- Category: Occupy
- Created on Monday, 26 November 2012 12:43
- Written by Take Back the Block
Kasama received this debate unfolding within the movement in Atlanta. It mirrors debates happening everywhere: are NGO assumptions about organizing a basis upon which Occupy should continueitself? Are the police part of the 99%? Can collaborating with them help occupy? Take Back the Block offers a thorough and resounding “NO.”
“OOHA’s reliance on this model, most importantly, leaves behind so many people from dispossessed black and brown communities. Narrating these stories perpetuates a culture of victimization – not a culture of collective resistance. The message is always, “I did everything right, I was an upstanding member of society and then extenuating circumstances hit and I am in deep water.” The underlying logic: “good” people deserve housing- it is counter to the society we are fighting for that housing is a privilege, not a basic necessity that we must provide for each other. It is important that OOHA does more than proclaim that housing is a basic human right; w must always demonstrate that in our work as well. The “exceptionalism” of each case doesn’t demonstrate that.
A culture of collective resistance would be one which stresses the agency of communities to actively fight against the banks, the state that bailed them out while our bank accounts hit negative, and the police who enforce their will. When we victimize ourselves and then rely on enemy forces we are immediately weakening our position as active agents against our own oppression.”
OOHA DEFENDS THE COPS; WE DO NOT
The intention of this article is both to clarify our position on the police, and to engage in principled dialogue about tactics and strategy in the anti-eviction movement. Take Back the Block realizes that we have made some of the same mistakes that we now see in the movement. In order to build a strong movement, we must constantly examine ourselves and others, pushing each other forward always.
“Those who do not move, do not notice their chains,” wrote Rosa Luxemburg. The true nature of police, the enforcer of chains, is less clear for the majority of the population during low movement times. This has never been the case for black men, immigrants and homeless people who feel the clarity, the mandate of the cops every day through bruises on their bodies and the threat or experience of imprisonment. This wall was broken for a few months when a mostly white, disillusioned section of the population poured into underused parks that were quickly surrounded by police in cars, on motorcycles, on bikes and horses, with the single intent of crushing peaceful gatherings and encampments. While the police trampled on tents, waving batons and laughing at us for demanding jobs and healthcare, they left shoppers alone who were camped out on sidewalks all day and night to buy discount deals on Black Friday. The police force under the orders of the mayors could not maintain the façade of contradiction: their essential role is to keep us subjugated and intimidated and to protect the rule of the rich (despite the often referenced basic duties of police, like traffic control).
While the newly active people in Occupy were painfully discovering the role of police, the Atlanta area police continued their killing spree of unarmed black youth. This led to frequent marches steaming with rage, pouring into the streets of downtown Atlanta, with chants ranging from “Fuck the police” to “Hey pigs, what do you say, how many kids have you killed today?!”. Joetavius Stafford, a 17-year-old high school student who was gunned down by police officers in a MARTA station on his way home from homecoming, was on everyone’s minds. Then there was Ariston Waiters, another unarmed youth, who was murdered by a police officer behind a shed, out of sight from witnesses. His family began to attend marches and rallies calling for justice, which they continue to do today, unwilling to be forgotten as another casualty of white supremacy. Personal experiences were creating an understanding across racial and class lines, obliging solidarity between the more privileged occupiers who were experiencing police repression for the first time and those that experience police terror daily.
Things in Atlanta exploded even more when news of Trayvon Martin’s murder reached the city. The Atlanta public packed out rallies again, speaking out against racism and police brutality. During these months, many Atlantans were openly disillusioned with the APD and the institution of policing. Though the diagnosis and solutions varied, many people were taking a stand. Some were standing up against police brutality or the racism of individual officers, and others were against police altogether. As the last remnants of the parks were cleaned out by police and the steam evaporated from the national popular demonstrations, most of us were forced to go back to normalized routines. The “moment’ of exposed contradictions–the small rupture of clarity we experienced–is now just a memory and we are still trying to make sense of it. The APD successfully broke up resistance and continues its murderous practice. Even the mildest reforms to humor the public haven’t been taken–APD has not fired its officers who were directly implicated in the high-profile murders, nor stopped their practices of harassing and targeting black and brown people.
How does Occupy Our Homes Atlanta (OOHA) tell a different story?
A couple of weeks ago, national newspapers ran stories of Occupy Atlanta and the Atlanta Police Department repairing their relationship. The press release was sent out by an organization called Occupy Our Homes Atlanta (OOHA), an NGO-style, anti-eviction, activist group that formed from the ashes of Occupy Atlanta. The story was highlighting OOHA’s latest campaign to protect a retired police woman named Jacqueline Barber and her family from eviction. Jacquelyn served the Atlanta Police Department (APD) for 20 years as an undercover narcotics detective. She was injured on the job in 1998, forcing her into early retirement. Years later, she developed cancer and underwent treatment. She lives in Fayetteville, Georgia with her daughter and 4 grandchildren, in a house much larger than those OOHA generally defends.
Most outsiders cannot distinguish between OOHA and the Occupy movement which was a broad tent of resistance. The Occupy movement has disintegrated mostly due to heavy police repression, but groups like OOHA were able to grow. OOHA has participated in various campaigns to keep individuals in their homes, many times successfully. Their usual formula in developing campaigns is as follows: find a foreclosure victim who is relatable and safe; help them sculpt an emotional personal interest story; launch an aggressive media campaign; ask people to donate money and supplies; and work with the bank to agree on a more manageable mortgage. When the threat of eviction arises, OOHA uses tents and activist support in the yards of the houses to stall the police from removing the families from their homes, which are tactics left over from occupying the parks. These campaigns rely heavily on the sympathetic charity of outsiders, the interest of the media, and good faith in banks to work outside of their interests.
OOHA’s choice to defend Jacqueline’s home betrays the experiences of Occupy. One of the most dynamic struggles in Occupy Atlanta was the rejection of police brutality and the police as a force that served and protected the people. This lesson was learned in a multitude of ways from sympathizing with police brutality victims such as Joetavius Stafford, Ariston Waiters, and Troy Davis (Woodruff Park, where OA was based, was actually renamed to Troy Davis Park by the occupants), to actual lived experience of massive, baseless arrests, police scare tactics and the brutality on Occupy activists. Although many claim–namely the mainstream media–that Occupy had no real demands, lessons or aim, many of those that participated in Occupy were bonded together by a rejection of the cruelties of the ruling class. Throughout the process of Occupy, we were reminded that the police were the hired guns of the 1%, who, though often poor and struggling, fight against their own interests in maintenance of the status quo. OOHA’s choice to defend a former undercover cop’s home is not only in opposition to the ideals of many of the Occupy activists, but a betrayal of learned experiences.
The implications of adopting this case reach beyond OOHA. Since the beginning of Occupy Atlanta, many non-activists have understood activism as in relation to Occupy, so when news headlines read “Occupy Atlanta Joins Forces with Police to Save Retired Detective’s Home,” it may as well have read “Atlanta Activists Join Forces with Police.” These outright fabrications and lethal distortions are perpetrated by a group that is fighting for justice. It was not the propaganda of the APD or the ruling class to promote that “cops are here to serve and protect,” but the propaganda of OOHA. This act was committed with good intentions but is nevertheless inexcusable.
OOHA’s organizing model leads them to make bad strategic choices because the success of their campaigns often relies on the conscience of enemy forces and elite public figures. The non-profit like model of OOHA creates the necessity to “sell” to a specific audience the legitimacy of a fight, requiring the sympathy and interest of mass media. Mass media outlets that reported only a year ago on the battles between occupants and cops are now able to weave a tale of redemption in which occupiers admit their previous immaturity and reach out to a cop as a sign of peace and reconciliation–an olive branch. In the meantime, Occupy activists are still undergoing cases from unjust arrests made a year ago (some of which have been stalled because cops have destroyed or withheld evidence).
Some tactics have also been proven unwise. When the stories fail to rally up the public and the police come down heavy handed to enforce the bank’s eviction, Occupy Our Homes often must rely on their bodies to defend the homes. A common tactic used during an attempted eviction, blockading the house, has proved unsustainable and costly to the movement. In one Occupy Our Homes Minnesota case, the group attempted multiple blockades resulting in 23 total arrests.
OOHA’s reliance on this model, most importantly, leaves behind so many people from dispossessed black and brown communities. Narrating these stories perpetuates a culture of victimization – not a culture of collective resistance. The message is always, “I did everything right, I was an upstanding member of society and then extenuating circumstances hit and I am in deep water.” The underlying logic: “good” people deserve housing- it is counter to the society we are fighting for that housing is a privilege, not a basic necessity that we must provide for each other. It is important that OOHA does more than proclaim that housing is a basic human right; w must always demonstrate that in our work as well. The “exceptionalism” of each case doesn’t demonstrate that.
A culture of collective resistance would be one which stresses the agency of communities to actively fight against the banks, the state that bailed them out while our bank accounts hit negative, and the police who enforce their will. When we victimize ourselves and then rely on enemy forces we are immediately weakening our position as active agents against our own oppression. Banks will never be our allies; they concede to small struggles for the sake of PR, not for the sake of progressing humanity. Mass media, which is funded by corporations, cannot be trusted to work for our defense. We must be able to struggle collectively against the forces daily suffocating us, and we cannot do that by having to appeal to those that put us there in the first place. We must be able to at the same time build collective refutation of ruling-class institutions, build alternative community institutions to fill the gap. This “one home, one compelling story” is barring us from actually developing a real praxis of liberation. It may have been the police that physically destroyed the camps and arrested us but it is groups like OOHA that are distracting us and themselves from creating a real movement that we so desperately need. Ultimately, the OOHA model replicates the narrative of appealing to the conscience of our oppressor. Stokely Carmichael, a Black Power leader, hit the nail on the head when he pointedly stated that the oppressor has no conscience, to rely on that is to fight a losing battle.
- Category: Occupy
- Created on Monday, 05 November 2012 12:46
- Written by ISH
This comes from our comrade ish at the Cahokian blog.
