Occupiers cannot simply continue twinkling at electoral politics and the concentration of political and economic power, and this video suggests they are starting realize it... I think. I also wonder whether they'll be willing to heckle Democrats as well. Because even if the Occupation does not endorse candidates, preferring to “stay out of politics,” it should still plan on clarifying and coordinating its “autonomous” position in regard to the two-party system itself, its candidates, and schemes, especially in light of the onslaught of campaign rhetoric, (“the lesser of two evils,”) eventually on its way. 'Cuz, you know, power kinda works that way.
Watch here Obama spin the wheels of co-optation when speaking to an audience in New Hampshire, “including”, he says, “the ones who were chanting at me, you're the reason I ran for office in the first place.” Still no 3rd party people?
If one of the appeals of OWS has been the “99%” mantra, amongst Occupiers there exists a litany of “non-hierarchical” and “leaderless” memes which are also well-known. These buzzwords ostensibly signify radical egalitarianism and hyper-resistance to authority, something more Kropotkinian than either liberal or Marxist. So while an anarchist ethic may be appealing to neo-Nietzschean personalities capable of continually subverting the processes and techniques of power by virtue of their creative agonism, “leaders,” (as many Occupiers never tire of reminding me,) are flawed animals – and thus vulnerable targets for those looking to co-opt or discredit them and their “followers.” According to Malcolm Harris in “Baby, We’re All Anarchists Now,” this leaderless revolution is not just another attempt to not be co-opted but true “autonomous” social action. It is non-representative, post-political, post-systems, post-individualist as well as post-mensch. And it is “premised on the necessity of acting with your body itself, whether through your legs, arms, vocal chords, fingers, whatever.” He adds, “the latter is threatening as hell, especially to the professional left which is thrust into the conservative position of defending its requisitioned authority.”
Sorry to be such a concern troll but if the aversion to hierarchy precludes the coordination of chains of command and their “demands,” many may wonder of this anarchist ethic, cui bono? I’d say that most people these days, the 99%-ers, could give a rat’s ass about anarchist ethics and Foucauldian micro-strategies. Financial security, jobs, better education, a more just and peaceful world… things like that… are probably a lot more in tune with the common folk than some anarcho-situationalist code reversals, let alone The Revolution. The 99% may nod in perfunctory agreement when they hear the slogans, pontifications, and “positivity” of smug college kids but I wonder how deep they actually believe them. Do they even care?
Nevertheless, much of the popular appeal of OWS has been its unruly antagonism to “the system” – not just to concentrations of financial and political power but to the “the culture of capitalism” itself, to its institutional complexes, norms, strategies, and “values.” People are becoming increasingly aware of their exclusion, abandonment, and powerlessness. OWS has called ordinary people of diverse backgrounds and abilities together to talk, debate, perform, and vent anger in ways that show they are trying to think about “paradigms” in new ways, and be creative. So however it turns out, OWS can be said to have successfully reclaimed public space, and even celebrated the anarchical spirit of debate, noise, disorder, and resistance. And despite what some Occupiers may claim, this rowdy spirit – warts and all – is also downright adversarial to the organizational and policy imperatives of “systems” as well as to the managerial stinginess of “consensus” models flaunted at the GA and its working groups. It does not proffer sophisticated models and ideals, nor sets of solutions and procedures, but rather enacts a disruptive and subversive politics which challenges established orders and their mechanisms of control. Interactions are more fluid, and are constantly adapting to people's changing needs.The problem however with this social (or rebellious) vibrancy is that it is difficult to sustain over time. It not only bears the scars of history, and is perhaps more symbiotic to “the system” than we care to admit; it is also impulsive, improvisatory, and vulnerable to rationalization as well as demagoguery.
The most revealing criticism of the “horizontalist” imperative getting pushed onto people around Zuccotti is that existing hierarchies have already congealed within OWS, and denying this fact may perhaps be an effective rhetorical tactic in opening to a wider following but it also signs-on to secretive networks and potential autocracy. Although OWS’s groups are said to be open for anyone to attend the existence of inner circles is evident. I would not want to exaggerate the power of those who occupy these circles, but they often meet privately, often miles from Zuccotti Park, and traverse OWS networks – not just the GA but its myriad “working groups,” “break-out groups,” and other “sub-groups.” Now, I don’t necessarily have a problem with leaders individuals who happen to be more committed than the rest of us in pressing “the system” continually to open avenues for democratic participation and the empowerment of ordinary people provided, I would add, they accept their commitments as a service, or even sacrifice, for the interests of those they ostensibly serve, and, are also prevented from occupying exclusive positions which operate in secret and have some semblance of lasting duration and significance.
I also understand standard parliamentary procedures and protocol for assemblies known for factions and competing interests. But I do have a problem with “facilitators” who go about selling the Revolution by setting down the procedural rules and histrionic rhythms for the 99%to follow. The process is political – and nowhere else are proceduralists more exacting in their displacement of substantive debate than the facilitation apparatus in OWS.
I attended one “spokes council” one evening, and observed a deceptively informal semi-circle of a couple hundred people who were thoroughly “facilitated” by several individuals whose role it was, (after telling us how to appropriately hand signal during the assembly: “this means… ‘I feel good,’ this means… ‘I don’t like what I’m hearing’”) to keep procedural order, and sort out various agenda items, proposals, questions, concerns from participants. Yet the obvious problem was that – aduh – exacting procedural order is out of synch with the imaginations, concerns, and questions of the assembly which not only seemed to have a life of its own by virtue of its raucous and improvisatory latency but which found itself at times debating procedure itself. Anygoo, I also noticed on a couple occasions whispering into the ears of facilitators by several individuals otherwise peacefully stationed against the wall. No one blocked. No one voiced objection. They “consensed.”
