Initiating a conversation is not always a matter of holding an idea inside of your mind and then releasing that idea into someone else’s mind for a shared time. Sometimes a conversation with its topic and type of participants is already there in the atmosphere, latent and easily brought to the forefront of our minds. It was in this second sense of conversations that I wrote an early little essay in my blog called On Conversations. The words and the ideas were already there and just waiting to be spoken. Someone or something had cracked the code of what people wanted to start talking about but couldn’t quite find the right avenue or opportunity to begin. And then all of the sudden it hits like an EMP, electrifying a crowd of people, and suddenly even timid individuals are transformed into loud-mouths.Continue reading “More on Conversations”
This question of organization in the age of the internet seems to be one of the most crucial in any political project. How do we relate to each other on the internet, blogosphere, email, comment sections and all? How does this new form of largely isolated interaction effect more vulnerable embodied assemblages (groups/collectives)? Coming together in a common place as proximal bodies for a common purpose can never be replaced and I feel it must be emphasized – even in a blog post. What blogging does for me and others (to get all meta on you) is exchange ideas, or, if not an equalized interaction, absorb and affect each other’s expressions. I’ve learned quite a bit from the blogosphere – it is a neat surrogate for academia – but the emplacement of the student at the screen as the site of learning and sharing has its drawbacks. The internet has a great many strange places within, but the one in which the embodied user tends to inhabit is the glowing screen.
The debt activism that Asta Taylor is involved in is one case that I can relate to: I’ve done some organizing with Strike Debt Bay Area. It is extremely difficult to reach out to people *as debtors* and organize individuals into a collective *as debtors*. The isolation and shame attached to the position of debtor vis-a-vis creditors makes it less than desirable to claim as a subjectivity to come out as and own (although ‘gay’, ‘queer’, and I’m sure many others have odd histories of their own worth noting), yet the vast majority of people here in America (and many other places) are debtors burdened by the extractive economy. Is it alone, in our rooms, cafés, and other places of comfort that we will break off from adherence to a morality that sucks our energies up and keeps us from straying off of the main road? For some people yes. But for a mass movement of active bodies, most people need to meet up with others in greater gatherings. Debtors Assemblies have played that role, but in order to get people to come, to build that force, you’ve got to advertise. If you want to get people to come to your events I’ll give you some advice I gave to some students at the last Strike Debt Bay Area meeting: images everywhere. Posters, flyers, stickers, bulletin boards, walls, heavily trafficked areas… If you have a good idea, you need to get in people’s faces.
Too often do I turn off my tablet after a few hours and then think: “Okay, what did I just do on that one screen?”
“The Internet is said to be a space of democratic expression and transformation, both culturally and politically. But how true is that claim? What are some of the economic, technical, and legal obstacles in place? Drawing from her recent book, “The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age,” and her experience as an artist and an activist, Astra Taylor — filmmaker, writer, and political organizer — addresses campaigns by musicians against streaming services and debtors against creditors to reflect on the larger question of how to organize and leverage change in an age of virtual networks — be they networks of cultural distribution or financial ones.”
Woke up late agin. 12:30 I think. Got on the mobile device to hit up a friend of mine I was suppose to meet earlier in the day. Eventually I get it together and pour some coffee and smoke a rolled up cigarette. Man have I been hitting the smokes lately. After sufficient waking time, I hop on the bike and ride the Metro over to the City.
I’m late. Can’t seem to be on time anymore, not that we ever set a definitive time. He’s already been to the park we were going to meet at, come home and gotten ready for a nap, sunburned. I drag him down to let me in to his living space filled with anti-capitalist, anti-state, and generally anti-society art and literature strewn all over the place. This has become a comfort zone for me, a reprieve. Big common area, tables and couches, and a general do-what-you-like attitude pervade. (It’s gone?)
We walk to the park (his second time today) gabbing about the meaning of privilege and its effectiveness in shutting people up who would otherwise resist vs. encouraging those who currently wouldn’t have without it. Looking back, it amazes me how fluent I’ve become in the lingo of the anti-caps – it literally just streams out my mouth when I relax with friends.
We approach the hilly park full of young and colorful people grouped up into small corpuscles. Each little crew has managed to separate themselves from each other by establishing a common distance between them that could probably be measured within a margin of error of a few inches. I make sure to comment on the lack of consciousness in the park. Only now (writing this) am I taken aback at the strangeness of myself commenting on the “consciousness of the masses.” Remembering the days of blissful indifference takes concerted reflection; my self-confidence, together with a willingness towards self-criticism, has entrenched a defiant stance that I’m happy to keep.
We lie on the grass and talk – it’s getting hotter. We’ve done this before. Sprawling out a few zines and books on the ground between us, philosophy of the European flavor plus what some might call “ultra-left” pamphlets, and begin. He’s a declared egoist, anti-civ guy and I’m fine with it. We’re past he initial pointing out of obvious hypocrisies and ironies; we know the situation we’re in, the systemic impasse. We speak together precisely because of this, because we can see the composition of forces constricting us, and we’re willing to change it. It is a question of how at this point. The fuel to light the fire already exists: we need a trajectory.
I speak about the labyrinth metaphor and its connection with another article that was laid on me by a mutual friend. One was about the labyrinth of the history of science & philosophy, the other about the labyrinth of a situationist’s dérive through the city that begins and ends with a undeveloped hint at “the occupy thing”. In a dérive, the city does the guiding. The specificities of the urban environment are supposed to do the directing, while the ambience invokes and provokes the participants around. The article seemed to suggest the entrance and exit to the labyrinth of the city lay in occupying the square, with so much history, geography, and ideas mashed in the middle. He drops me another article by the same author about negation and ethics. I would read it later that night in my bed.
