Instead of doing that consumerist frenzy holiday shopping thing, why not have an Occupy weekend in NYC? There are important and fun events all weekend on student activism, recovering from Sandy and what’s next for Strike Debt. Still not dead, folks.
On Friday, support the excellent occupation by Cooper Union students by participating in the book block: a parade of books as shields. Make your own from 12-1pm on Friday December 14 at Cooper Square (7 East 7th St) and then join in the discussions on the future of student activism from 1-3pm and who knows what might happen next.
Saturday Dec. 15
This is important. Here’s a call from the Occupy Sandy people taking on mutual aid in Staten Island with people from the local community:
On Saturday we, the residents of affected areas of Staten Island, will come together and make our voices heard as part of a citywide day of action. We invite you to come hear our stories and go on a tour of our neighborhood, a tour of destruction. We will open our community and our homes to show the world what is really happening in Staten Island. Hurricane Sandy was a disaster, but the lack of government response is shaping up to be another kind of catastrophe. We deserve better and we demand answers and action.
Go! and take your friend the journalist/blogger/film maker to publicize this to the max. Houses in NYC are getting devastated by black mold, just like people were in New Orleans after Katrina. You have to demolish all the walls to get rid of it. FEMA and co are offering nothing but loans. The obvious hope is to create more upscale housing and offices on these sites, although they will equally obviously flood next time as well.
Sunday Dec 16
Not tired yet are you? Good. So go to the Strike Debt Winter Jubilee. This is not another debt abolition event, it’s an introduction to what Strike Debt does, and hopes to do in the future, as well as a seasonal secular celebration of a year of being undead. See you there!
Today was a work day at the University of Strasbourg. Over the past several months of giving talks, I have become accustomed to a certain routine. The organizer goes into a certain amount of detail as to why they are not sure how many people will attend. Their anxiety is two-fold. My academic work is not located in a specific discipline and it connects to the movement. Then we go in and find that far more people than expected have turned up and they then proceed to ask a great deal of questions. The organizers are then relieved and delighted.
That was the pattern here today, where I gave a talk showing how the research I have done on visuality requires an engagement with political practice. I then talk about a variety of militant visual culture research projects, ending with Strike Debt. It was a tad challenging because I had to do this in French, which is hard but not too bad. And then there were questions. If you read the above paragraph you will see the drawback. I got 75 minutes of questions, in French obviously.
What was interesting was that, for all that people downplay “French theory,” I was asked detailed questions about my relationship to Marxism, Autonomia, Situationism, Rancière and postcolonial theory. The mood in the room was far from as serious as this might sound because we had covered the Jubilee. Although the debt jubilee was new to this audience, the concept of jubilation might not have been so much.
Yesterday I bought a book called Postanarchism explained to my grandmother by Michel Onfray–at the station bookstall of all places, try getting something similar in Penn Station. Onfray has a rather dazzling list of the different aspects of anarchism that compose his concept of postanarchism, including
the right to jubilation…thinking of theory as the product of action.
Although I don’t really think I am a postanarchist, or that Strike Debt would be considered as such, who cares? But I prefer simply Jubilant Theory. What happens with Jubilant Theory is this engagement that people feel with the project that makes them even though they don’t know who I am and helps them enjoy what they hear.
One person said to me that they had never heard what they called un grand universitaire americain–a big-deal American professor–talk about engagement and political practice. Perhaps that’s just a measure of who gets invited. Or perhaps it’s an indication of one way to make the often-disparaged humanities more popular with the current precarious generation of students: to speak to their situation and offer something positive to do about it.
At the risk of being a cliché, Catalunya is really a remarkable place. I don’t think many other cities could take the kind of battering that has been meted out and retain this kind of spirit and vitality. Perhaps the highlight of my trip was meeting with Catalan debt activists, full of ideas and dynamism on the same day that the newly elected government indicated a swingeing new round of cuts. The Jubilee has rolled across the Atlantic. Watch out.
I had two morning interviews with journalists from La Vanguardia, the leading local newspaper that now publishes in Castilian and Catalan. It feels like a real newspaper, engaged, serious and questioning. My interlocutors were wildly different: a very generous woman interviewing for the magazine, and a guy from the main paper grilling me like a film noir detective, in between telling me the story of his life.
Just as the first interview was all about Occupy/Strike Debt and the second about visual culture, I had two constituencies for the talk I gave later: one from or interesting in the social movements; and one for visual culture. I tried to show that I think they are the same but the academic audience left with some dissatisfaction that my 40 slides did not include enough “images.” I suppose they meant art work and it was true that a talk called “Technologies of Direct Democracy” was not very art-centered.
It reminded me of the early visual culture days, when people would demand to know how I considered my work to be art history, which I didn’t. On one memorable occasion, a well-known author of a modern art textbook insisted I declare that I loved art. I declined.
