Monday, November 21, 2011

What Lack Dooms a Movement?

Is it imagination? Foresight? Self-understanding? Some combination of all of the above? Roll the tape!

First, let's jump to around the 22:20 mark to hear 1960s commune member Molly Hollenbach describe the bold, egalitarian social experiment in her own words:
We didn't use the word "system" but we very much thought of the whole group, of ourselves as connected - that there was a group sense, a group feeling. That was our whole purpose: to be fully connected to each other and to have this group sense of the organism of the many who act as one. ...It would be like a dance, where we're creating a new kind of society, freeing each person to be fully themselves in the group. But we're all affecting each other at all times, like an organism of many who act as one.
Now let's skip ahead again to about 54:15 to hear what happened to these hierarchically-flat proto-societies:
[The communes] all failed. Most lasted no more than three years, some for less than six months, and what tore them all apart was the very thing that was supposed to have been banished: power. The commune members discovered that some people were more free than others. Strong personalities came to dominate the weaker members of the group, but the rules of the self-organizing system refused to allow any organized opposition to this oppression.
Molly Hollenbach elaborates:
...The very rules that kind of set up this egalitarian group resulted in the opposite of the dream. They resulted in creating a hierarchical structure in which some could be dominant over others... because everyone is not equally powerful in their voice against one other person.
This returns us to that Baudrillardian place wherein desire and power are interchangeable, and therefore desire has no place in the schema of power. The personal is the political, but not in the sense usually meant.

But before we disappear up the simulacrum of our own post-structuralist ass, what does this mean for the Occupy movement? Well... how about this?

Ergo, may I now suggest that we stop applauding the movement merely for making us feel good about ourselves and finally focus on the more concrete issue of achieving results?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Identity Crisis

Well, I went off the grid for a few days, only to return to concerted attempts to shut down the #Occupy encampments across the world. These efforts range from the civilly legal (as in Vancouver) to the heavy-handed & legally gray (in New York City) to the unconscionably brutal (in Berkeley, California). Though these developments threaten the very existence of movement, I've sufficient faith - however slight - that the protesters will not go gentle in that good night. I began typing up the following spiel late last week, and have completed it on the assumption that the Occupations will survive well beyond this week...

The greatest threat to any movement that is not fascist in nature is itself. The greatest threat to the #Occupy movement is not the conceited scorn of Reichwing TV pundits, nor the rubber bullets & billy-clubs of the Oakland police, but the yawning void where its ideological & strategic nucleus should be. By its desire to be omnivorously inclusive & inoffensive, the movement has voluntarily sacrificed almost all political radicality: it refuses grand statements, hamstrings direct engagement, and declines to make transformative demands. This timidity has left the movement exposed to an influential, charismatic element that will - for better or worse - come to define the movement itself.

While I've a grudging respect for the hacktivist swarm Anonymous, I can't say I particularly trust them. I don't trust acephalic crowds in general. "People like Coldplay and voted for the Nazis. You can't trust people." Especially people who've chosen, as their anarchosyndicalist hood ornament, the corporate depiction of a mercenary Papist who attempted to establish an English theocracy. Well thought out, indeed.

At the same time, I think the power & influence of Anonymous as a sociopolitical actor is vastly overstated. That's not gloating on my part: I'm sympathetic to many of Anonymous' operations and wish them greater success against bigots, child predators, and oppressive regimes. But despite their best efforts, Scientology, Bank of America, Koch Industries, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Robert Mugabe, and Bashar al-Assad are all going strong. Also, last month's abortive dust-up with barbarous Mexican drug cartel Los Zetas proved that Anonymous balks (sensibly) at crossing the line where Situationist prankterism ends and shit gets really, really real.

Still, where ever someone flips the bird to the Powers That Be, Anonymous will appear post-haste. Their stylized Guy Fawkes masks are the most recognizable non-textual symbol of the Occupy movement, inspiring numerous think pieces on the polysterene disguise. The masks serve to unify an operation that is polyglot, decentralized, and manifold in its provincial complaints - which is both beneficial and detrimental to the movement. Symbolically, the mask creates a sense of international solidarity amongst the protesters. But in a practical context, the masks encourage & enable deindividuation.

For those of you who haven't the time to peruse works of Philip Zimbardo, I'd point you to Derren Brown's recent special, The Game Show, a succinct & dismaying experiment in mob mentality. As Brown explains:
[Deindividuation] is what happens when people become anonymous members of a crowd, which allows them to behave in a way that goes against their moral code. It's a large part of what turns normal people into internet bullies, rioters, football hooligans, and encourages reality TV audiences to victimize contestants.
This deconstruction of a subject's sense of personal responsibility begins as the individual becomes physically subsumed in a large group, and is aggravated by even the simplest disguising of their personal features - say, a black hoodie, bandana mask, or the plastic semblance of Guy Fawkes.