That’s All Right, We Got This
At the height of hurricane Sandy on Monday night, lower Manhattan was plunged into darkness. As the wind buffeted the city and the waves overran low-lying coastal areas, electric power failed in many parts of the city. My Brooklyn neighborhood was lucky, surviving with only a few downed trees. In lower Manhattan, one building stayed alit: the headquarters of Goldman Sachs, the massive Wall Street firm legendary for corporate greed on a massive, should-be-criminal scale. This symbolic coincidence has not been lost on the people of New York City. Fuck Goldman Sachs. Fuck Wall Street. We don’t need you.
While Mayor Bloomberg debated cancelling the New York Marathon with the tabloid press, while President Obama claimed to be sending massive amounts of FEMA assistance, as the Red Cross started cranking up its donation engines, the people of New York also noticed something else: nothing was actually happening on the ground to help the thousands of people either displaced by wind, flood and fire, or trapped in powerless, heatless homes no longer served by public transportation. Enter the Occupy movement, yes the Occupy Wall Street movement derided as dead by so many on all sides of the media. Occupy activists gathered together and quickly formed “Occupy Sandy Relief: NYC,” simultaneously unveiling a Facebook page and going out to the ravaged Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook to see what was up with our neighbors and try and lend a hand. Fuck the liberals who are phonebanking for Obama this weekend. Fuck the smug pundits writing their contemptuous obituaries for Occupy. Fuck you Mayor Bloomberg and your private NYPD army. We don’t need you.
Within a day the Occupy Sandy activists had a food kitchen set up near a blacked-out low-income housing project and were prowling the flooded streets reaching out to frightened hurricane survivors. In a few hours they expanded operations to the Rockaways, both to the middle-class neighborhood ravaged by a massive fire, and the working class areas full of people seemingly abandoned by the city and alleged relief agencies. They soon began to reach out to Staten Island, where angry residents were feeling ignored and forgotten. (While Staten Island is home to a notoriously right-wing white community it’s also home to large working-class communities of color: A community of color which just lost two of its youngest sons, swept away in the flood to their deaths as their mother cried for help, ignored by cold-hearted neighbors.) Politicians started to tour the scenes of devastation. And yet, people were still left to fend for themselves. Grassroots organizations started to follow Occupy’s lead and soon started helping to fill the void. But one thing became very clear: those who were most effected by Frankenstorm Sandy needed mutual aid. We would have to do this ourselves.
- Category: Occupy
- Created on Monday, 15 October 2012 12:09
- Written by Nat Winn
We recently posted an article by Tim Rezeti on the need for new communist symbolism that can speak to our times. Tim just sent us a link to the artwork of Michael Thompson as an example of symbolism and art which speaks to the revolutionary moments of today. Abduzeedo.com introduces Thompson’s work with the following message:
“Michael Thompson also known as Freestylee wants to create global awareness to many social issues and he has been doing that through his art. Designing some really cool and powerful posters to send the message of peace activism. Take a look to see what he has done and share your thoughts with us.”
Here is some of Thompson’s art.
- Category: Occupy
- Created on Saturday, 13 October 2012 11:59
- Written by eric ribellarsi
A panel of revolutionary speakers gathered on August 12 at the Everything for Everyone Festival. The engagement was marked both by unities and diversity.
The talks confronted a key issue facing communist regroupment and action: How do we build a revolutionary movement today in the belly of this beast?
Let’s engage this discussion — and deepen our common purpose.
The audio of each talk is presented here in YouTube and MP3 format — in the order that they spoke at the E4E plenum.
The speakers are:
- Mike Ely, Kasama Project
- Geoff Mc, formerly with Bring the Ruckus
- Shemon Salam, Fire Next Time, formerly w/ Unity and Struggle
- Kali Akuno, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement
- Sopiko Japaridze, Take Back the Block, Atlanta
- Question and answer session
* * * * * * * * *
Mike Ely, Kasama Project:
* * * * * * * * *
Geoff Mc, formerly with Bring the Ruckus:
* * * * * * * * *
Shemon Salam, Fire Next Time, formerly w/ Unity and Struggle
* * * * * * * * *
Kali Akuno, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement:
* * * * * * * * *
Sopiko Japaridze, Take Back the Block, Atlanta:
* * * * * * * * * *
- Category: Occupy
- Created on Friday, 12 October 2012 11:51
- Written by Red Spark
We in the Red Spark Collective stand in solidarity with those arrested in San Francisco. In our collective struggle against this system, resistance is both legitimate and necessary.
The media has echoed police assertions that demonize the “Black Block street gang”. Contrary to this characterization, the black bloc is a specific tactic. Furthermore, their portrayal is a part of a broader atmosphere of repression that paints those who resist as domestic terrorists. The implications of this are chilling, especially given the context of the severe and ongoing repression, whether it is Grand Juries, militarized home raids, or the NDAA. In fact, it is often difficult to imagine a future where people will even be able to attend protests or be opposed to the status quo without hiding their identity for fear of tyrannical surveillance and violence from the political police.
After the last year of uprising around the globe, the state clearly understands the deep hatred people feel against this old world. It is right to fight for a new world. It is right to support those facing repression for doing so.
We call on our friends and comrades to support the arrestees by making contributions to their legal funds.
- Category: Occupy
- Created on Friday, 12 October 2012 11:47
- Written by We Want Some Food
We have recently posted a facebook comment by Boots Riley on the question of Black Bloc tactics and there role in building a movement for revolution. The following response appeared on the blog We Want Some Food
Knocking the Boots?
A Response to Mr. Riley Regarding the Bay and the Black Bloc
What follows is not an attack on Boots Riley’s recent facebook update, I’ll leave that to the hundreds of others. I’m not from, nor do I live in Oakland, I wasn’t even at, nor participated in any of the actions last weekend, (Feminist Vigilante March into the ‘Decolonize the New World Actions’), however I’ve been out to most of the major actions in Occupy Oakland’s recent history (and been going to the bay for different events for a decade) and have many friends involved in the anarchist, Occupy, and the radical labor movements and have been very inspired by many of the actions that have come out of it. Boots brings up some interesting questions and points in his recent post; however, perhaps we are missing some of the bigger questions and possible debates that we could be having revolving around the black bloc, it’s influence, and the relation between those not involved in social movements and revolutionary militants.
The concerns that Boots brings up can be articulated into two basic points: 1.) People aren’t into the tactic of black bloc. People do not understand the tactic, and thus it is detrimental. 2.) We lack the context for our actions to have a larger reverberation.
While I want to address these things, the questions that we should be asking, as anarchists and more broadly as revolutionaries and those against the present order are much bigger. Is there ever a ‘right’ time for such actions? Are such actions sometimes just a militant version of activism that cost us more than we gain? Do we lack the context for our actions to carry weight? And moreover, why is there such a lack of proletarian fight back in the US? Is it simply the fault of the revolutionaries or are there bigger issues and forces at work?
As to the concerns that Boots brings up, obviously the number of militants in the streets as ‘black bloc’ is small, and generally in the bay always have been. At the same time, there is no doubt that black bloc (a blanket term we will use here for anyone in masks that acts illegally, engages illegally with property, and is confrontational with the police) has made a large impact despite its small size on the street. In the bay area, the black bloc itself is also nothing new. As the recent ‘anti-colonial march’ on Saturday pointed out in its call-out, it drew inspiration in part from the black bloc that was formed in 1992 against Columbus Day in SF, one of the first in North America.
A trip down memory lane first…
During the era of anti-globalization, some black bloc actions were able to not only create dialog and discussion around the use of violence and tactics within the movement, but in some instances, push the actions of militants and activists out of the terrain of the summit and the protest, and into partially generalized conflict between people and the State. This includes when people in Seattle, as well as many militants, fought police during the WTO meetings in November of 1999 in response to a state of emergency curfew that included National Guard troops, as well as in places like Genoa and Prague, where residents joined in fighting the police and the looting of shops as activists stood by to guard the windows of the corporations. During the anti-war period in the US, black blocs were able, at times, to again have the same type of effect on the movement, challenging the liberal and Leninist currents, not only over tactics, but also over organization. Militant actions sometimes were able to move discussion on the war into a critique of capitalism as well as tactics, as anarchists often targeted recruiting stations and corporations directly tied to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In SF, black bloc actions also again, sometimes, were able to move anti-war events away from just being large marches and rallies, into actual street conflicts that hit specific targets, (as well as many other capitalist businesses) such as recruiting stations, embassies, and the INS building. While obviously this did not stop the war, it did give rise to a feeling of militancy and momentum as tactics were escalated within large masses of people. This culminated with the large scale disruption of San Francisco as the US ‘officially’ invaded Iraq in 2003.
In the bay, we saw the black bloc again within the riots and rebellions in the wake of the police murder of Oscar Grant as well as within the student occupation movement of 2009 – 2011. This of course is not to mention its use in a variety of other instances, be it in clashes with white supremacists ala Anti-Racist Action, or in demonstrations against police brutality across the country.
When Occupy began, we saw the black bloc’s return, largely in response to the camps across the country being raided as part of an attempt by the Department of Homeland Security and the Obama Administration to destroy the Occupy Movement. In Denver, St. Louis, North Carolina, Atlanta, NYC, and especially in Oakland, the debate over ‘black bloc’ raged.
I bring all of this up to point out that the black bloc tactic, especially in the bay area, is nothing new. This isn’t to argue that “people” are “into” it, in one way or the other – I don’t think we really can have that debate in a completely definitive way. We can talk about when the tactic has been more useful however, and in what context it has been used, to different degrees of success in a variety of ways. Sometimes it has been as an intervention into wider movements, such as in the anti-globalization, anti-war, and Occupy periods, in which sometimes it was able to not only help foster a deeper critique of capital and tactics, but also to generalize, at times, deeper and more conflictual struggle with the State. An example of this would be the tens of thousands (I was there, I seen it), that participated in black bloc led breakaway marches in 2001 – 2003 during the anti-war period in SF. In some instances, the bloc played simply a defensive and strategic role, such as the wearing of masks during the student occupation movement to avoid police surveillance and blocking up for protection on the barricades and in defense of buildings or in the wake of Occupy encampment evictions. In others, the bloc was an auxiliary force in a larger rebellion, such as during the Oscar Grant riots, although its role was often over publicized, (sometimes by anarchists themselves), or demonized by the Left, non-profits, the media, and the State.