We muse about civilization, humanity, the Earth, the police… On the way back we agree about the clarity to be found in the revelation that there is an enemy to position oneself against – an enemy with its vice grip on the future. But I stop and launch into another improvised digression on the choosing of one’s enemies. An antagonism born of revenge against the lowly denizens appears trite within the context of the thoroughgoing disintegration of the system of the Earth by the system of Capital. One’s enemies tell much about who one is. Yet we cannot seemed to get beyond the police.
Having family obligations I must depart. We have discussed enough words and theory to chew on until our next meeting. After all, he’s facing a legal battle over his living space that demands clarity of language. The pain of departing from my friends had grown noticeably more acute since things have died down. So much so that within the last half-hour or so, a feeling of forlornness dawns on me early and we tarry about his space.
The spot has since been evicted. The building was bought and they were kicked out of the city by the new dollar-eyed landowner. I don’t often go to that part of the city anymore.
I arrive late for the show. The doors have closed and I will not see the play that my family has invited me to. Instead I grab a beer at a sports bar and watch the end of a baseball game. An old gay man stands at the corner of the bar and talks about his 15-minutes of fame: he was arrested at the Supreme Court of New York to protest for gay rights and I eat it up. He spoke of the arresting officers not knowing where to take him, so they just kept leading him down the macabre catacombs of the Supreme Court building that eventually turned into a sandy basement. I remember the intentionally soft voice of his – like a children’s story reader enrapturing little kids – as he repeated “going down, down, down…” I get bits of the article my friend gave me in-between him, the game, and the cheerful tourist couple to my left. I make a note of being in between an old man having already lived through his activist glory days and an out-of-town couple looking for something novel and distinct about this city.
When I left the bar I stopped to pick up some tobacco on the advice of a particularly hostile homeless man who for some reason took a liking to me. I give him a cigarette when I come out and we talk briefly about something forgettable. Making my way down the street I find that the show is over and everyone has left. Unable to contact my family for lack of internet access, I linger a bit longer in the Metropolis and talk to some more homeless people. I even shout at a security guard trying to move a guy away from his employer’s doorway, but this guy is too feeble and incoherent to realize what I have done for him.
I wander around the roads a bit more, biking up hills and avoiding speedy cars. I expel some more energy into the city streets, not really sure where I am going. Stopping at a small convergence spot near a public transit section, I roll another cigarette and tentatively look for another random conversation. Someone starts talking about my bike and we compare them with flattery. The slightly larger than usual sidewalk is surrounded by fast-food restaurants, a large neon-lit bar, a fancy hotel and a chic department store. There are pockets of people grouped-up and traveling in different directions. They scan each other, make short loud cries of laughter, and try to maintain a sense of direction. I stand with my cigarette observing everyone with my buzzed and oddly curious gaze. “Creepy dude” they must be thinking. Finally, I decide to go home. When I arrive, I feel grateful for having a house.
Many messages are on my mobile device when I get home. My family is wondering where I am. My absence must be felt considering my righteous intensity as of late. I reply to one: “I’m not coming, don’t worry about it.” I pause at this last word and wonder about whether to go with “it” or “me”. “Don’t worry about *it.” … “Don’t worry about *me.” …
I decide this isn’t about me at all, it is about the situation.
(Written in summer 2012)
A Judith Butler talk on the right of public assembly and the idea of popular sovereignty. Beyond the statist forms of representation, the performance of appearing in public (with thanks to Hannah Arendt) as the enactment of a people seeking to constitute themselves – the always sought after “we”. The difficulties in a politics of appearing in public come from the mediating technologies of representing such an assembled body; the prison, which blocks much of the population from appearing; police/state violence; and privatization, which subjects public spaces to market forces.
Mark Fisher has done radicals a service by writing this thoughtful piece: Exiting the Vampire Castle.
He begins with a blunt statement and fuses the personal with the political in a way that is honest and engaging. Recounting a horrifying experience with twitter and a cheerful one at a rally headlined by a mainstream leftist political figure, we are introduced to his thought process in an emotional-affective way that is bound to evoke memories of events and heated conversations the reader has more than likely had themselves. The visceral reaction to his main enemy in the piece is fear: the “moralizing left” labels and dismisses its selected opponents in an outrage that he sees as counterproductive to the left’s own goals. Before getting into the analysis and appraisal of ‘the left’, morality, identity politics, and class, I’d first like to note the importance of mixing affects with the greater political game of positioning, aligning, and advising from an academic. He does a good job of making the reader feel the affect permeating the social field – the desperation, disdain, and dejection afflicting anti-capitalists searching for a way to combat this beast. More importantly than tightly argued essay is the proactive or inactive feeling that comes off of it upon reading (when the value of taking action is considered above guiding one on a given path) and is all-too-often ignored in political writing. Being sincere about how another’s words and deeds affect oneself produces an air of openness that is only challenging to negative attitudes. It is easy to get lost in a web of criticisms and forget the more important task of radical organizing and alliance building. This kind of criticism aimed at other anti-capitalists can get sour fast and is probably the least “critical” action one can engage in if done in the spirit of resentment (snide moralizing vs. constructive dialogue).