Obviously, this poses a very big problem for those within the Occupy movement who want to keep their disobedience civil. By having tacitly joined forces with Anonymous, and for having allowed the porcelain-toned moustachioed trickster to become the movement archetype, Occupy has made a bargain that Faust would find foolishly short-sighted: Occupy have embraced the very element most likely to engage in the "irresponsible", "reckless", "anti-social" behavior that would cost the movement the majority-approval it so desperately craves. I'm not talking about the errant asshole who can be purged or pacified by some new-age group-hug intervention; I'm not even saying the loudest mouth wins the argument. I'm saying that within the movement is a subsect that can - autonomously, collectively, and suddenly - react in a manner at odds with group consensus.

Lest anyone fear I'm exaggerating the hooliganish potential of Anonymous in the context of popular protest, I refer you to this trailer for the upcoming documentary on hacktivism's reigning cabal which deliberately and repeatedly mixes & matches images of "orthodox" Fawkes-masked Anonymous members and Black Bloc anarcho-delinquents. Evidently, even to their ostensible supporters & media boosters, the two are interchangeable.

Now, I'm not saying that Anonymous' volatility & potential for hard resistance are a bad thing. As Disaster Notes explained earlier, it's still very early days for Occupy yet it's already minimizing its more radical ententes in favour of some latté-hipster version of Satyagraha. In light of recent developments, the movement's apparent commitment to moderation could very well prove suicidal. Several weeks ago, the Oakland PD's attack on protesters was a one-off aberration after six peaceful & dignified weeks, allowing Occupiers to feel smug with the relative ease of their success thus far:
While the cops may have the guns I think they’re starting to realize they don’t have the power - they’re on the wrong side of history. When they start seeing their neighbors, children and parents standing in the front lines of the OWS movement, their loyalties will shift and shift swiftly.
But now the riot gear's out, court injunctions are flying, and the streets are foggy with tear gas and pepper spray. It would behoove the #Occupy movement to remember that it's up against the full authoritarian might of oligarchs who start wars to boost their GDP, cheered by a complicit media and a frighteningly large portion of the selfish, consumerist public. Unleashing Anonymous & the Black Bloc may be a PR nightmare - Occupy's "nuclear option" - but it's an option the movement needs available to them.

The perennial exemplar of successful civil disobedience is Mohandas Gandhi's struggle for Indian independence, but what's often forgotten is that along the way there were not only arrests & usual brutality directed at protesters, but whole campaigns of violent harassment and murder. Not to mention that Gandhi's nonviolent efforts were reinforced & underscored by many acts of violent revolt against state authority. Consequently, neither side can claim victory by their efforts alone, nor could either have succeeded without the effective support of the other. The de facto slogan of every popular uprising is that famous quote apocryphally attributed to Gandhi:
First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.
It would appear that Occupy has graduated to the stage wherein they are being fought. As unpalatable as Anonymous & the Black Bloc may be to the more genteel members of the movement, it may serve them well to have comrades who are more than willing to fight back.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Now Showing: Tragedy! Coming Soon: Farce!

I realize it's a bit cheap of me to take pot-shots at the Occupy movement from the comfort of my boho-Tokyo bunker, so it was instructive to read Disaster Notes' cautiously pessimistic perspective from inside Occupy Austin. Not that I take any particular joy in knowing that the Occupations are as meekly reformist & restrictively managerial as I suspected. If you too are concerned that the ossified moralism of the Occupation's milquetoast middle-mass threatens the very "diversity of tactics" they claim to embrace, then Disaster Notes' full critique of General Assemblies is required reading.

In parallel, the dubiously-monikered Alphonse Van Worden attacks the current formulation of Occupation demands, neutered of their inflammatory potential, now mere eunuchs attending to the upkeep of the status quo:
That the demands conspicuously reject proposed mention of humanity’s rights, democracy, justice, and politely refuse any language that might bring to mind the ruling class’ lawlessness, barbarism and mercilessness, tends to nudge the discourse in the most dangerous direction, toward the legitimisation and indeed inevtiabilisation of reaction and toward faciliating the project of containing this revolt in the guise (flimsy enough, and usually disavowed) of securing some concrete gains while the getting is good.

Now at the start, these demands were proposed alongside a list of demands for an end to the state’s violence and terrorising and lawlesness and debt amnesty. That these didn’t make the cut is very signficant, and shows how “compromise” can transform a radical agenda not into a reformist one but into a reactionary gain for the ruling class.
On an immediate, practical, and modest scale, all of this suggests that perhaps the most appropriate slogan for the Occupiers is - with minor amendment to an existing favourite - "Citizens United will never be defeated!"

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Neither a Conquest, Nor a Vocation

Almost two months have passed since the inception of Occupy Wall Street, which is more than enough time for everyone to take sides according to whether or not they sympathize with anti-corporate collectivism. Thus far, public opinion (though hardly unanimous) is more supportive of OWS than its Old Testament-meets-Wall Street libertarian dopplegängers, the Tea Party. This is meaningful because OWS and the Tea Party cannot be arbitrarily substituted for one another. True, they're both nominally anti-establishment populist uprisings, but that's as revealing as remarking that Jim Jarmusch and Chris Columbus are both successful caucasoid filmmakers from Ohio. Only the most facile & disingenuous among the commentariat pretend there's meaningful similarity between OWS and the Tea Party - a comparison so paper-thin that it can be debunked in about nine bullet-points augmented by flashy graphics.