We should proceed with a critique of the black bloc in this light. All tactics and the context they are used in need to be held up and examined, especially when they have been used in a variety of situations and movements, over a period of several decades. Within Occupy, while the actions that have occurred by those “in black bloc” have never involved more than several hundreds or thousands, there is no doubt that there has been a radicalization process for many, mostly new to social movements, in part because of ‘black bloc’ type actions that is completely unrivaled. The rebellions that occurred and led up to the General Strike on November 2nd, in part grew out of the experiences of many people through the eviction of the camp and a very real taste of street fighting and an attempt to defend/reclaim Oscar Grant plaza and later, appropriate a building. While few that donned masks, engaged with the police, and broke the law during those nights probably thought of themselves as ‘black bloc’ or anarchist is besides the point – in doing the actions they became part of that current as they saw a need to rebel in a certain way and do it anonymously. By January 2012 in Oakland, there was an escalation of tactics and militancy leading up to the “Move-In Day,” although clearly the numbers that we had on November 2nd were not present.
Also out of these militant actions, we saw the rise of T.A.C., or the Tactical Action Committee, who also helped popularize the black bloc tactic through weekly ‘Fuck the Police’ marches, as well as the growth of a radical squatting scene in West Oakland, the degree in which I have not seen in any major metropolitan city in the US. T.A.C. also was a large part of carrying on such tactics into the Central Valley, participating with others from Occupy Oakland in clashes with police and Neo-Nazis in Sacramento, CA in February of 2012 and in demonstrations against the police murder of James Rivera Jr. and Luther Brown Jr. and others in Stockton, CA in the Spring and early Summer.
Also, I believe that the actions that followed both the police murder of Kenneth Harding Jr. as well as the recent shooting of the young man in the Mission District are very much worth noting. Within hours of Kenneth Harding’s murder, a march of several hundred formed in the Mission District, mainly as ‘black bloc,’ and marched and targeted banks and other capitalist institutions. This solidarity action was followed up by other marches and other actions, (as well as supporting actions being carried out by those in Bayview where Harding was killed). This activity helped to create a link with militants within the Bayview neighborhood and anarchists living in the Mission District and in Oakland. As someone who saw this solidarity, it is important to realize that it was through these actions themselves that this connection was created. (This of course is also not to downplay at all the very radical actions of those living in Bayview who took action themselves very quickly, targeting police as well as transit lines.) These events were followed very rapidly by actions surrounding the murder of a homeless man while on BART, which culminated in street actions and clashes which all saw a version of generalized ‘black bloc’ type activity with often minimal anarchist involvement. In July of 2012, protests in both SF and the Mission District were called in solidarity with the unfolding revolt against the police in Anaheim, which used ‘black bloc’ type tactics and destroyed property. In the Oakland march, participants targeted a bar frequented by police. In the case of the recent actions in the Mission District just weeks ago, anarchists were also the chief initiators of two nights of street actions which targeted banks, yuppie businesses, and the police station. These actions came hot on the heels of a pre-May Day militant march in April that also attacked businesses on Valencia Street, becoming a very real indicator that anger over gentrification had not washed away in the 1990’s with Kevin Keating’s posters.
In these instances, black bloc type actions helped to express solidarity and expand sites of resistance. They sought to draw people in and create a situation in which their rage could be expressed. It helped to create a set of consequences for the police, just as with the riots that followed the murder of Oscar Grant, that hopefully will dissuade police from carrying out such actions in the future as well as put them on the defensive. And, it also helped to create a link for others through action between the nature of the police in this society and their role within capitalism and as part of the process of gentrification and white supremacy.
Lastly, ‘black bloc’ type actions have also been an ongoing facet of militant feminist, queer, and trans revolt in the bay as well. As the recent actions at Pride such as ‘Queers Fucking Queers,’ against the H.E.A.T. conference, and the “feminist vigilante street marches” have shown, such tactics are clearly not been just the domain of straight white males as many would claim. Feminists and revolutionary queer and trans militants have also sought to foster militant responses to the murder of women, queer, and trans people, such as Brandy Martell, a black transwoman, who was killed in Oakland and left to die by police. In early May of 2012 in Oakland, a militant march and “Gender Strike Street Party,” comprised of many in black bloc, which was to remember Brandy and also call attention to CeCe McDonald, a black transwoman in jail for killing a Neo-Nazi attacker, was organized in Oakland that held the streets for hours and successfully gathered hundreds from the nearby Art Murmur while police looked on from the sidelines. This use of Art Murmur was again revisited in August as the city attempted to crack down on the street party by making people apply for permits. Anarchists responded by again calling for a street party which held the streets for several hours and ended with the attacking of the Obama HQ office.
These developments: the growth of T.A.C., the spreading of the tactic outside of the anarchist ghetto, and the use of the black bloc by anarchists as expressions of revolutionary solidarity and as intervention into the tensions of everyday life, are much more interesting and exciting than the destruction of bank windows in any of the “official” marches or actions that occurred during the Occupy period.
Thus, one can’t make the claim that ‘everyone’ isn’t into the black bloc. Obviously, some people are, they keep happening! A better question is, what are the conditions and contexts for which they make the most sense and are able to actually spread and generalize revolt? Obviously, this is always changing and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it is offensive and sometimes it is defensive. Sometimes it is part of something else and sometimes it is called for solely by us.
Clearly, large amounts of people outside of established radical circles aren’t flocking to the black bloc, but nor did those outside of the Left to the SF ANSWER march on the same day as the Sunday anti-war and anti-capitalist march that targeted bank windows. Again and again, militants and revolutionaries of all stripes ask the question of ‘where is the rage?,’ and ‘where is the action?’ only to be surprised when a riot kicks off in response to a police shooting or workers occupy the state capitol.
As anarchists, we are trying to engage in actions which bring people in and help give confidence and inspire forms of organization and methods of action. This is not always easy. But in the end, at least in the bay area, we need to ask ourselves in what ways have we been effective, and in what ways have we not? Have we allowed the relatively high number of anarchists in one place in the US to let us slip into inaction when it comes to engagement of those outside of our circles? Are we more interested in just organizing ourselves than those we face similar conditions with, possible affinities, or (maybe now) live around?
The numbers involved in each action as well as the outcome greatly affect how the ‘black bloc,’ or any antagonistic and confrontational proletarian force, is perceived. For instance, if on Sunday during the anti-colonial/war/capitalist march called for by Afghans for Peace, similar such actions would have occurred across the country, in which similar groups of several hundred would have converged, likewise targeting banks and capitalist property and fought the police, many would speak of a new rising fight-back and a return to an anti-war movement that in the face of Obama has seemingly forgotten that thousands in the Middle East are dying through military occupation, bombings, and now more than ever, drone strikes. If this context would have been different, those in the streets of Oakland would be seen as part of a return to a new militancy that sought to stop the war that much of the Left forgot about; complacent with the election of a President that simply continued the slaughter brought on by Clinton and Bush before him.
Imagine if across the US, similar actions such as the ones that were attempted in SF around Columbus Day were attempted throughout the Americas? Those 20, who with their mug shots plastered in the corporate press comprise a variety of gender and racial backgrounds, would be seen as heroes – with support and donations flowing their way.
But we cannot side step the statement made by Boots without taking it seriously, even if we do not agree with it. As he writes, “The use of the blac[k] bloc tactic in all situations is not useful. As a matter of fact, in situations such as the one we have in Oakland, its repeated use has become counter-revolutionary.” Clearly the use of black bloc is all situations has not been useful, which is why it has not been used in every situation, (i.e., anarchists are involved in a variety of actions). The point moreover, is that the tactic has not always been successful, both in generating involvement from outside the hardcore militants and in accomplishing its goals during various actions. But, to write off the black bloc completely is to write off over a decade of action in the bay that has seen the generalization of struggle, the deepening of conflict, and the inclusion of a variety of participants at times.
As the recent weekend of actions in the bay area have shown, anarchists, especially when they use the tactic of the black bloc on their own, often are isolated and easily contained and repressed by the State. While the actions over the weekend were praise worthy in the fact that they were an attempt to respond to calls for solidarity and involve the anarchist movement in anti-colonial struggles (especially when so much of the Left and ‘the working class’ refuses to support such struggles or even keep their torch lit), ranging from indigenous people to those in Afghanistan, it also shows the degree in which anarchists have few supporters (although a very large influence) in the streets outside of a radical hardcore.
Boots points out a difference in context between how the anarchists in Greece are seen as opposed to those in Oakland, by stating that those in Athens are from the areas in which they riot and are part of “militant campaigns” that happen throughout the year. But of course, anyone who knows anarchists well, even if they do not political or tactically agree with them knows that most anarchists are involved in publishing and propaganda, (AK Press, BayofRage.com, the Anarchist Bookfair, Little Black Cart, etc), the running of social and community centers (the Holdout, Bound Together Books, the Long Haul), and organizing work, ranging from action against foreclosures to Copwatch to squatting homes. Clearly, anarchists have also been very much involved in Occupy Oakland and have helped to push it in a direction that other camps have not. But moreover, the context of Greece is much different from Oakland, ranging from the history of the military dictatorship, the no-go zones for police on campuses, to the crack epidemic made real by the US government and the realities of the racialized order of US capital.
Despite the differences, it is worth noting by reading through, “We Are An Image From the Future,” a book written by Greek anarchists after the 2008 insurrection, that according to some, tactics that were used solely (or at least by and large) by anarchists prior to 2008 were picked up by others after the outbreak of the December 2008 revolt. According to the authors, it was the continuous and committed actions of anarchists throughout the years and in a variety of struggles that led to their actions having wider support and resonance within Greek society (and hey, looting grocery stores and giving shit away doesn’t hurt).