What Fisher gets right is the harmful and de-spiriting sentiments that comes from the aptly termed ‘moral left’. The twitterstorms that railed against certain figures on the left came off on him as a crowd-sourced-bullying that kept him from participating. I don’t even know what the content of these twitterstorms were about but I believe him when he says the effects were silencing and depressing. An angry outburst can be uplifting and even empowering – when the right target is picked out. And there ain’t nothing wrong with catharsis. It is when the expression reeks of resentiment that the alarm bells should go off. When internalized hatred festers and grows without a means to overcome the obstacle in its way or create something new, we get resentiment. At its worst, resentiment fetishizes its weak position and drags everything around down in a spiral of self-destruction. This is perhaps the biggest lesson to learn from reading Nietzsche.
Though a reclusive philosopher relentlessly attacking every facet of European culture and not strictly a revolutionary anti-capitalist himself, Nietzsche’s emphasis on health, vitality, strength of will has enraptured rebels since his death. His confrontational stance towards morality and all that hinders the growth of the body – its ability to act and achieve ever greater feats – has spurred scholars, youths, artists, and free-thinkers to dig deeper into the forces at work beyond symbolic attachments and fixed identities. One could say he went much farther than the revolutionaries of his time in uprooting the foundational values of colonial empire, remaining a source to draw one’s theoretical arsenal from. Emma Goldman found much to like about Nietzsche, despite his crude misogyny.
In present political games, positionings, and movements, the affective/vital is far too neglected. The general tone and comportment of individuals is not only telling of their own state but a larger collective sentiment based on the limits of their ability to act (as artificial or illusory as those limits may be). As a body not of individuals but masses, forces – ‘the movement’, however defined – the expressions that pop up in large part reflect the environment that conditions it. The ruthless bickering that often passes for legitimate critique is little more a distressed outcry of impotence. It is when this distress loops backward into the body that we get the resentment Nietzsche so despised. The church perfected these techniques of internal repression like the confessional and in so doing created new values that ensnared whole peoples under their control. Good and bad becomes good and evil, whole worlds of pure goodness and pure evil were created that “infinitized” our affections and locked people inside their minds. As Foucault has elucidated in his history of sexuality series, practices, techniques, disciplines, and regiments ingrained in social rearing all accompanied these ideas. The question now becomes: “what are the techniques that instill a biting negativity in us?”
Fisher gives us an image to play with here that sticks out: the Vampires’ Castle. Sucking the life out of its subjects and enslaving them apathetic dejection, the Vampire stalls an active body and weighs it down with imperatives to “break free”, “be yourself”, and “go forth.” The rebelious individual, who believes in freedom and maintains a supposedly self-styled edginess, is the real victim of the Vampire. While never so easily identifiable, Vampires trap bodies inside a soul with purportedly profound critiques meant to help but stifle directed action. Vampires could be media advertisers, reactive critics merely latching onto a project to foreclose on its potential for emancipation, or any other nay-sayers draining the force from a movement. An amalgam of the “priest”, the “academic-pedant”, and the “hipster”, the vampire latches onto what is politically new and intriguing only to tie it up nicely, put a stamp on it, then toss it away. They discourage curiosity infused excitement. Now it seems they have a castle.
The problem that the Vampires’ Castle was set up to solve is this: how do you hold immense wealth and power while also appearing as a victim, marginal and oppositional? The solution was already there – in the Christian Church. So the VC has recourse to all the infernal strategies, dark pathologies and psychological torture instruments Christianity invented, and which Nietzsche described in The Genealogy of Morals. This priesthood of bad conscience, this nest of pious guilt-mongers, is exactly what Nietzsche predicted when he said that something worse than Christianity was already on the way. Now, here it is …
One can imagine a gothic cathedral towering like a mountain over surrounding neighborhoods… only covered with brightly lit billboards urging subjects to consume. That last bit is a projection of my own gripes (for a funny take on the media parasites blocking collective action that is definitely not resentful, check out Lee Camp’s rant).
Criticism has a very pointed power behind it that can be used positively or negatively. Constructive critique comes off as strategic, whereas negative critique condemns makes people feel awful for even giving it a go. A collaboration of the kind Fisher desires in a Left, based on class unity and solidarity, demands analysis/commentary that carries an affect of provocation *in the right direction*. This positive/negative qualification of critique is a fine line to straddle, but when anti-capitalists are putting each other down from their computer chairs and no current projects are suggested, something is wrong. Of course, there are irresolvable differences of the kind typified in the Communist/Anarchist debate about state power and the ethics of resistance. But these ideological differences are exasperated when rebels handle their dismay over being weak compared to the Neoliberal apologists for Capital by saving their vicious attacks for each other. This anger without a place to go, circling its way back from where it came, prevents alliances against a more powerful foe. One can learn from Foucault’s practice of not engaging in polemics: Polemics, Politics, and Problematization.
How does all of this affective-based criticism vs. the Vampires’ Castle relate to identity politics? The worry is that focusing on identity, establishing a safe ground in one’s identity from which to launch criticism, feeds right into the logic employed by the Vampires’ Castle and we are left with disparate camps clearly marked by race, gender, or privilege fighting with each other (passive-aggressively) instead of taking on the Capitalists in a joint collaboration. Many would argue that the left needs a clear-cut identity and everyone needs to get on board to actually overthrow Capitalism and save us from the terror that is neoliberalism. Much of leftist discourse is relegated to this question of “who are we?” plus “look how awful conservatives are!”. Fisher argues for class as being the rallying cry which will unite and challenge the capitalist system most effectively, but (as I will eventually argue) class can fall into similar problems of identification. Also, the top-down hierarchy of unions, which the working class people traditionally look to for organization, fails to tap into the potential energy of the social field. I understand the benefits that can come from a mix of horizontal and vertical like the kind Fisher found in the assembly kicked off by Owen Jones: this is perhaps an example of the rhizomatic alliance making that would be constructive. Unions, however, for the longest time have subverted popular rage to the benefit of only their membership. Such exclusivity occurs when groups crystallize and encode subjects – again, not necessarily a negative thing. This is the larger issue of identity based organizing and even, simply, discourse.
