the kind of neutralising effect that that ought to bring with it. It’s as if certain symbols have a resilience that defies the Disney kiss of death. There’s a new film on the way with Antonio Banderas playing Che – or that’s the rumour. There have already been three or four others.

For all that the charge of rebellion and defiance doesn’t ebb away – and the look on the faces of those who wear the image on their lapel or on their chest or round their necks imprinted on a red scarf shouts defiance, anger and a refusal to be cowed.

Some symbols belong to us.

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