Clearly, where there has been fire, anarchists have sought to bring gasoline. The argument that anarchists in the bay area have not been involved in ongoing struggles in the area is obviously false. The degree to the quality of this involvement is open for debate that I will leave to those who live in the area.
For many young people, both non-black youth from the bay area and Oakland itself, both from the working class or outside of it, as well as the young black youths from Oakland that I have met through Occupy Oakland – black bloc tactics have created a vortex in which many of us have the ability to meet in struggle. Hopefully out of these situations, other struggles, organizing, and action can continue. On the other hand, for many within the Left, the black bloc has been alienating. As for the ‘mainstream’ Americans, or those within Oakland that find themselves in agreement with the Occupy Movement yet still put off by the black bloc, ‘vandalism,’ or people wearing masks, I ask people like Boots Riley what kind of actions could be carried out which pull these people into political action yet still would represent a real challenge and contestation with the State and capital? While clearly, not everyone is at that point, we still most ask ourselves what struggles will get more people off the couch or away from their phones if not what we already have been doing.
Black bloc has alienated many, but it’s unclear if these people would support revolutionary action to begin with, or if the working-class or poor participants (largely youths) that have been drawn in by the militant actions of Occupy outweigh those that have been alienated by it (largely less radical and older). Perhaps we will never know. But we can start to and engage in projects that attempt to meet people where they are at, and attempt to speak with conditions and frustrations that we both feel together. For those interested in such a project we are often faced with a catch-22. We want to foster self-organization and direct action, but most people are often only interested in movements that can benefit them and get them things. We have to find the projects and struggles which do both.
For myself, a bigger question for anarchists everywhere, but especially those in the bay area, is why have we not played a larger role in the struggles that have broken out that were inspired directly by the Occupy Movement itself? I am speaking to the battle to occupy the farm near UC Berkeley, the occupation of public schools, and also the attempt to squat and form a library in East Oakland. Clearly, anarchists have been very involved in these struggles along with others since their beginnings, but if we are seeking to create situations in which more militant actions can have greater support it would seem that it would be here, in which the desire of people to take and hold space and use it in their own interests (at times) against capital, that we can find the greatest possibility.
Two recent conversations I had with two anarchist comrades, both recent residents of Oakland, one a woman of color and the other a white male, are telling. The former, when asked if they were still excited by Oakland and its revolutionary possibilities as when they moved there over a year ago replied to a conversation they had with a comrade in T.A.C. before May Day after they were asked if they were excited about the upcoming day of action. The comrade from T.A.C., who was heading off to help open a squat in East Oakland replied, “It’s just another day.” My friend commented that it seemed we were putting all of our energy into, “These big days of action,” as opposed to something deeper that was based around ongoing organizing and struggles. The latter friend later commented, “I’m sick of basing how good something is on the level of property destruction.”
These sentiments bring up an old tension: do we put more energy into larger events that are designed to bring in large bodies of people to do xyz, or do we spend our energy into organizing, infrastructure, or ‘educational’ campaigns that may involve smaller groups of people? Personally, I would like to see larger events or ‘days of action,’ come out of the struggles and organizing that we are doing on the ground, and the daily practices of class struggle we are engaged in throughout our lives. We need to build our capacity to defend our squats and radical spaces when they are evicted and attacked by the police. We need to build our capacity to respond to the State when it murders and attacks people. We need to build the networks of solidarity and support that strengthen working-class self-activity and direct action. We need to build our ability to grow our own food and solve our own problems outside of the State. ‘Black bloc’ type activity will be a part of all of these, sometimes offensively, and sometimes defensively, as the battle for control over the streets and territory in poor and working class areas will become more and more contested.
For those that were arrested both on Saturday and also took to the streets on Sunday, I have nothing but solidarity and support. I support those that took militant action just as I do the ILWU workers who destroyed EGT grain or those that looted Footlocker during the riots over Oscar Grant. To support proletarian action is to support proletarian action. The degree in which more and more people will be brought into revolutionary actions and situations is much more up to all people to come into conflict with class-society and their own conditions, than it is to the ‘revolutionaries’ who wear the titles of ‘activist’ or ‘anarchist.’ If we are able to meet these others and link up with them and aid their struggles, making them ours, is up to us.
Clearly though, for anarchists seeking a strategy which spreads tactics and ideas of self-organization and direct action without simply trying to “make people into anarchists,” we do need to think hard about how we go about such a project. We should be wary about trying simply to organize ourselves and only speak to each other – for it is exactly when we reach outside of our radical ghetto that we become the most powerful and the most influential – as well as the most subversive. Many will agree with me that there is more possibility in attempting to expand and deepen the existing struggles and tensions within class society, than an endless progression of days of action called for and attended by ourselves alone.
Having said that, to the comrades facing jail time and fines, beaten by the SFPD, can we give them anything but love and support? Slandered in the media, demonized by much of the Left, and cast out by former comrades, these people heeded a call for a day of action in solidarity with Native and anti-colonial struggles and decided to risk their freedoms and take to the streets. Such a desire is as noble as it is revolutionary. For those that question their tactics, I ask only what you would suggest in their absence.
Black bloc type actions will not cease – they will continue; across the world, and especially in the bay area. More and more, proletarian activity, as it comes into conflict with the State and its police forces, will continue to look more and more like ‘black bloc,’ (as the recent events in the Middle East, Chile, London, Greece, Spain and elsewhere point to everyday…) although more and more, hopefully it will refuse to identify as such. At the same time, more and more, those engaging in such tactics will care more about defending territory and neighborhoods than breaking the cars of someone within them. We will care more about looting grocery stores than trying to find the one bank window on the street that will break. We will care more about physically taking out the infrastructure of the State than we will about symbolic property destruction. We will spend more energy defending what we have from the State while at the same time expanding our occupations, squats, gardens, forms of organization, and associations. If we are to continue in our revolutionary project, this will be something forced on us by present conditions at one point or another. The question is: can we ready ourselves now for what is to come?
More and more, riots and full on rebellions will be a recurring response to police violence and repression and collective acts of rebellion will become more conflictual and seek ways to stay anonymous. For revolutionaries, we must seek to deepen these situations, to make them more subversive, and connect the seemingly disconnected nodes of class struggle that exist. We will not be able to call for the day in which the halls of power are stormed, but we can help to create the affinities and relationships which can help us maneuver in the coming terrain. As the economic and ecological crisis deepens, the need for total social revolution and the complete destruction of capitalist civilization is needed now more than ever.
Someone that has not yet run out of bullets, but will still continue to grab rocks.
- Category: Occupy
- Created on Tuesday, 09 October 2012 11:37
- Written by Boots Riley
Boots Riley, a revolutionary artist and Occupy activist, weighs in on the strategic wisdom of Black Bloc tactics being employed and their affect since the ebbing of the Occupy movement. Boots wrote this comment in reference to a recent action in Oakland (not the 10/6/12 action in San Francisco where 22 activists were arrested). The following comment by Boots was posted on facebook.
by Boots Riley
Similarly, the crowd of folks at Somar were there for the end of Matthew Africa’s memorial- DJs and artists, and generally a group of folks who collectively probably know everybody in Oakland- I’m not exactly sure what or if anything happened before I saw the scene, but folks poured out of the club en masse to protect it, yelling at the march and telling folks to go home.
If “the job of the revolutionary is to make the revolution seem irresistible”, the use of blac bloc has been making a revolutionary movement pretty damn resistible in Oakland, CA.
When almost every conversation I have with folks from Oakland about Occupy Oakland, has the smashing of windows brought up as a reason people don’t like that grouping, scientifically it means the tactic is not working. It doesn’t matter that technically it’s only smashing corporate windows. It matters that people don’t want to join because of that. It’s not about violence/non-violence. The truth is that it’s not always corporate windows. I’m for certain tactics that would be classified as violent- even ones that have to do with fighting human beings. But what it’s about is a tactic that is detrimental in this situation. I would like to win, thank you. Not just lose with style. A style that the people around you don’t understand.
Many folks bring up Greece when debating these things. I’ve been to Athens. What I witnessed there was that the movement was tied in with the people. Most of those involved grew up in Athens, they also are part of militant campaigns that happen throughout the year, which the people support, moreover, they just know the people of the city of Athens. And, perhaps due to this situation, there are way more of them.
It’s not due to lack of outreach that Saturday’s “West Coast Anti-Capitalist March”- meaning, one that not only reached out to the whole west coast- was only able to draw 150-300 people. It’s because it’s not what the people care about- not framed in that way- and because others are either bored with the tactic or scared of being arrested because some kid breaks the window of some used car that probably costs less than their own Honda Civic. But, that was in SF. Most of the folks doing this don’t know anyone from Oakland, and- I believe- don’t plan on doing any sort of base building to find out where the pulse of the people actually are.
If you ask most people in East or West Oakland what their problems are- they’ll say being broke is there number one problem. Campaigns that use militant mass movement tactics to achieve changes in that situation are ones that have a revolutionary potential.
I’ve talked to many a person in Occupy Oakland and even in some anarchist collectives who agree with me on this, but the idea is that to criticize this publicly is to make the movement look divided. But, the public non-critique of this has the effect of making the movement look monolithic, hegemonic and uninviting. Instead, people talk shit about each other behind their backs, split and divide into smaller and smaller affinity groups. All the while, not critiquing the counter-revolutionary bullshit that’s making them irrelevant in the minds of the people they ostensibly want to organize.
Let’s get this shit right and win.
- Category: Occupy
- Created on Thursday, 27 September 2012 11:13
- Written by Jodi Dean
This was originally posted on occupyeverything.org.
How Occupy Wall Street is re-centering the economy is an open, fluid, changing, and intensely debated question. It’s not a traditional movement of the working class organized in trade unions or targeting work places, although it is a movement of class struggle (especially when we recognize with Marx and Engels that the working class is not a fixed, empirical class but a fluid, changing class of those who have to sell their labor power in order to survive). Occupy’s use of strikes and occupations targets the capitalist system more broadly, from interrupting moves to privatize public schools to shutting down ports and stock exchanges (I think of the initial shut downs in Oakland and on Wall Street as proof of concepts, proof that it can be done). People aren’t being mobilized as workers; they are being mobilized as people, as everybody else, as the rest of us, as the majority—99%–who are being thoroughly screwed by the top one percent in education, health, food, the environment, housing, and work.