A black person in America does not have to demonstrate to anyone the effects of living in a racist society and the oppression that they feel on their body. That it is lived and felt is enough to warrant outrage and action. Organizing around this common experience of being harassed, over-policed, under-payed and excluded is of an immediate necessity and a matter of empowerment. The positive benefits of organizing based on race are clear. The same goes for gender and anyone else feeling the effects of the most comprehensive imperial force the planet has yet seen. The only problem as I see it is when identities and the organizations representing those identities get in the way of an even further empowerment in-between these assemblages. Not knowing when to welcome and share resources and strategies is a hindrance. Organization only based on common affects excludes a great swath of people that would like to chip in. Those without that shared feeling still have something to offer. When these people arrive, one slip can tip the delicate scales of a conversation on identity slightly in the wrong direction and have disastrous consequences for personal and collective relationships.
The interaction between identities would ideally pivot around the kinds of help individuals and collectives could offer each other. The principal of mutual aid can be a guiding light here. When a preexisting organization cannot accommodate a different identity than its own, help can still be offered and support can still be given. It is a matter of what we can do for each other. This is diametrically opposed to using one’s status as an assault on another’s. The degree of oppression, the amount of privilege, should be a way to inform each other on what each other can do in the greater struggle against capitalism and imperialism. Checking one’s status (and another’s) is undoubtedly useful in gathering the best from each identity and swiftly casting off the Vampires sucking out our capabilities with the bite of guilt. One can retain their identity in whatever amount of privilege it has or oppression it faces so long as a common enemy (to come along side-by-side with the common affect) to connect with others: the Capitalist, the Imperialist. We now have a shared feeling, the common affect, on one hand, and the mutual support, the common enemy, on the other.
The big problem is not so much the ground-up organizing around identity, but the entrapments of continual privilege discourse.
For more on these issues and some of the dead ends of privilege politics, see The Problem with Privilege by Andrea Smith.
Here the problem is put very well: announcing one’s privilege just doesn’t help. A person reflecting on their status as privileged performs the same logic of the colonist they seek to be rid of. It turns the white person into a confessing subject in front of the brown (in this case) people, encasing them in their identities. To be sure, acknowledging one’s privilege has led to greater and more considerate engagement; then it is time to get on with the project together, or else wander off in reflections of “who am I really?” The privilege discourse helps set the scene and should stop there before it gets into elaborate confessionals. The confessional is the technique that helped Christian empires conquer the Earth and it will continue to conquer-by-division if it is all we have to talk about.
A perfect example of pluralism of identity in politics is found in this study done by James Owens Occupy Wall St.’s Precarious Pluralism. He found that there has been a divide between predominantly white and affluent (that is, secure) activists and poorer people of color in the focus organization. It is the white affluent activists that attempt to build mass protests and build large-scale actions while poorer people organize around single-issue campaigns. Clearly there are narrower issues that affect poor communities much more directly, making it easier to come together around a shared experience of anger. The affluent turn to their more established organizations and networking capabilities to build something big. These are differences observed for the sake of bringing to light the powers and abilities of separate groups rather than set one against the other in combative opposition.
The study was not done randomly and only selected a few groups and projects from New York City, so the results can hardly be universal. But the gist of the report is proactive: with a plurality of identities out there in the observed world, who is doing what? And, how can each compliment the other? Differences in identity can be respected if identity based organizing is a necessity and our contrasting powers can be mutually exchanged. This is something like the spirit of mutual aid and pluralism wedded together.
Another case in point is the Stuart Brand interview that went viral: http://youtu.be/3YR4CseY9pk.
Mark Fisher again nails the ridiculousness of the responses on the left to Brand’s exciting call for a revolution on a mainstream television program. He was passionate, articulate, and matched his suited host word for word beautifully. Yet, what kind of a reaction do we get from leftists? Brand’s “branding” as a misogynist or a power-grabbing leader of a revolution – like he was Lenin or something. A call for a revolution that makes its way into a mainstream audience is something to cherish – but anti-capitalists sure do love to replay old historical narratives. A leak in the spectacle allows people from outside the milieu an opportunity to speak about a politics beyond the canned, lose-lose party politics that is force-fed down our throats by the corporate media. Yeah, he works for MTV. Yeah, he’s a celebrity. Yeah, he’s talking about a revolution. Is this an opportunity to speak openly about radical alternatives to politics-as-usual or drown ourselves in the same old ironical half-critiques? This is an opportunity, so use it wisely. The “not-my-leader” and “rich-white-man privilege” refrains have their time and place and are not catch-alls.