Objectively, OWS is far easier to sympathize with than the Tea Party, and not simply because the former has refused the latter's embarrassing reliance on Nazi similes and racist imagery. The Occupiers themselves sympathize with the unemployed, the indebted, the working poor, and struggling families around the world, whereas the Tea Party sympathize with precisely no one. Their philosophy is equal parts Horatio Alger & avarice; they've infamously bayed for the blood of the incarcerated & the infirm; and the bootstrap-pulling pugnacity of the "We Are the 53%" blog reads like a suicide pact with the free market, inadvertantly highlighting the very tragic inequities that OWS seeks to correct.

So at the risk of surrendering to these Fountainhead-cases enslaved by Stockholm Syndrome to capitalist rapacity, why can't I offer my full endorsement to the #Occupy movement?

So far, I've been conspicuously silent about Occupy Wall Street, both online and off. After all, it's difficult to debate tactics & policy when there's little evidence or exercise of either: the very term "movement" implies momentum and direction, neither of which OWS has. The fraternal occupations that have sprouted around America & across the Atlantic are growth, for sure, but less snowballing locomotion than an entropic clustering of mass. The greater the Occupiers' numbers (or the greater the appearance of their numbers), the safer & more attractive it is for others to join their ranks. The Japanese have a saying: the more people running a red light, the less there is to fear. (Evidently, the Japanese have been to Baltimore.)

For all the attention & swelling attendance, I suspect the reason OWS has yet to win the majority's support is because it appears as a closed operation. It doesn't matter how inclusive the message or sentiment is when the Occupation is conducted via theatrical arcana and insular code: anyone who doesn't understand the symbolism of wiggling fingers, doesn't know what a "human microphone" is, or doesn't understand why the Occupiers keep throwing up Jay-Z's hand-sign is definitively outside the movement. I understand that creating rituals & codes are integral to a group's cohesion & identity. It's also what cults do precisely because of the divisive, exclusionary function those rituals & codes serve. Stephen Colbert's "field report" on Occupy Wall Street demonstrated this: relatively straightforward questions, refracted through the liturgical jargon of the "movement," became an impenetrable fog of Newspeak that failed to address such simple concerns as what's on the agenda.

Colbert too noted that they "seem like a cult."

Dogged adherence to process is proof of both an abiding civility and an intolerance for radicalism. For a "movement" that doesn't want to recreate the flaws of corporate hegemony, they've taken very quickly to restrictive & stifling discursive codes. In fact, this legislative orthodoxy explains the lack of any specific, articulable demands: as a heterogeneous assembly, the Occupiers refuse to presume any one demand would be adequately representative of, or beneficial to, each of the participants. Tasks are delegated, but representation never exceeds the level of the individual. They've even formed caucuses to promote "marginalized voices" within the "movement." As though the plutocrats give a shit about the diversity of their serfs. Patient acknowledgment of every demographic peculiarity looks good on the recruitment pamphlet, but it's arboreal taxonomy at the expense of the forest. If no collective action can presume to demonstrate the communal will, then the Occupy "movement" is merely a motley form of group therapy, the scattershot yawp of recession-scarred consumers.

When Colbert asked (with uncharacteristic earnestness) how he could be part of Occupy Wall Street, Justin Wedes replied, "You need to come down to the park, Stephen... you need to make your voice heard." Well, to stand & be counted is only an effective political act in a representative democracy, which America absolutely is not. (To say nothing of the likes of Harper, Cameron, Sarkozy, Berlusconi, Putin, or whoever the Japanese Prime Minister is today.) Has the "movement" already left no room for invention, adaptation, or a more aggressive engagement against capitalism? To wit, the Occupiers have issued a blanket condemnation not of corporations as malignant entities, but of the defacement or destruction of corporate property - reifying the very system the Occupiers claim to challenge!

I understand that it's too much to ask that someone had a readymade wholesale ideology with which to replace capitalism. But if we make no demands, then we can expect to make no progress either. What's essential is the exercise of imagination beyond what is expedient, practical, or indeed attainable. If we refuse to take "no" for an answer, then we have to ask questions that cannot be answered thusly. Naturally, we don't want our goals reappropriated & assimilated by capitalism as it reforms & resurrects itself in response to the current crisis. But this, Howard Zinn would remind us, is a dilemma that leftists has faced before:
It is hard to say how many Socialists saw clearly how useful reform was to capitalism, but in 1912, a left-wing Socialist from Conneticut, Robert LaMonte... suggested that progressives would work for reforms, but Socialists must make only "impossible demands," which would reveal the limitations of the reformers. (A People's History of the United States, p.354)
That is, of course, assuming that Occupy Wall Street are sufficiently radical or ambitious to want something other than merely a kinder, cuddlier form of global capitalism.