All of this paled by comparison with a dynamic meeting with debt activists in Barcelona that followed. This group is working on an excellent initiative called : Put A Banker In Jail. When they opened the crowd-sourced funding website, it crashed immediately because so many people were trying to donate. Like the Rolling Jubilee, the donations were mostly small from €3-5 but the intent was very clear: put the banksters in jail. At first 32 were indicted but the process has gone ahead for five leading characters, so that the others can be called as witnesses against them. As in the U.S., defendants can refuse to testify but witnesses cannot. One of the defendants is the head of Bankia Rodrigo Rato. Apparently, the court date is December 24 so with luck we can get a banker in jail for the holidays.
I was able to share some of the Strike Debt ideas, like the debt assembly and the debt burn. Interestingly, in Spain the idea of the jubilee did not resonate in the way that it does in the U.S. because of the history of the African-American church. So when I explained what it was, there was much, shall we say, jubilation. Although also some hesitation about working with the church in a country where the Catholic church’s record is appalling.
There was a frank recognition that the inventiveness of the movement here is in part a consequence of the mass unemployment that has in particular left younger highly qualified people with nothing to do. At the same time, the slogan “We Don’t We, We Won’t Pay” came not from the movement but from the barrios, where it seems to be simple common sense.
From us in New York, the Catalans want amplification and publicity, which we can do. And to work together on a co-ordinated debt abolition movement. Which could be the start of something massive.
Today I went back and forth to Liverpool across a storm-swept England to see two video installations at the Liverpool Biennale. Both were extraordinary and created such a set of resonances and memories that I’m going to have to write a full-length piece about it. It’ll still take two days to post. We have said, over and again, that to our friends and families we owe everything. The debt was posted due today.
John Akomfrah, “Unfinished Conversation” 2012
The reason I traveled was to see this film by director John Akomfrah about the life of the British-Caribbean writer and theorist Stuart Hall. That’s Stuart in the middle screen above. To be more exact, while the Biennale lists Akomfrah as the artist, the film itself does not, giving full and widespread credit to the team that put the film together.
It’s a remarkable piece of visualizing theory and history. Shown on three screens simultaneously, the film visualizes, in a sense, what it must have been like to be Stuart Hall in his earlier career. The three screens would be showing personal photographs, filmed interviews from various periods, archive film and photography, news footage and so on. Meanwhile the sound would blend music, often jazz, with Hall’s commentary and radio interviews and other sound, such as the sea or machinery. It was a polyphony, edited so that all the sounds and images reinforced rather than disrupted each other.
I had the thought while watching that the film was like a Ways of Seeing for 2012, so it was resonant to see Mike Dibb, who worked on Berger’s film, acknowledged in the credits.
There were powerfully revelatory moments throughout. It turns out–did I somewhere know this?–that Stuart has Sephardic-Jewish in his family tree. In the film, we see his mother and that lineage is visibly apparent–it’s mine, too, so I’m allowed to say this. Was there some affinity that I had felt, having worked with Hall when I was a young activist and editor on Marxism Today, and always taking his thought to be a lodestone? Perhaps.
Many years later Kathleen, my partner, became close friends with Catherine Hall, Stuart’s wife of many years. To see a set of what I presume are their wedding photographs was very moving in ways that were also very overdetermined. Hall attended the same Oxford college as my father in the same time period. He says in the film that he knew at once that, while he could study there, he
could never be a part of it.
Years later those were my feelings exactly, although not my father’s, who liked it and has remained attached to his college.
Then comes the call across the years. It turns out that Hall was part of a group that opened a radical coffee shop in Oxford in the crisis of 1956. The Soviet invasion of Hungary changed a generation away from orthodox Marxism-Leninism and cultural studies would not have happened as it did without this break. At the same time, Britain and France invaded Egypt over the nationalization of the Suez canal, their last imperial folly.
Sitting in the coffee shop called The Partisan, with its sign designed in impeccable lower-case sans serif font, Hall was interviewed about his views. Time and again, he calmly stressed that he was angry, angry over the invasions, angry over the disregard for young people in Britain, angry that
for fifteen years at least we have been without any kind of moral or political leadership.
Out of that anger came the New Left Review.
Watching it now, over fifty years later, I felt intensely that we had somehow let this young man down, that it would be entirely possible for another such young man or woman to sit down today and say exactly the same thing. And it is indeed what we have been saying this past year. The spectre that entered the room was this question: will this demand still be unmet in fifty more years from now? Or was leadership perhaps the wrong thing to ask for? Reflecting back on 1956, a moment he felt “defined” him, Hall noted in terms so familiar to us:
Another history is always possible.
The film ends with this caption
For Stuart Hall. In gratitude. And respect.