But things get even more interesting. Further on down the piece, Mark Fisher goes after what he terms the “neo-anarchist position”. With some quick psychologizing, neo-anarchists are pegged as “depressed” and “overwhelmingly young”. They do little more than online commenting, protesting, and occupying instead of the tough labor organizing work that “real anarchists” do. Neo-anarchists are without the grit that labor organizers have to get their hands dirty in the mainstream and prefer to be dismissive and ironic. But the weakness of this characterization is obvious: if neo-anarchists aren’t doing the proper work for the coming revolution, it is because they are young and inexperienced. Nobody has taught them how to “organize the prols” like the great figures of the past – “kids these days… Am I right?” As my old anarcho-hippie friend always tells me, there is no institutional memory with radicals and it hurts. Every generation needs to relearn street politics and basic organizing skills while the cops are ten steps ahead each time. Perhaps if unions and other labor organizations had found a way to pass on their wisdom, we wouldn’t have these problems to begin with. I suspect that Fisher is fishing for help from a young and energized audience to breath some life into labor organizations that have done little more than contract after the Reagan/Thatcher assault. He could just only have access to this new anarchist milieu via the internet himself… But I also suspect that the centralized union structure prevents such adaptability. If more community outreach had been sought out instead of clutching to what waning power the unions had, there could at least be a thin network to link generations of activists together.
The problem does not lie with the recently politicized, online youth. In America, the left has done very little to combat neoliberalism in recent history and now is fully consumed by it. Anyone who does not tow the party line is “left” aside if they aren’t going to garner any votes. Outside of party politics, radical labor organizations have done even worse at recruiting young people and staying up on the latest cultural shifts. It is those with knowledge and experience who have the onus to pass that on to the bright-eyed “fuck the system” youngsters. This lack of networks and meshworks has got radicals wondering why they are even identifying with the left at all anymore. I just pulled this essay from an online search and it is at the least tight and coherent: Post-Left Anarchy. I’ve never even read Bob Black, but if alliances are going to be salvaged between these divergences, we’re going to have to do better than just telling kids to read Marx.
My concern and critique of Fisher and Brand is the adherence to a politics that squarely places class in the center of the struggle, and ‘the left’ as the explicit milieu from which to build that class unity upon (moving towards the center, in a strictly visual sense). Instead of looking to rebuild that good-old proletarian army, I think the greater emphasis should be on milieus and a more diffuse blending of the many, diverse identities already in existence. The more interesting and empowering theoretical work comes from going over and beyond class as the standard of analysis. Something new emerges when the right place is taken and the willing players enter. The kind of enjoyment and indisputable positivity of gathering in the pleasure of each other’s company is the common affect that occupy channeled into a potent force. It was spontaneous (with do respect to the early organizers’ choices), had revolutionary potential, and was both local and global. Hell, if you didn’t like the name just call it something else in your city (Occupy Oakland almost switched to ‘Decolonize Oakland’). The greater point I’m trying to make here is the act of commoning in public is what must be fought for rather than who is going to be the revolutionary agent.
Fisher writes: “The Vampires’ Castle was born the moment when the struggle not to be defined by identitarian categories became the quest to have ‘identities’ recognised by a bourgeois big Other.” What better example of the former do we have recently than the people who came out and occupied their city centers and refused to make demands or take a single message? What stronger force can we reasonably expect in the present/near future than when we retook public space for a short time, and built something so big and so fast that the White House ordered they all be cleared at once out of fear of their own people? Every mayor of an occupied city (that’s all the big ones) was summoned by the Capitol to conference call, and all of the camps were cleared in less than a week. [link]
Unity has never really been my thing. Gathering the masses into a single force inevitably means there will be a representation of the mass to an other. It comes from above rather than as an event. The argument always seems to pivot around who will ‘represent the working class’ and gets consumed by squabbling. Or worse, allegiances solidify and back-stabbing occurs. Even if we got beyond that stage, the NSA would be so quickly on top of this grand union it would be over before it started. The power imbalances are so staggering now and the American military so ruthless in pursuing any dissent that any working class organization seeking a revolution would be rendered impotent or broken up immediately. Neither of these option is the obvious favorite, but nothing else is either.
Fisher gave a great critique of the traps of identity politics but then reintroduces his own familiar one: class. Am I missing something here, or is this not an identity itself? Why make a fuss over identity politics only to harken back to times “when the working class was the working class” and the lines were clearly drawn between proletariat, bourgeoisie, and capitalist?
The thing about milieus is that they are malleable, adaptable, and will not go away – so long as there is any shred of human sociability left in culture. Sure, they aren’t all radical nor impervious to infiltration, but a careful attunement towards milieus accounts for the ebb and flow of social movements. Together with existing networks and alliance making, a powerful machine can be built in the likes of the occupy movement without the central bureaucracy and the threat of corruption. Occupy might not reemerge step for step with how it occurred in late 2011/early 2012, but I believe that the blueprint is there. A bigger, tighter activist network plus a growing population of the poor won’t lay dormant for long.
The performance of gathering in public, of assembling in public space and occupying the commons can happen in a powerful way while simultaneously remaining diffuse. This is an instance of a Deleuzian multiplicity: to be a force of destratification while not losing consistency. Everything linguistic about the Occupy movement can be reworked: the important thing is the common affect of a public assembly, what the spirit (minimally) of the 1st Amendment is all about. It’s all about the Common Notion.
For over four weeks now, the steps of the Berkeley Post Office have been occupied by a group of campers and activists intent on preserving the building from being sold off on the private marketplace. A coalition was formed by members of Save the Berkeley Post Office and Strike Debt Bay Area to engage in this direct defense of the Post Office, becoming a new group called Berkeley Post Office Defense (BPOD). The Occupy tactic was brought to the post office, establishing a 24/7 presence equipped with signs, literature and letter-writing tables, and tents. The effort to escalate the battle against privatization is underway and the narrative is set between the private forces of capital and the public commons.