The criticism that OWS suffers from depoliticization, and is weak on substance, is on the mark. But Its starry-eyed refusal to openly recognize and address hierarchy is also internally debilitating. As Doug Henwood, supporter but resident curmudgeon of OWS, put it, “(w)ith such a freewheeling organization, if that’s the right word, lines of responsibility and accountability are very murky.” Indeed Occupiers will only continually confront the simple politics of how to appropriately allocate the gains of their appeal and accomplishments, like, for instance, how donations should be distributed through the GA.
Occupiers are correct to insist that “what’s your demand?” is a conventional narrative of rationalism, interest group realpolitick, and legitimacy which misunderstands the fundamental challenges posed by OWS. Yet like it or not, the demand for demands is still inevitable. Talk of “cultural revolution,” “paradigm shifts,” and “we’re all anarchists now,” is theoretically feasible in the loooong-term but OWS still cannot afford to disengage from institutions of power, like the state and the economy. You know, because if you don’t go through politics and the state, politics and the state go through you, no matter how much you say the word “autonomy.”The real difficulty however with “making demands” is that Occupiers simply don’t yet have the numbers willing to go for the mat for them anyway, whatever they are, nor the organization to make them possible.(And things like this make it near hopeless.) Thus OWS has to grow in numbers and appeal to make its presence more efficacious and powerful. Future political and economic crises can only present such opportunities. But if it atrophies into festering blobs of “Occupations” sans “demands” it will become the nomenclature of nose-ringed A-circling suburbia.
OWS is a miracle. It’s also exiting. About a month ago, I jokingly referred to Zuccotti Park as a kind of refugee camp from Hampshire College’s better days playing host to a wide variety of political activists and performers. Radicals, liberals, freaks, Marxists, anarchists, Ron Paul trojan horses, occasional saboteurs, and the honest-to-god-just-curious were there all on display. While Zuccotti Park has also become a haven for homeless people and various drifters attracted to the free meals and a place to stay, the site has over time also attracted some unsavory characters and become more dangerous as well as a little less exciting. There already exists in the park an informal band of security personnel which has been undoubtedly busy of late. One person today openly queried whether some form of ID should also be required, perhaps “wristbands” handed out and worn at least by those sleeping and eating in the park. “What constitutes a member and a non-member?” Another activist told me that “women don’t feel safe, and its’ not simply a media representation.” (There’s also this report from Salon.)
Insofar Zuccotti Park gains a sticking reputation for being an unsafe cesspool, deservedly or not, the broader effects of this development could be irreparable. Most onlookers in the general public will probably not confuse the political cause behind OWS, (“the 99%”) with criminals and drug users. But city authorities can only relish some additional ammunition to discredit it nonetheless. So even if the overall perception of OWS in the public seems to be a work still in process, rifts will grow between those in the park as well. (So much for “autonomy” I guess, and all that “non-hierarchical” utopian flapdoodle!)More disturbingly, I sense “the Occupation” at least in NYC is imploding – and starting to get lost. That it has had to seriously ramp up its “policing infrastructure” in light of these Lord of the Flights awakenings is indeed the most depressing irony coming out of Zuccotti Park to date.
Truth is, I started getting queasy with all the petty bureaucratic mechanisms and manners weeks ago. Grassroots political activism is fucking hard enough. Frankly, it can bore me to tears. I can understand people trying to get high on “process” by injecting a little self-expression through histrionic hand gestures, working groups ad infinitum, and the-will-to-mic-check. I also understand the importance of putting together a political movement with lasting potential – and that kind of thing requires some degree of hierarchy and organization even if Occupiers prefer not to admit it. But as formalities these activities can also become distractions which sap precious energy and resources. I sat in on one particular “working group” and encountered droves of petty diversions and disagreements about “facilitating” simple courtesies and common sense. There was also some talk of “paradynamics.” I don’t remember such “experiments” going down @ Tahrir Square when Egyptians were continually staying on message and continually demanding that Mubarak resign. I wonder why OWS @ Zuccotti Park had to turn so inward, and so procedural? Is there too much aversion and indifference to coordinating explicit demands? To direct action? What happened to the antagonism? (More exciting things are happening outside of Zuccotti Park.) Can we get it back?
To give you an idea as to the thorny issue of “making demands,” one observer writes:
The GA actually laughed out loud when the facilitators suggested that the group take thirtyfive minutes to discuss the proposal. After an hour has passed, they had not even made it through the Clarifying Questions surrounding the proposal.
Some of Occupy’s original organizers are furious that the Demands Working Group was able to make this proposal to the GA. They say that Demands can’t even be a working group because on the third day of the occupation of Zuccotti Park, the GA came to consensus that the occupation would not make demands.
All of this reminds me of something someone else wrote centuries ago – and it’s not exactly a note of optimism.
For an emerging people to be capable of appreciating the sound maxims of politics and to follow the fundamental rules of statecraft, the effect would have to become the cause. The social spirit which ought to be the work of that institution, would have to preside over the institution itself. And men would be, prior to the advent of laws, what they ought to become by means of laws. Since, therefore, the legislator is incapable of using either force or reasoning, he must of necessity have recourse to an authority of a different order which can compel without violence and persuade without convincing.