November 9, 2011

proceduralists are fake anarchists

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. 


Wolfe Rabbit said...


You’ve repeated some very standard criticisms. A group can coerce or manipulate individuals into saying they accept a decision, even when they don't. That is groupthink, not true consensus. Yet this doesn't sound like anarchy to me but practical politics and political organization.

Instead of bemoaning the decline of the infrastructure of resistance look at anarchist infrastructure as a genuine prefiguration of insurrectionary action, an alternative future in the present. As Herzen surmised, “a goal which is infinitely remote is not a goal at all, it is a deception.” Any movement that fails to build and extend from alternative and reliable organizational spaces and practices is doomed to marginalization and failure.

Wolfe Rabbit

pietro said...

My criticisms may be standard if only because they are sound. I'm also drawn to anarchism more than you probably think. You also make an interesting case for an "alternative future in the present." My suspicion however remains: "new anarchism" misunderstands the quality and potential of the subject matter, and reeks of utopian faith.

Glad you stopped by.