With insolvency being used as a rationale for selling off public assets to wealthy individuals and corporations, a voice of clarity must infiltrate the mainstream media current and ask the question at the core of the problem: “who has to pay their debts?”. Public institutions that need not heed the demand for increasing profits and turning money into more money are being told they are broke. The money is simply drying up, as the story goes, and without sufficient funds buildings, services, and pensions must be scaled back to balance the budget at the end of the day. But one need only take one step forward and ask the question “why are we in this mess in the first place?” to begin the journey and discover the source of our societal woes.
Though perhaps not readily apparent, the problem can be made visible when dedicated and knowledgeable people come together and reclaim space for the good of their friends, cities, and commons. By occupying contested sites, information can be spread, actions can be planned, and communities of resistance can be built from the ground-up. The occupation tactic carries much potential for building an adequate resistance to the dominate forces systemically crippling lives, while bringing along a number of thorny issues along with it. Much has been written about the need to preserve our public commons, the post office in particular, and financial greed; (Dave Welsh) (Mike Wilson) what I will focus on is explaining some of the difficulties faced by occupations – made apparent by the on-going Berkeley Post Office occupation in the heart of downtown Berkeley. This will hopefully provide a teachable experience for future occupations and eliminate recurring quarrels that drain the potential energy of political organizing away.
When an occupation is set up in public and with a commitment to achieving political objectives, it is going to attract attention. Organizers from the Berkeley Post Office Defense (BPOD) planned for a few tents, two info tables, a kitchen, and an annex section for any newcomers who wanted to join the protest. Press releases were sent out and statements were made regarding the illegitimate burdens imposed on the Post Office, highlighting the use of debt as a tool to dismantle a healthy public service. With hot meals, movie nights, and donations coming in, the Berkeley Post Office Defense started off with a festive optimism. Almost the entire city is behind the action with the mayor and all council members in positive agreement (something I’m told is very rare among them) not to interfere. The city police were told or decided not to get involved, so a safe zone from police violence was created under the aegis of a local-political protest to preserve an historic building. This combination of factors has led to a prolonged encampment where new relationships could be forged and dynamics put into play over a long term. Suddenly an odd situation arose: all of the street-folk of downtown Berkeley could come through a political protest put together by mostly veteran activists.
It didn’t take long before the entire grassy side of the building to be filled with tents occupied by mostly house-less youths familiar with the area. There is a geographical divide formed by the different edges of the building that exacerbates the difference in culture between the action organizers and the incoming campers. Organizers perched out in front of the building close to the steps put there money where their mouth is and continue to engage in direct action via urban camping, together with the more weathered contingent. Having come together largely because of the recent Bay Area Occupy phenomenon, BPOD respected the autonomy of each individual and refused to impose any rule-based structure on anyone else. Anything that smelled of hierarchy was combatted in nightly general assemblies. In the early goings, there was a strong push to implement behavioral constraints by those activists having invested more time in the Save the Berkeley Post Office struggle, though with less of a direct action element attached to them. The Berkeley Post Office would become a liberated space with a loose consensus model and the memory of the 2011 Occupy camps still fresh in mind.
With the threat of a raid coaxed out of camp’s mindset, the task became keeping the camp from disintegrating amidst the constant barrage of angry arguments. With no behavioral model to appeal to and vastly different personalities in the mix, very loud eruptions occurred multiple times daily and would get worse at night. Berkeley is notorious for its homeless burnout population and the occupation has seen just about all of them at one time or another. Many of the activists with deep-grounded stakes in the issue became extremely worried about a homeless takeover and a chaos that would ruin media relations. If a brutal fight broke out and someone got seriously injured, the press would undoubtedly seize on the incident and stage a further, escalated conflict involving police to profit from. The fear of a camp turned into public health hazard loomed large, but those camping refused to risk resembling anything like an authority. The result was problems solved piece-by-piece in hotly contested arguments by a wide array of characters from all walks of life.
Despite this disorderly composition, the camp marched on and new people continued to come by and support the protesters with food, petition signatures, and donations. Honks of exuberant support and fat smiles persist to this day. Again, nearly the entire city is in favor of keeping the building open and public – not to be sold off to investors to pay back an artificial burden. Post Office Police would come by periodically and check things out but never made arrests. The worst came when a pack of a dozen or so came out issuing paper warnings that in large, bold type outlined the various sanitary and drug-related offenses, while mentioning the trespassing in small print at the bottom. It was clearly a damage control message meant to get the camp to clean up their act, but there was much leeway considering the public support and the minimal resources of a Postal Police Force. The municipal police department (BPD) would not interfere until they started issuing warnings of their own in week four. One rouge cop made a statement that a raid would come an hour later, but hours later and many phone calls, texts, and tweets later, no confrontation manifested. Three days later, a brutal arrest was made of an individual for no reason other than picking up a backpack. The trumped up charges are being fought and will not likely stand up.
Despite nagging surveillance, no raid has yet come down over four weeks in. A full-on sweeping away of the camp would be a public relations disaster for the city, so the police have resorted to pokes and jabs to scare people away. However, we remain resolved to carry on. This means that internal camp problems are our own to solve – a rare opportunity to learn how to sustain a successful public occupation.
Now, the intra-camp issues largely revolve around the culture disparity between the mostly young house-less occupiers on the side of the buildings and the mostly old organizer-occupiers in the front. It is unfortunate that such a divide exists; such is the effect of a system that excludes so many for lack of adequate public education, housing, and commons in general. On top of that, I hear police harassment stories told frequently and the legal system is hard to navigate without a stable access to resources. Activists in Berkeley are putting their efforts into the fight to save a city landmark, but they got more than they bargained for. Here is a short list of some of the issues that came up:
-people not feeling comfortable with the loud arguments and rough-housing.