Occupation as Political Form
by Jodi Dean
Editor’s Note: Jodi Dean presented the following text as a keynote lecture for the 2012 iteration of Transmediale, an annualnew media festival in Berlin. The theme of the 2012 festival was “In/compatibility…the condition that arises when things do not work together.” The section of the festival at which the author presented was titled “Incompatible Publics.” 1 The discussion that followed Dean’s lecture was moderated by Krystian Woznicki2 —the text of the discussion is included below. –MW
I’m going to talk today about Occupy Wall Street in light of our theme of incompatible publics. I claim that the occupation is best understood as a political form of the incompatibility between capitalism and the people. To call it a political form is to say that it is configured within a particular social-historical setting. To call it a political form of the incompatibility between capitalism and the people is to say that it has a fundamental content and that this content consists in the failure of capitalism to provide an economic system adequate to the capacities, needs, demands, and general will of the people. More bluntly put, to think about the Occupy movement in light of the idea of incompatible publics is to locate the truth of the movement in class struggle (and thus reject interpretations of the movement that highlight multiplicity, democracy, and anarchism—autonomism). So that’s what I hope to convince you of today.
The movement opened up by Occupy Wall Street is the most exciting event on the US political left since 1968—it’s like, my god, finally we can breathe, finally there is an opening, a possibility of organized mass political action. As in 1968, the current movement extends globally, encompasses multiple grievances, and is being met by violent police responses. From Egypt to New York, Spain to Oakland, hundreds of thousands of people have responded to capitalist dispossession by taking space, occupying sites that, ostensibly open and public, the process of occupation reveals to be closed to the many and belonging to the few. Also as in 1968, an economic wrong, the wrong of capitalism, is at the core of the political rupture. Recall that in May ‘68, a general strike shut down the French economy. Students occupied the Sorbonne and workers occupied factories. In September 2011, protesters in New York occupied Wall Street. They were inspired by revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, the February occupation of the Wisconsin State Capitol, and the 15 May movement of the squares in Spain (as well as by the occupation movements that in recent years have accompanied protests over cutbacks in education and increases in university tuition in California, New York, and the UK).
That Wall Street was actually the nearby privately owned Zuccotti Park didn’t really matter. What mattered, and what opened up a new space of political possibility in the US, was that people were finally waking up to the ultimate incompatibility between capitalism and the people—after forty years of neoliberalism’s assault on the working and middle class and after a decade of rapacious class warfare in which the top one percent saw an income increase of 275% (their share of the national income more than doubling) while most of the rest of the country saw an income increase of roughly 1% a year. Instead of continuing in the fantasy that “what’s good for Wall Street, is good for Main Street,” the occupation claimed the division between Wall Street and Main Street and named this division as a fundamental wrong, the wrong of inequality, exploitation, and theft.
Occupy Wall Street’s staging of the incompatibility between capitalism and the people was visible, material, and practical. Visibly, urban camping brought to the heart of New York’s financial district the reality of dispossession. It forced Wall Street to look homelessness in the face, both the homelessness of the New Yorkers that the city had been trying to repress, hide, and disperse and that of those across the country who had been evicted in the foreclosure crisis and left to dwell in make shift tent cities reminiscent of shanty towns and Hoovervilles of the Depression. Materially, the presence of people crowded into places where capitalism has determined they don’t belong was manifest in the array of physical needs impressing and expressing themselves in Zuccotti park—the absence of public toilets and showers, the impermissibility of gas-run generators, open flames for cooking, and the illegality of tents resulted in a series of issues encapsulated in the media under the headings public health, filth, and disease. Practically, Occupy Wall Street—and the police reaction to it—led to the proliferation of police barriers all over downtown Manhattan. Even more important, the daily activities of occupiers strove to bring into being new practices of sociality, new ways of living together, ways no longer coordinated by the capital but by discussion, mutuality, and consensus. Not surprisingly, in the course of these practical engagements, new incompatibilities emerged and were only beginning to be addressed when Zuccotti Park was evicted.
The movement’s early slogan, “We are the 99 Percent,” quickly went viral. It spread in part because of the Tumblr collection of images and testimonials to the hardships of debt, foreclosure, and unemployment, a “coming out” of the closet imposed by the conceit that everyone is middle class, everyone is successful. Conservative politicians bristled with indignation at what they depicted as the unfairness of the many who were now refusing to accept the one percent’s seizure of an outrageously unfair portion of the common product. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney scolded what he called the “politics of envy.” These privileged carriers of the 99 versus the 1 percent meme couldn’t quite grasp the change in the situation, the shift in the status quo whereby people no longer believed the myths that “greed is good” and “inequality benefits everyone.” They attempted to turn the issue around, making themselves into victims of exclusion and invective, as if the 99% were the criminals, as if our primary condition had been mutually compatible until some malcontents started to cause trouble, as if class war were a new rather than constitutive incompatibility between those who need to work to live and those who have enough capital not to. A fortunate effect of this tactic was the continued accentuation of class division—as a recent poll from the Pew Foundation found, 66% of Americans think that divisions between rich and poor are strong or very strong, an increase of 19% since 2009. Not only is this view held in every demographic category but more people think that class division is the principle social division than they do any other division.
The slogan “We are the 99%” highlights the division between the wealth of the top 1% and the rest of us. Mobilizing the gap between the 1% with nearly half the country’s wealth and the other 99% with the rest of it, the slogan asserts a collectivity. It does not unify this collectivity under a substantial identity—race, ethnicity, religion, nationality. Nor does it proceed as if there were some kind of generic and unified public. It rejects the fantasy of a unified, non-antagonistic public to assert the “we” of a divided people, the people divided between expropriators and expropriated. In the setting of an occupied Wall Street, this “we” is a class, one of two opposed and hostile classes, those who have and control wealth, and those who do not.
The assertion of a numerical difference as a political difference, that is to say, the politicization of a statistic, expresses capitalism’s reliance on fundamental inequality—“we” can never all be counted as the top 1%. Thus, the announcement that “We are the 99%” names an appropriation, a wrong. In so doing, it voices as well a collective desire for equality and justice, for a change in the conditions through which one percent seizes the bulk of collective wealth for themselves, leaving 99% with the remainder.
“We are the 99%” also effaces the multiplicity of individuated, partial, and divided interests that fragment and weaken the people as the rest of us. The count dis-individualizes interest and desire, reconfiguring both into a common form. Against capital’s constant attempts to pulverize and decompose the collective people, the claim of the 99% responds with the force of a belonging that not only cannot be erased but that capital’s own methods of accounting produce: as capital demolishes all previous social ties, the counting on which it depends provides a new figure of belonging. Capital has to measure itself, count its profits, its rate of profit, its share of profit, its capacity to leverage its profit, its confidence or anxiety in its capacity for future profit. Capital counts and analyzes who has what, representing to itself the measures of its success. These very numbers can be, and in the slogan “We are the 99%” they are, put to use. They aren’t resignified—they are claimed as the subjectivation of the gap separating the top one percent from the rest of us. With this claim, the gap becomes a vehicle for the expression of communist desire, that is, for a politics that asserts the people as a divisive force in the interest of over-turning present society and making a new one anchored in collectivity and the common.
Admittedly, the occupiers of Wall Street, and the thousand other cities around the world with occupations of their own, have not reached a consensus around communism (as if communism could even name a consensus). The movement brings together a variety of groups and tendencies—not all of them compatible. Many in the movement see that as Occupy’s strength. They see Occupy as an umbrella movement capable of including a multiplicity of interests and tendencies. For them, “occupy” serves as a kind of political or even post-political open source brand that anyone can use. Because occupation is a tactic that galvanizes enthusiasm, they suggest, it can affectively connect a range of incompatible political positions, basically working around fundamental gaps, divisions, and differences. The mistake here is not only in the effort to ignore multiple incompatibilities; it is also, and more importantly in the evasion of the real antagonism that matters, the one that connects the movement to its setting—class struggle. “Tactics as brand” neglects the way occupation is a form that organizes the incompatibility of capitalism with the people and emphasizes instead a flexibility and adaptability already fully compatible with capitalism. I’ll say a little more about this.
Reduced to “tactic as brand” or “tactic as generator of affective attachment,” occupation responds in terms of communicative capitalism’s ideology of publicity. Communicative capitalism announces the convergence of democracy and capitalism in networked communication technologies that promise access and equality, enjoin participation, and celebrate creative engagement. Occupation understood as a tactic of political branding accepts that promise and demonstrates its failure. Communicative capitalism promises access? To whom and where? It promises access to everyone everywhere but really means to enhance and enable capital’s access to everything everywhere. The Occupy movement demonstrates this by occupying spaces that are ostensibly public but practically open only to capital; the 99% don’t really belong. Similarly, communicative capitalism promises participation—but that really means personalization; better to do as an individual before a screen and not a mass behind a barricade. And, communicative capitalism promises creative engagement—but that really means user-generated spectacular content that can be monetized and marketed, not collective political appropriation in a project of resistance. So the Occupy movement accepts the promises of communicative capitalism and demonstrates the contradictory truth underlying then. The resulting disturbance—pepper spray, riot gear, eviction—reveals the incompatibility at communicative capitalism’s heart.
