Mourning and activism

I have recently been at a sociological congress in Buenos Aires, and on my last morning in the city, a Sunday, I walked to the Plaza de Mayo.  The name of the square celebrates the start of the independence struggle against the Spanish empire.  The cathedral there – its facade looks like a Roman temple – has the tomb of the Liberator, San Martin.  At the opposite end of the Avenida de Mayo, which leads out of the square, is the imposing building of the national Congress.  The place is a powerful symbolic site for the Argentine republic.

Picture taken 2009 by Paula
That’s doubtless why it was chosen for the extraordinary action by the women known as the Madres de Plaza de Mayo – the Mothers of May Square.  In sight of a cathedral full of images of the Mother of God, the Madres broke the silence imposed by Argentina’s military dictatorship about the arrest, torture, and murder of thousands of left-wing activists in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Even the generals found it hard to deny a mother’s right to ask what had happened to her child. 

I guess many of the women at the first gatherings must already have known.  If so, what they were doing was a first stage of public mourning, as well as criticism of the dictatorship.  The death of that generation of young intellectuals is still felt in Argentina’s universities and public life.  After the dictatorship ended, the Madres continued a long campaign to document the ‘disappearances’ case by case.

I mourn them too, and not just abstractly.  They were part of my generation of intellectuals, the new left of the sixties and seventies.  Though an ocean and a continent away, I understand something of what the Argentine comrades were about, something of the energies and hopes that went under in many parts of the world, in that decade of repressions from the Prague Spring to the Argentine darkness.

I’ve been wondering if there is a more general interplay between mourning and activism.  Some forms of activism, at least, are deeply coloured by loss.  AIDS activism, indigenous land rights activism, and campaigns about femicide, all deal with irrecoverable loss.  Activism in such circumstances involves public mourning as well as social change.

The campaigns against nuclear weapons, which now seem to have faded, surely involved an anticipatory mourning for the end of human life.  And in the environmental movement there is mourning for the habitats, species and experiences already gone, as well as for the losses to come.

I don’t think this is a bad thing.  A politics that has no space for mourning would be unbearably cheerful, and we have enough of that in the self-help section of airport bookshops.  Politics is about constructing social futures, for good or evil.  I think a transformative politics has to respond to the full range of social experience, not just a narrow band.  There are versions of progressive politics that leach out the emotion: a mechanical marxism is one, an obsession with measurable outcomes is another.

The difficult side is that a transformative politics has to grapple with the destructive as well as constructive possibilities in human life.  Politics has to do this at a collective level, as intimate relations, and therapy, do at a personal level.  That means engaging with the emotions that destruction produces.  There’s a book by W. G. Sebald, On the Natural History of Destruction, which I’ve thought about a lot; it reflects on the mass bombing of World War II Germany, and pulls no punches about the effects.  Well worth a read; not for the faint-hearted.

The Plaza de Mayo, it turned out, was not a good place to explore these thoughts, even on a Sunday morning.  It’s now a tourist hub, with buses of sightseers, a souvenir market, a museum.  There is a political demonstration there, but it’s not about the disappeared.  It’s a camp set up by veterans of the Malvinas war, with belligerent banners against the English, and declarations of patriotism.  “Patria o muerte”, one of the slogans said, Fatherland or Death.  Thirty-five years ago, Argentina got both.

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