-drug using and selling inside tents.
-coming for the free food, leaving for the activities/non-participation.
-trash, inability to take clean up after oneself.
-smoking by the literature/greeting tables.
-hyper-sensitivity to authority: “you can’t tell me what to do!” “I have every right to be here as you do!”
-the legitimacy that comes along with being a “24/7 camper” – the “real occupiers” debate.
-disinterest in meetings and impatience with the consensus process.
-police-payed provocateurs, specifically there to disrupt the camp (speculative).
Most people are sympathetic enough to realize that these are *systemic problems with the excluded, over-policed, and poor. Therefore, a “guideline” can be created that can be replicated for future cases within that *system. If the problem recurs, a set of lessons or normative attitudes can be tentatively formed to deal with the problem without it solidifying into rules. Persuasion can take many forms and different approaches are needed for different groups of people. Self-organization of the campers is vital to maintain cohesion while avoiding a creeping hierarchy. For this to work at the Post Office, assemblies specifically for the campers at another time of the day (in the morning) materialized around specific problems that took on an urgency that could not be ignored. The GA formalities of stack, facilitation, and agenda items could not always apply, though if you can get people to abide by those techniques, more power to you. Getting campers to assemble and make decisions collectively is a major positive development though. It basically eliminates vendettas and feuds when the entire camp comes out against an individual’s actions.
Which brings me to the most important and most contentious topic for general camp meetings: kicking people out. Ideally, everyone who comes by could be persuaded to do what is best for the protest without sacrificing their autonomy. Obviously, this is not always going to happen. Sometimes people are simply incapable of smoothly integrating with the camp and can’t help but repeatedly cause eruptions of anger and violence. Exile should only come when all other options have been exhausted and the camp as a whole has had enough. Otherwise, people would become edgy and fearful of their secure place in the camp. The negative vibes that emanate from excessive talk of getting 86ed dampens the entire atmosphere. Resistance is meant to be positive and uplifting, not to scare people away. To go along with this, people end up inserting the power of exile into minor arguments and add fuel to the fire. Again, this power must only be asserted by the whole group and in a general meeting – this is where decisions like this must be made.
As for non-immediate crises and recurring problems that hurt the movement, the main theater is, as always, in our personal relationships with each other and impromptu conversations. A general sense of joy and ease works like magic. Bring and share music, books, cigarettes, and a willingness to talk to anyone. If frustrations boils up (as it will for everyone), take a walk, take a break, think about other things and clear your head. An occupation is an intensified zone of righteous revolutionaries and reformers mixed with the casts offs of a broken system that the resisters are combatting. Though the two’s interests may align, lifestyles often do not. Getting cooperation from both sides (as a thriving occupation must) involves a slow process of endless dialogue – a rewarding experience indeed. Encouraging debate in the place of fighting is the first big step.
Some suggestions for dealing with stray houseless people coming to stay at an occupation:
-spend time at the camp and get friendly with anyone.
-suggest (semi-)regular meetings using consensus and/or general agreement.
-if the same problem keeps coming up/an incident takes place, call a meeting to talk it over.
-inducing self-organization takes convincing: “we are part of something bigger” – a righteous protest.
-make a well-reasoned case and back off, so it seems like it was their idea to change their behavior instead of a command – they’ve gotten enough of that throughout their life.
-emphasis on “family” or “community”: the whole camp making decisions vs. one or a few acting as an authority.
-if a “security team” is created for night-watch, absolutely DO NOT allow them exile privilege – everyone is a ’peace-keeper’.
-the goal (for all concerned individuals in any case) is to help the movement grow, to be able to sustain itself.
The month that we have had to gel at the Berkeley Post Office has afforded us the time to learn how to sustain an urban camp together with a political protest. This has been done before. But in light of how swiftly the police come down on protesters these days, I would recommend people learn to use the occupation tactic wisely. A liberated space can be run smoothly and stick to the principals of anti-authoritarian organization. What is required is simply patience and perseverance… and, occasionally, good damage control.
On day 33 of the Berkeley Post Office occupation, the Berkeley Police raided and threw away many of the tents around the building. Many of the occupiers were not there at the time and were attending a Justice for Trayvon Martin march in Oakland while BPD seized the opportunity. There was little struggle, though at least one arrest was tied to the raid. No footage of the trashing of protesters goods was recovered.
The timing of the raid coincides with the beginning of both Berkeley High and UC Berkeley. It is likely that further mobilization would ensue given UCB’s penchant for activism and an occupation close by. The sanitation and brawling containment rationale could very well have been a cover for the possibility of an escalating political situation – but this remains speculative. Activists continue the struggle on legal fronts, but tying direct action in physical locations with an anti-privatization movement still remains a latent and unfulfilled potential. Time and effort will tell if Berkeley will reignite.
The integration of houseless and exploited peoples with entrenched and networked activists remains a serious project for the occupation tactic. Should some happy understanding or mutual acceptance take place at the site of camp, a formidable force would be set up that allies the most resourceful and savvy activists with the most affected. The enemy would be more clearly in sight and internal divisions would be directed outward at those attempting to conquer public goods.
The occupation tactic is being used in other cities and must confront similar problems. If a narrative and culture of occupying takes off again, a slightly narrowed focus and a tighter organization could propel it a long way. Going for a local issue and then linking it up to a general pattern – like privatization – holds the potential of putting up a fight against the 1%. If the camp is run smoothly and the assemblies deal effectively with internal issues like cultural divisions, much could be accomplished.