Yet these demonstrations of contradiction rest uneasily against the acceptance of the promises of communicative capitalism. Like communicative capitalism, the movement also valorizes participation, creative engagement, and accessibility. One of the ideological features of “tactics as brand” is the idea that Occupy is an idea, practice, term accessible to anyone. And then there is equality. In the circuits of communicative capitalism, the only equality is that of any utterance, any contribution to the flow, whether it’s a critique of economic austerity of a video of baby kittens. Here, too, the movement can get reabsorbed as ever more informational and affective content, something which may appear on one’s screen, and be felt as good or bad before an image of the next thing pops up. At this point, the tactic of occupation is compatible with the system it ostensibly rejects. The same holds for the movement’s rhetorical and ideological emphases on plurality and inclusivity. They merge seamlessly into communicative capitalism and thereby efface the economic crisis at the movement’s heart. It’s already the case that there are multiple ideas and opportunities circulating on the internet. It’s already the case that people can hold events, form digital groups, and carry out discussions. People can even assemble in tents on the sidewalks—as long as they are in line for event tickets or a big sale at Wal-Mart. Communicative capitalism is an open, mutable field. That aspect of the movement—inclusivity—isn’t new or different. It’s a component of Occupy that is fully compatible with the movement’s setting in communicative capitalism. What’s new (at least in the last thirty years) is the organized collective opposition to the capitalist expropriation. Particularly in the face of the multiple evictions and massive police response to the occupations, the movement faces the challenge of keeping present and real the gap, the incompatibility, between occupation and the ordinary media practices and individualized acts of resistance that already comprise the faux-opposition encouraged in everyday life.
Thus, it is necessary to consider the gap between occupation and its politicization, that is to say, between occupation as a tactic and occupation as a form operating in a determined setting. The political form of occupation for us depends on its fundamental, substantial component of class struggle as what connects it to its social setting. In this setting, occupation installs practical unity where there was fragmentation, collectivity where there was individualism, and division where there was the amorphous imaginary of the public.
As the occupation movement unfolded in the US during the fall of 2011, it was clear that the occupiers were a self-selected vanguard, establishing and maintaining a continuity that enabled broader numbers of people to join in the work of the movement. Into a field more generally configured around convenience, ease of use, and individual preference—a field noted more for “clictivism” than any more strenuous or exacting kind of politics, occupation installs demanding processes through which protesters select and discipline themselves—not everyone can devote all their time to the revolution. Most activists affiliated with a specific occupation didn’t occupy all the time. Some would sleep at the site and then go to their day jobs or schools. Others would sleep elsewhere and occupy during the day and evening. Still others would come for the frequent, multiple hour-long General Assemblies. Nonetheless, occupation involved people completely, as Lukacs would say “with the whole of their personality.” As the occupations persisted over weeks and months, people joined in different capacities—facilitation, legal, technology, media, medical, food, community relations, education, direct action—participating in time-intensive working groups and support activities that involved them in the movement even as they weren’t occupying a space directly.
The continuity of occupation has been a potent remedy to the fragmentation, localism, and transitoriness of contemporary left politics. Occupation unites and disciplines via local, self-organized, assemblies. This “unity” has not meant accord with a “party line” or set of shared demands or common principles. Rather, it’s “practical unity” as an effect of the conscious sharing of an organizational form. Unity, then, is an affiliation around and in terms of the practice of occupation. One of the most significant achievements of Occupy Wall Street in its first two months was the change in the shape of the left. Providing a common form that no one could ignore, it drew a line: are you with or against occupation?
Given the collapse of the institutional space of left politics in the wake of the decline of unions and the left’s fragmentation into issues and identities, occupation asserts a much needed and heretofore absent common ground from which to join in struggle. In dramatic contrast to communicative capitalism’s promise of easy action, of a politics of pointing and clicking and linking and forwarding, Occupy Wall Street says No! It’s not so easy. You can’t change the world isolated behind your screen. You have to show up, work together, and collectively confront the capitalist class. Protest requires living bodies in the streets.
Virtually any place can be occupied. Part of the affective pleasure of the movement in its initial weeks was the blooming of ever more occupations. The spread of the form spoke to the salience of its issues. Without any coordination from the top, without a national organization of any kind, people asserted themselves politically by adopting occupation as the form for political protest, occupying parks, sidewalks, corners, and squares (although not a state capitol as had been done during the Wisconsin protests at the beginning of 2011). Yet more than political symbolism, the fact that occupation could be adopted in myriad, disparate settings meant that multiple groups of people quickly trained themselves in a variety of aspects of political work. They learned specific local legal codes and shared tactical knowledge of how to manage media and police. Occupation let them develop and share new capacities.
So, duration and adoptability are key benefits of the occupation form. In contrast with the event-oriented alter-globalization movement, occupation establishes a fixed political site as a base for operations. A more durable politics emerges as the claiming of a space for an indeterminate amount of time breaks with the transience of contemporary media culture. People have the opportunity to be more than spectators. After learning of an occupation, they can join. The event isn’t over; it hasn’t gone away. Implying a kind of permanence, occupation is ongoing. People are in it till “this thing is done”—until the basic practices of society, of the world, have been remade. This benefit, however, is also a drawback. Since occupations are neither economically self-sustaining nor chosen tactically as sites from which to expand on the ground (block by block, say, until a city is taken), built into their form is a problem of scale.
In addition to these two attributes of occupation as a form, some of the decisions taken in the initial weeks of the Occupy Wall Street movement added to its ability to establish and maintain continuity. Prior to the September 17, 2011 action, activists from New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts and the artist group 16 Beaver met together to plan the event. The consensus-based approach to collective decisions in meetings called “General Assemblies” was adopted at this time (it had already been a component of the 15 May movement in Spain). Subsequent occupations followed New York’s lead, calling their meetings “General Assemblies” and basing decisions on consensus. Consensus let the movement claim an inclusivity missing from mainstream politics in that everything had to be agreed to by everyone. Participants were doing more than giving money or signing petitions—they were making decisions on the most fundamental concerns of the movement. The emphasis on consensus also meant that no group or position was excluded from the outset. Breaking with tendencies toward the specification of issues and identities, the movement worked to combine voices so as to amplify their oppositional political force. More superficially, but no less importantly, the hand-signals used to guide discussions toward consensus—upturned hands with twinkling fingers to signal assent; cross-arms to block—became a marker and practice of belonging to the movement. Common slogans, especially “We are the 99%”, also linked disparate occupations together into a common movement.
Maintaining and extending this collectivity, this practical unity incompatible with communicative capitalism, has been and remains a challenge, perhaps the biggest challenge the movement faces. Counter-revolutionary tendencies work with all their might to close or conceal the gap of collective desire for collectivity, for collective approaches to common concerns with production, distribution, and stewardship of common resources. In the first days of Occupy Wall Street, the mainstream media tried to ignore the movement. After the movement was impossible to ignore, after the protesters had demonstrated determination and the police had reacted with orange containment nets and pepper spray, other efforts to efface the fundamental division opened up by Occupy Wall Street emerged. These continue to try to make the movement fully compatible with politics as usual and thus un-threatening to business as usual. They work to reabsorb the movement into familiar functionality and convenient dis-functionality, and thereby fill-in or occlude the gap the movement installs. I’ll mention three primary efforts to eliminate the incompatibility of Occupy with the status quo: democratization, moralization, and individualization.
I use “democratization” to designate attempts to frame the movement in terms of American electoral politics. One of the most common democratizing moves has been to treat Occupy Wall Street as the Tea Party of the left. So construed, the movement isn’t something radically new; it’s derivative. The Tea Party has already been there and done that. Of course, this analogy fails to acknowledge that the Tea Party is astro-turf, organized by Dick Armey and funded by the Koch brothers. A further democratizing move immediately reduces the significance of the movement to elections: what does Occupy Wall Street mean for Obama? Does it strengthen the Democratic Party? Will it pull it back toward the center? This democratizing move omits the obvious question: if it were about Obama and the Democratic Party, it would be about Obama and the Democratic Party—not marches, strikes, occupations, and arrests.
A related democratization advises the movement to pursue any number of legislative paths, suggesting that it seek a Constitutional Amendment denying corporations personhood, change campaign finance laws, abolish the electoral college and the Federal Reserve. The oddness of these suggestions, the way they attempt to make the movement something it is not, to make it functional for the system we have, appears as soon as one recalls the primary tactic of struggle: occupying, that is, sleeping out of doors, in tents, in urban spaces. In New York, protesters were sleeping in the inhospitable financial district, outside in a privately owned park, attempting to reach consensus on a wide range of issues affecting their daily life together: what sort of coffee to serve, how to keep the park clean, how to keep people warm and dry, what to do about the drummers, how to spend the money that comes in to support the movement, what the best ways to organize discussions are, and so on. The language of democratization skips the actual fact of occupation, reformatting the movement in terms of a functional political system and then adapting the movement so that it fits this system. The problem with this way of thinking is that if the system were functional, people wouldn’t be occupying all over the country—not to mention the world for, indeed, an additional effect of the democratic reduction is to reduce a global practice and movement against capitalism into US-specific concerns with some dysfunction in our electoral system.
Finally, an additional democratization begins from the assumption that the movement is essentially a democratic one, that its tactics and concerns are focused on the democratic process. From this assumption democratization raises a critique of the movement: occupation actually isn’t democratic and so the protesters are in some sort of performative contradiction; they are incompatible with the democratic public because they are actively rejecting democratic institutions, breaking the law, disrupting public space, squandering public resources (police overtime can get expensive) and attempting to assert the will of a minority of vocal protesters outside of and in contradiction to democratic procedures. This line of argument has the benefit of exposing the incoherence in the more general democratization argument: occupation is not a democratic strategy; it is a militant, divisive tactic that expresses the fundamental division on which capitalism depends.
The second mode of division’s erasure, the second attempt to eliminate incompatibility between Occupy and the generic politics of a generic public, is moralization. Myriad politicians and commentators seek and have sought to treat the success of Occupy Wall Street in exclusively moral terms. For these commentators, the true contribution of the movement is moral, a transformation of the common sense of what is just and what is unjust. This line of commentary emphasizes greed and corruption, commending the movement for opening our eyes to the need to get things in order, to clean house.
