If course, we will never succeed in overcoming capitalism if people equate “doing it in the road” to cultural revolution. Trapped in the Adam-and-Eve costume of a youth movement, political praxis cannot ever fully evolve. But was the preceding generation of protesters really that naïve? Weren’t our parents more mature than we think?
Take John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Today, they are remembered as the epitome of flower power. “Just Give Peace a Chance” was one of the first big celebrity benefit songs, with Bob Geldof, Michael Jackson, Bono, and Sting following in a long, peaceful march that eventually led to some bullshit sanctuary like “Live 8” and the “Make Poverty History” campaign. It’s hard to look past the outer shell of long hair, peace activism, mantras, obsessions with white, and donations to “good causes,” past the strange mixture of engagement and pop that the sixties left behind, all those spectacular half-measures taken to clean up after an increasingly messy global capitalism. People often forget that Yoko was one of the earliest feminist actionists, an accomplished conceptual artist, a singularity for whom the “personal was political” in principle. People also forget that John identified with the labor movement and revolutionary socialism more and more the further he got away from Beatlemania. By the time he had released “Working Class Hero,” he was giving interviews to The Red Mole, a Trokyist sheet put out by the British arm of the Fourth International (see https://www.counterpunch.org/lennon12082005.html). Basically, John and Yoko were smarter, more radical, and a little less hung up on superstardom than we tend to think.
More importantly, Yoko and John’s relationship to politics affected their work heavily, which gradually became a little more like art and less like pop. If you think about it, their bed-ins were not just extravagant rock acts for the media-circus. They were art about self-conscious and unconscious cultural work under increasingly spectacular conditions. Like Warhol’s films (such as “Sleep” or “Screentests”), they stood on the border between (absurdly heteronomous) pop and (seriously autonomous) minimal that explored the potentiality of presence in the spotlight of the public gaze. This becomes especially clear when you look at the gesture that became John and Yoko’s pendant of “bed-ins”, namely bagism. Today, it stands on the margins of the political history of pop culture and art, largely forgotten, just like John Lennon’s sympathies for Trotskyism in the years before his death.
“Bagism literally involved wearing a bag over one’s entire body. According to John and Yoko, by living in a bag, others could not judge you by the color of your skin, the length of your hair, the clothes you wore, your age, or any other such attributes. It was presented as a form of total communication. Instead of focusing on outward appearance, the listener would hear only the bagist’s message.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bagism). John and Yoko were in love, which might be why they wanted to be universal. Immaculate minimal objects instead of pop-stars and identity-prostitutes. By placing their bodies in a bag, they were demonstrating their own status as commodities, “living divinities” (“The way things are going, they’re gonna crucify me…”). But they also want to show a silent form of expressing human potentiality. Does this mean they were no longer superstars? Hardly. But they were saying something important about the changing role of the cultural industry under increasingly post-industrial conditions.
Even though bagism is largely forgotten, its thematization of universalism and potentiality seems relevant today, much more than all the flower power trappings (love, love, love). It has a lot of potential precisely because contemporary capitalism is finding new ways of tapping into anthropological universals, making money off even their biopolitical inclusion here or there, in this or that pool of brains and bodies capable of living labor. Of course, corporations still make money through classical exploitation, stealing people’s time and converting it into surplus value. But they now also speculate heavily on outsourced imperial implementations and dormant domestic resources, reified as collateral by project ideologies. Human resources are just as important as fossil fuels. People and their politics are commodities before they are born. It is already enough to be on their field. This is why tactics related to “bagism” find a certain continuation in the culture of protest today.
Activist groups that practice civil disobedience such as Ya Basta or the “tutti bianchi” became anonymous celebrities wearing white overalls during the streets protests in Genoa. Films like Bernadette Corporation’s “Get Rid of Yourself” (2004) made these strange rioters into movie stars. Today, their tactics seem just as impossible as any naturalist return to bagism. We are confined to spectacles very much like “Live 8,” even if we think we are rioting. We can come wearing white suits if we like. Everybody gets their fifteen minutes of fame. On the other hand, maybe a strategy like bagism could show that the left is aware of how it is reified as a tool for simulating democracy. And maybe, it provides some universalization of all those identity politics that look so ineffective today. Just don’t repeat the tragedy of history as a farce! Don’t take the appeal to the sixties too literally. The potentiality of a new movement against capitalism from within capitalism does not exhaust itself in singing along with Paul McCartney or smashing shop windows. Which are pretty much two rabbits, fucking one another in the same bag of tricks.