Excellent piece by Hyphy-Republic. This felt like common knowledge to the occupiers on the streets just last year, but has been drowned-out by tired activist discourse and corporate media. Occupy is a movement that merely took successful tactics from the past and attracted a new wave of angry, youthful people. For the most part, there was really nothing wrong with the actions and organization of Occupy (in Oakland anyways), and the problems were largely a result of physical oppression and media distortion.
I’ve been making my way through Richard Heinberg’s The End of Growth for over a year now and it raises some very pertinent concerns about a Capitalist economy and the energy that sustains it. Thanks to the people over at Occupy Educated, I was intrigued into getting it and has been a good source of alternate analysis to the status quo “everything is fine unless you stir things up” discourse of the mainstream. In seeking a range of economic backing to address worries over the viability of our social order, the peak oil theorists seem to deserve a look, especially considering their popularity.
The question nagging me with the fury of a bee protecting its hive is: “does our economy – whatever that is – need a material increase in energy and speed to keep growing?” And then to follow that up, “without a growth based economy moving goods around with increased efficiency, does the whole system just collapse in spectacular chaos?”
I am convinced that an economy based on the principles of Capitalist organization, as this increasingly global one surely and without question is, demands growth in some form or another. The imperative to make more and more money, to have your money become a means to acquire more money somehow, necessitates a growth based economy when extended outward into the social field as a whole – playing the dominant role in our relationships with one another. Where that growth comes from (commodity exchange, financial securitization, lifelong debt slavery, or just plain old wage slavery) is important in the narrowing down of capital’s function into more specific contexts, but the big problem that must be thought here is this: without some kind of economic growth, do we really get doom and gloom, chaos and destruction, fantastical apocalypse?
Or is that a mere blocking device characteristic of our collective imagination mediated by those in charge of government and the spectacle?
First of all, let’s bring in Heinberg on growth based economies:
…we have created monetary and financial systems that require growth. As long as the economy is growing, that means more money and credit are available, expectations are high, people but more goods, businesses take out more loans, and interest on existing loans can be repaid. But if the economy is not growing, new money isn’t entering the system, and the interest on existing loans cannot be paid; as a result defaults snowball, jobs are lost, incomes fall, and consumer spending contracts – which leads less businesses to take out loans, causing still less new money to enter the economy. This is a self-reinforcing destructive feedback loop that is very difficult to stop once it gets going.
In other words, the existing market economy has no “stable” or “neutral” setting: there is only growth or contraction. (p.6)
If what Heinberg writes is true, then business as usual means the large economies of the world continue steamrolling with capital expansion in a positive feedback loop or it rapidly disintegrates in the opposite direction and we have a depression. This probably the most basic and essential logistical fact of the last 150 years or so of human history. A strategy of continual and material expansion has developed and found its way into the central aspects of society. Without it, we are plunged into uncharted territory; something we cannot predict and have an extremely hard time imagining must take its place. But this exercise in the imagination does take place and for a reason: we are very much culturally aware of this system’s limitations and the cliff that it is bringing us closer and closer to.
The main message to take home about “economic growth” – a phrase uttered repeatedly in high political discourse – is that it needs, requires, demands, and cannot exist without the complementing energy to move around material goods. This has been taken for granted in the last 150 years and we’ve hit a wall. The fossil fuels supplying this energy will not only peak and destroy a growth based economy, they will destroy the non-growth based ecology of the biosphere. A fundamental restructuring of the economy is the only thing that will stop those expecting returns on their investments in a monetary scheme (capitalists) from ruining it for all of the rest of us, most living organisms included.
Skipping ahead in the book, after his more thoroughgoing analysis of the bubble burst of 2008 and how growth and the economy in general cannot return, Heinberg explains the wall we’ve hit:
We have accumulated too many monetary-financial claims on real assets – consisting of energy, food, labor, manufactured products, built infrastructure, and natural resources. Those claims, essentially IOUs, exist in the form of debt and derivatives. Our debt cannot be fully repaid: every dollar saved in the past is owed ever-multiplying returns in the future, yet the planet’s stores of resources are finite ands shrinking. Claims just keep growing while resources keep depleting – and real prices of energy and commodities have begun rising. At some point it will become clear that this vast ocean of outstanding claims will never be honored, and the result could be a tidal wave of defaults and bankruptcies that would sweep away most of the economy. (p.236-7)
What we are experiencing now is this in slow motion. The Fed policies that funnel credit to giant banks hoping that tried-and-true methods will “revive” the economy fail to take the material aspect of energy and resource depletion. The plan so far from our insular elites is to inject more credit into this system from the top to get things moving as they once were – without any fundamental restructuring of wealth or value. This economy is dying and can only die more or less slowly. Considering the violent domineering that militaries have enacted on the behalf of economic growth, I hope it will die quickly and without to much “fuss”. Transitioning away from the growth-based model might require a slower, steadier work to avoid the confusing shocks that go to the benefit of the military.
The great question that will define our age and also the fate of all subsequent ages so long as they are able to retain an historical memory is: how best can we transition from this devouring monster of a system into another more ecological system? How can we slay these vampire squids and stop the zombie apocalypse? If we cannot answer these question and/or reorganize ourselves against economic growth, the preventable consequences will be horrifying, but very much imaginable.
Here is a link to a teach-in that Brian Holmes did with Occupy Chicago.
He researched the giant scheme of the Universities with the Banks to impose escalating debt levels on college students which cannot be relinquished. His talk demonstrates the privatization of public universities and the transformation of public Universities into private Capitalist profiteering machines.