What’s the problem here? The problem is that moralization occludes division as it remains stuck in a depoliticizing liberal formula of ethics and economics. It presumes that it can work around the incompatibility of the movement with capitalist democracy by ignoring the fundamental antagonism of class struggle. Rather than acknowledging the failure of the capitalist system, the contemporary collapse of its neoliberal form and the contradictions that are demolishing capitalism from within (global debt crises, unsustainable patterns of consumption, climate change, the impossibility of continued accumulation at the rate necessary for capitalist growth, mass unemployment and unrest), moralization proceeds as if a couple of bad apples—a Bernie Madoff here, a rogue trader there—let their greed get out of control. It then extends this idea of corruption (rather than systemic failure), blaming the “culture of Wall Street” or even the consumerism of the entire country, as if the United States were a whole and as a whole needed some kind of spiritual cleansing and renewal. In short, moralization treats Occupy Wall Street as a populist movement, mediating it in populist terms of a whole people engaging in the ritual of repentance, renewal, and reform. It proceeds as if the division Occupy Wall Street reveals and claims were a kind of infection to be cured rather than a fundamental antagonism that has been repressed.
The third attempt to eliminate the gap of incompatibility comes from individualization. Here an emphasis on individual choice denies the movement’s collectivity. So on the one hand there is an eclectic, menu-like presentation of multiple issues. Occupiers, protesters, and supporters are rendered as non-partisan individuals cherry-picking their concerns and exercising their rights of free speech and assembly. On the other hand there are the practices and tenets of the movement itself, particularly as it has been enacted in New York: decisions must be reached by consensus, no one can speak for another, each person has to be affirmed as freely and autonomously supporting whatever the GA undertakes. In each case, individualism not only supercedes collectivity, but it also effaces the rupture between the occupation and US culture more generally, a culture that celebrates and cultivates individuality and personalization. Given that the strength of Occupy Wall Street draws from collectivity, from the experience of groups coming together to occupy and protest, an experience amplified by the People’s Mic (the practice of collectively repeating the words of a speaker so that everyone can hear them), to emphasize individuality is to disavow the common at the heart of the movement. It reinserts the movement within the dominant culture, as if occupation were a choice like any other, as if choices weren’t themselves fantasies that individuals actually could determine their own lives or make a political difference in the context of the capitalist system and the class power of the top one percent.
Democratization, moralization, and individualization attempt to restore a fantastic unity or cohesive public where Occupy Wall Street asserts a fundamental division, the incompatibility between capitalism and the people. Whether as a democratic political system, a moral community, or the multiplicity of individuals, this fantasy is one that denies the antagonism on which capitalism relies: between those who have to sell their labor power to survive and those who do not, between those who not only have no choice but to sell their labor power but nonetheless cannot, because there are no buyers, or who cannot for wages capable of sustaining them, because there’s no such opportunity, and those who command, steer, and gamble upon the resources, fortunes, and futures of the rest of us for their own enjoyment.
The three modes of disavowing division miss the power of occupation as a form that asserts a gap by forcing a presence. This forcing is more than simply of people into places where they do not belong (even when they may ostensibly have a right). It’s a forcing of collectivity over individualism, the combined power of a group that disrupts a space readily accommodating of individuals. Such a forcing thereby puts in stark relief the conceit of a political arrangement that claims to represent a people that cannot be present, a divided people who, when present, instill such fear and insecurity that they have to be met by armed police and miles of barricades. It asserts the class division prior to and unremedied by democracy under capitalism. The incompatibility is fundamental, constitutive.
For all its talk, then, of horizontality, autonomy, and decentralized process, the Occupy movement is re-centering the economy, engaging in class warfare without naming the working class as one of two great hostile forces but instead by presenting capitalism as a wrong against the people. Instead of locating the crime of capitalism, its excesses and exploitation, primarily in the factory, it highlights the pervasive, intensive and extensive range of capitalist expropriation of lives and futures. As David Harvey notes (244) “the city is as a locus of class movement as the factory.” Occupy is putting capitalism back at center of left politics—no wonder, then, that it has opened up a new sense of possibility for so many of us: it has reignited political will and reactivated Marx’s insight that class struggle is a political struggle. As I mentioned before, a new Pew poll finds a nineteen percentage point increase since 2009 of the number of Americans who believe there are strong or very strong conflicts between the rich and poor. Two thirds perceive this conflict—and perceive it as more intense than divisions of race and immigration status (African Americans see class conflict as more significant than white people do).
How Occupy Wall Street is re-centering the economy is an open, fluid, changing, and intensely debated question. It’s not a traditional movement of the working class organized in trade unions or targeting work places, although it is a movement of class struggle (especially when we recognize with Marx and Engels that the working class is not a fixed, empirical class but a fluid, changing class of those who have to sell their labor power in order to survive). Occupy’s use of strikes and occupations targets the capitalist system more broadly, from interrupting moves to privatize public schools to shutting down ports and stock exchanges (I think of the initial shut downs in Oakland and on Wall Street as proof of concepts, proof that it can be done). People aren’t being mobilized as workers; they are being mobilized as people, as everybody else, as the rest of us, as the majority—99%–who are being thoroughly screwed by the top one percent in education, health, food, the environment, housing, and work. People are mobilized as those who are proletarianized and exploited in every aspect of our lives—at risk of foreclosure and unemployment, diminishing futures, increasing debts, shrunken space of freedom, accelerated dependence on a system that is rapidly failing Capitalism in the US has sold itself as freedom—but increasing numbers of us feel trapped, practically enslaved.
I want to close with the slogan “Occupy Everything.” The slogan seems at first absurd: we already occupy everything, so how can we occupy everything? What matters is the minimal difference, the shift in perspective the injunction to occupy effects. It’s a shift crucial to occupation as a political form that organizes the incompatibility between the people and capitalism. It enjoins us to occupy in a different mode, to assert our presence in and for itself, for the common, not for the few, the one percent. “Occupy Everything’s” shift in perspective highlights and amplifies the gap between what has been and what can be, between what “capitalist realism” told us was the only alternative and what the actuality of movement forced us to wake up to. The gap it names is the gap of communist desire, a collective desire for collectivity: we occupy everything because it is already ours in common.
To read the discussion that followed this talk, please go here.
- Category: Occupy
- Created on Friday, 21 September 2012 11:02
- Written by Jodi Dean
This comes from Possible Futures.
The problem that cuts through all the objections to demands is the movement’s inability to deal with antagonism. So the very question of demands brings to the fore the fact of division within the movement, a division that many—but not all—have wanted to deny.
Fortunately, the truths animating each of the objections suggest a way forward. In order to metamorphose from a protest movement into a revolutionary movement, Occupy will have to acknowledge division, build alternative practices and organizations, and assert a commonality.
A Movement Without Demands?
by Marco Deseriis and Jodi Dean
The question of demands infused the initial weeks and months of Occupy Wall Street with the endless opening of desire. Nearly unbearable, the absence of demands concentrated interest, fear, expectation, and hope in the movement. What did they want? What could they want? Commentators have been nearly hysterical in their demand for demands: somebody has got to say what Occupy Wall Street wants! In part because of the excitement accumulating around the gap the movement opened up in the deadlocked US political scene—having done the impossible in creating a new political force it seemed as if the movement might even demand the impossible—many of those in and around Occupy Wall Street have also treated the absence of demands as a benefit, a strength. Commentators and protesters alike thus give the impression that the movement’s inability to agree upon demands and a shared political line is a conscious choice.
Anyone who is familiar with the internal dynamics of the movement knows that this is not the case. Even if some occupations have released lists of demands, the entire question is bitterly contested in New York, where only independent organizations such as labor unions have released their own demands. In this essay, we claim that far from being a strength, the lack of demands reflects the weak ideological core of the movement. We also claim that demands should not be approached tactically but strategically, that is, they should be grounded in a long-term view of the political goals of the movement, a view that is currently lacking. Accordingly, in the second part of this text, we argue that this strategic view should be grounded in a politics of the commons. Before addressing the politics of the commons, however, we dispel three common objections that are raised against demands during general assemblies, meetings, and conversations people have about the Occupy movement.
First, demands are said to be potentially divisive as they may alienate those who disagree with them and discourage newcomers from a variety of backgrounds from joining it. The argument is that insofar as Occupy aspires to be a movement that expresses the views and interests of the vast majority of the social body, every attempt to define it through a politics of demands entails a reduction of this potentiality. We call this the anti-representational objection. Second, it is argued that demands reduce the autonomy of the movement insofar as they endow an external agent—notably, the government or some other authority—with the task of solving problems the movement cannot solve for itself. This second objection is usually accompanied by the argument that the movement should focus on “autonomous solutions” rather than demands. We call this point of view the autonomist objection. The third common objection, which stems from the second, is that by meeting some demands the government would be able to divide and integrate (parts of) the movement into the existing political landscape, thus undermining the movement’s very reason for being. We call this thecooptation objection. Some counteract this third objection with the idea of releasing “impossible demands,” i.e. demands that cannot be met without igniting a radical transformation of the system. The very impossibility of the demands is said to demonstrate the rigidity of the system, its inability to encompass much needed change. Impossible demands thus cannot be co-opted. This proposition is in turn rebuffed by pragmatists who argue that if demands are to be issued they should focus on attainable objectives so as to show that the movement can achieve concrete and measurable changes.
Let us first consider the anti-representational objection. The objection begins from a basic and unspoken assumption about OWS, namely, that the movement is an organic and undifferentiated bloc comprised of people from all walks of life, and all racial, cultural, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds. From this perspective, the slogan, “We are the 99 percent,” is seen not as a rhetorical strategy and political fiction but as the designation of an existing sociopolitical entity that would define itself in opposition to the 1 percent.
The anti-representational objection takes two primary forms. In its first, it insists that it is too early for demands. Because the movement is still young, it is argued, there has not been sufficient time for the 99 percent to reach consensus on the issues most important to it. Introducing demands now would hinder the organic unfolding of a collective discussion whereby the movement can articulate its own interests and desires. In the second (and more radical) form, the anti-representational objection argues that it is never the right time for demands. Demands always and necessarily activate a state apparatus apart from and over and against society. For example, anarchists and libertarians in the movement have repeatedly blocked proposals for introducing taxes on financial transactions and stronger oversight of the banking sector on the grounds that such proposals would expand the size of the government and the scope of its intervention.
Both the not now and not ever versions of the anti-representational objection obfuscate the fact that the 99 percent is not an actual social bloc. It is rather an assemblage of politically and economically divergent subjectivities. The refusal to be represented by demands is actually the refusal or inability to make an honest assessment of the social composition of the movement so as to develop a politics in which different forces and perspectives do not simply neutralize each other. Such inability is further obfuscated by emphases on democratic processes and participation. In order to avoid conflicts and pursue the myth of consensus, the movement produces within itself autonomously operating groups, committees, and caucuses. These groups are brought together through structures of mediation such as the General Assembly and the Spokes Council, which struggle to find a common ground amidst the groups members’ divergent political and economic positions. In other words, the emphasis on consensus, the refusal of demands, and the refusal of representation may well have served the purpose of inciting political desire and expanding the social base of the movement in its first phase. Nonetheless, it has installed in the movement a serious blindspot with regard to real divergences, a blindspot that has high costs in terms of political efficacy as serious proposals get watered down in order to meet with the agreement of those who reject their basic premises.
Nonetheless, there is a truth in the anti-representational objection: demands are divisive. They animate distinctions between “for” and “against” and “us” and “them.” This is the source of their mobilizing strength insofar as the expression of a demand provides not something that people can get behind but something that they must get behind if they are part of a movement or on the same side in struggle.
The autonomist objection is certainly better founded than the anti-representational objection. For autonomists (and anarchists), the practice of occupation and the very mode of existence of the movement are themselves prefigurative of a new, more democratic and more egalitarian world. The modes of action and interaction associated with occupation attempt to “be the change they want to see in the world.” Participants work to act in accordance with the ideals of mutuality and egalitarianism animating the movement against exploitation and inequality. The autonomist approach, then, emphasizes the creation of autonomous structures and new political organizations and practices. From this perspective, the problem with demands is not only that they provide life support to a dying system, but that they direct vital energies away from building new forms of collectivity ourselves. Demands focus the movement’s attention outside when it should be focused inside.
As with the anti-representational objection, the autonomist objection proceeds as if the multiplicity of political and economic interests of the 99 percent could immanently converge. Yet where the anti-representational objection ignores political differences, the autonomist objection overlooks economic ones. The practice of occupation that the autonomists imagine is full-time. It demands total commitment—living, breathing, and being the movement. The politics of remaking the world is anchored in supporting the occupation, primarily logistically. Many of the activities of logistical support, however, of necessity are not prefiguring at all but rather require interaction with dominant arrangements of power. Legal support involves lawyers, permits, injunctions. Someone has to pay for and someone has to make the tents and sleeping bags. Someone has to do the work of growing and preparing food. So the very practices of prefiguration in fact rely on infrastructures, goods, and services that are by and large provided, maintained, and distributed through capitalist means and relations. Additionally, many who would like to support the movement work to earn an income. With needs, debts, and responsibilities of their own, they want to participate in the movement yet not give up their jobs. Bluntly put, their economic position doesn’t give them the time that the practice of permanent occupation demands.
Both the anti-representational and the autonomist objections fail to recognize two key features of demands. First, we can make demands on ourselves. Second, demands are means not ends. Demands can be a means for achieving autonomous solutions. When demands are understood as placed on ourselves, the process of articulating demands becomes a process of subjectivation or will formation, that is, a process through which a common will is produced out of previously divergent positions. Rather than a liability to be denied or avoided, division becomes a strength, a way that the movement becomes powerful as our movement, the movement of us toward a common end.
If the truth in the anti-representational objection lies in its insight into the divisive nature of demands and the truth of the autonomist objection lies in its emphasis on making the world we want to live in, the truth of the co-optation objectionis its recognition of antagonism and division. The problem is that the objection as it has been raised in the movement misconstrues the location of the division that matters. The co-optation objection presents the problem as between the state and the movement rather than as a division already within, indeed, constitutive of, the movement itself. Instead of grappling with the multiplicity of different positions in the actuality of their economic conditions, the fear of co-optation posits that the strength of the movement comes from a kind of unity of anger and dissatisfaction that will dissipate in the face of any particular success. Thus, the anti-co-optation argument initiates a discussion about particular proposals, playing out their pros and cons. Will the demand for a national jobs plan mean that the movement has been co-opted by the unions? Will a push for a constitutional amendment to eliminate corporate personhood fold the movement into the Democratic Party? And isn’t the support of partisan organizations such as MoveOn a symptom that this co-optation is already under way? In pursuing such a discussion, the co-optation objection obscures actual and potential connections among different proposals. It thus reinforces, in the attempt of preventing it, the very fragmentation that has long plagued the contemporary Left.
The problem that cuts through all the objections to demands is the movement’s inability to deal with antagonism. So the very question of demands brings to the fore the fact of division within the movement, a division that many—but not all—have wanted to deny.
Fortunately, the truths animating each of the objections suggest a way forward. In order to metamorphose from a protest movement into a revolutionary movement, Occupy will have to acknowledge division, build alternative practices and organizations, and assert a commonality. The set of ideas and practices built around the notion of the commons fulfills this function. The commons is a finite resource whose mode of disposition and usage is determined by the community of its users and producers. The finitude of the commons enables us to address social inequality and environmental limits to capitalist development in their dialectical unity.
Against those who claim private rights and particular interests, then the idea of the commons asserts the primacy of collectivity and the general interest—an idea found in Aristotle’s emphasis on the common good as well as in the work of contemporary theorists such as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Silvia Federici, George Caffentzis, Iain Boal, Elinor Ostrom, Eben Moglen, Slavoj Žižek, and others.
A politics of the commons acknowledges division in that it begins from the shocking recognition that the commons does not exist. Destroyed and privatized by over two centuries of capitalist enclosure and “accumulation by dispossession,”1 what Elinor Ostrom calls “common-pool resources”2 have been reduced to tiny pockets of the world economy. To be sure, informal economies and communal practices such as worker-owned cooperatives, community-supported agriculture, community gardens, occupied and self-managed social centers and houses, free and open source software, are diffused at a molecular level everywhere. Yet the natural and social resources such practices mobilize are quantitatively irrelevant when compared to the wealth that is appropriated and exploited by capital. For instance, while cyber-enthusiasts such as Yochai Benkler point to the Internet as a vast repository of knowledge accessible to everyone and often managed in common by the Internet users themselves,3 these same technophiles overlook the fact that industrial production and agriculture rest by and large in private hands. Further, the apologists of the information commons often fail to recognize that such commons can be, and in fact is, functional to capitalist development as long as their fruits are productively reintegrated within the capitalist cycle. (One may think of the use of Linux in the public administrations of several developing countries and the adoption of open source software by corporations and military.)
If this is true, then the first question that stems from a radical politics of the commons is “how can truly anti-capitalist commons be created, recreated, and expanded”? It goes without saying that such a question points directly to the centrality of private property to capitalist accumulation—an issue that looms so large that most activists prefer to avoid it altogether. Demanding the creation and expansion of commons that are not subject to the imperative of accumulation and profit would make the divisions that are latent in the 99 percent apparent. Weary of the historical failure of actually existing socialism—and lacking large-scale models of alternative development—most Occupiers seem to content themselves with a neo-Keynesian politics that begins and often ends with demands for fiscal reform and government investment in strategic sectors such as infrastructure, green technologies, education, and health care. As we have noted above, however, these demands cannot be properly articulated as they meet the opposition of anarchists and autonomists who reject demands and focus instead on communal processes of self-valorization and self-organization. For the autonomists, the organizational forms of the movement are already functioning, in many ways, as institutions of the commons. Such a perspective fails to recognize that the vast majority of the resources managed by the movement are produced and distributed according to capitalist logic.
In this respect, while neo-Keynesian and socialist positions downplay and overlook existing processes of self-organization, the autonomist perspective cannot address the issue of the long-term sustainability of the movement insofar as it fails to recognize that the massive accumulation of wealth in the private sector is a major obstacle for an expansive politics of the commons. In our view, the autonomous organization of the movement and a politics based on radical demands have to go hand in hand if durable transformations are to be achieved. Once an expansive politics of the commons is adopted as the centerpiece of the movement’s strategy, demands become tactical devices in the service of such strategy rather than floating signifiers power can use to divide and conquer. From this perspective, every attempt the state makes to co-opt the movement through concessions enables an expansion of the communal management of common-pool resources—setting in motion institutional transformations whose political and symbolic power should not be underestimated.
Because a broad-based politics of the commons does not yet exist (even as the conditions are ripe for it) and will not emerge over-night, the tactical use of demands creates opportunities for testing and learning from experiments in managing the commons. For example, what if the environmental movement against hydraulic fracturing were to envision a national campaign to declare the ground waters a commons? This not only would prevent gas companies from putting at risk the lives of millions, but it would immediately empower water management boards elected by local communities with unprecedented powers. How would these governing bodies be constituted and how would they be run? Following this logic, we may also ask similar questions in regard to education, health care, and the production of energy. In each of these sectors, we may have to design solutions to manage these resources not as commodities but as goods whose mode of disposition and usage is determined by the community of their users and producers.
Such questions are only the beginning of a larger investigation that takes the commons not as a one-size-fit-all solution but as a mobile concept that can and should operate at different levels of granularity and on different plateaus. As a preliminary exploration, we suggest that a politics of the commons should operate on three levels: 1) the management of land and natural resources; 2) the production and reproduction of social life (including care work, housing, education, and labor); 3) the production and allocation of energy, knowledge, and information. Because these three layers interpenetrate one another, multiple conflicts arise as soon as one attempts to set priorities. Yet it is also clear that there are elements that cut transversally across these areas, namely, the understanding that the commons is a finite resource that can not only be extracted but needs to be actively reproduced. Such a notion, we believe, marks a decisive break with the capitalist system of production. This system has been thriving by constantly overcoming the limits to its own expansion—with the result of producing an unprecedented demographic explosion while bringing the life support systems to the brink of total collapse. The Occupy movement is an extraordinary opportunity to rethink this model. But in order to do so, the movement has to dispel the illusion that all proposals and visions are equivalent as long as they are democratically discussed, and begin to set priorities on the road to a truly transformative and visionary politics.
- David Harvey, The New Imperialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003). ↩
- Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1990). ↩
- Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006). ↩