My eyes filled with tears. In the crowded screening room, I was not alone.
There are eight of them around the livid corpse. It is a display of imperial power to a paying and wealthy audience. All but one them ignores the body. They look instead at the open book at the right hand side. Or in two instances, out at us, the onlookers. Another man, closest to us, takes a sideways glance. Meanwhile the one man touching the body with his metal implement looks high and away into the ether, astonished by his own sublimity.
These are, they have no doubt, Great Men. They don’t know the phrase “great men make history” because it will be said two hundred years into their future, but if they did, they would agree with it. The G8. The Great. Who are resolutely trying not to notice the death in their presence. Let’s call that death Capitalism. It’s an odd death because the G8 are trying to learn about life from it from the dissection and the anatomy lesson.
But these are contemporaries of John Donne. They do not ask for whom the bell tolls because they know very well. It’s for them, just as much as it is for the living dead corpse of Capitalism in front of them. Like the vampire, capitalism dies in a regular cycle, returning to a passive state of money before it goes off on the rampage again. The Great have always been confident that they know how to raise the corpse. Only now, some two hundred and fifty odd years into their undead lives, they are not so certain.
The tricks they have tried in the past have not moved the corpse in the way they have come to expect. But they are undead too and they have no others. Free trade, they say. Less regulation. Yet more tax cuts. But the ones looking out, rather than fixing their gaze at the book of all truths–maybe it’s now Ayn Rand they look at–know that things are not going so well. The corpse is that of a man named Aris Kindt, a thief. One of their own. So they cannot look at him.
Out in front of this scene was Rembrandt once. He painted them in TheAnatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp (1632). In its frozen tableau are both the certainty and fears of emerging capitalism. This weekend I found the painting reproduced in a book that I had first read many years ago by W. G. Sebald, called The Rings of Saturn. Having trouble sleeping, as I often do these days, I opened it and at once began coughing from its dust and the already decaying pages of the cheap British paperback.
Sebald lived in the U.K. although he was German by descent and wrote in that language. He is the supreme writer of melancholy, a German haunted by the twentieth century and living on the wind-swept marshes of East Anglia. Rings of Saturn begins by a meditation on The Anatomy Lesson and Sebald’s speculation that one of the eight was Thomas Browne, a poet of melacholy. Browne did one visit Tulp’s displays of erudition for the wealthy bourgeois of Amsterdam, so why not say that he is painted here?
As I tried to sleep, the image shifted in my mind, linked to the contemporary Anatomy of Melancholy by Richard Burton, and became the Anatomy of Capitalism. But that is to say the same thing. Melancholia, Freud reminds us, is mourning that has not been resolved. It is our refusal to let go of the lost object that keeps us in a state of melancholy, a condition in which we see ghosts. Which is not to say that the ghosts are not real. Must a ghost, I thought, always do the same thing? Hamlet’s father chooses when to speak and when not to speak. So does that other ghost that haunted Europe first but the United States later and more scarily, das Gespenst der Kommunismus, the ghost of communism. That ghost has had little to say for quite a while. Is it not once again in the wings, awaiting its entrance?
Why, I wondered, do those three Dutch merchants look out at us like that? Are they afraid we know something they don’t? Are they worried that we might come in and mic check the anatomy lesson? Or are they just keeping us in our place, the place allocated to us from which we may look at them and nothing else? In its lights and darks, with sharp perspectives, the scene is all about who can see what from where and what they make of it. What does Aris Krindt see as he lies there with his neck broken by strangulation–so civilized, Holland–looking up into the jowls of the burghers and their hipster goatees?
There’s a moment in one of the videos from the early days of OWS that stayed with me after we saw it again last month. Chris, a long-time occupier and Direct Action mainstay, leans into the park from the stairs and says
This is the epicenter of a global revolution!
Massive cheers. It would have been more accurate perhaps to say: “this is the node of the planetary fightback at the epicenter of global media.” Less thrilling, though. Watching Thomas Sankara speak in the videos from 1987, you see a confidence in the forward march of history that now seems so long ago and far away. But his agenda of sustainable, regional and peaceful economies is still a viable alternative. You can see emerging a triangulation of how it might–might–be possible to triangulate it into being.
Node one: Africa
Sankara’s claim that Africa could be the center of an alternative economy seems far-fetched in the era of the Troika consensus. But the rebellion by South Africa’s majority is ongoing, not just in the mining industry but also in trucking and now municipal workers. Unemployment continues to rise and South Africa’s credit rating was just downgraded. And most of the country’s trade is with Europe, so things are going to get worse. The question is whether calls for land redistribution and the nationalization of the mines might lead to a rethinking of what the economy is intended to do. If, as the strikers hope, its primary purpose is to support the living standards of the majority, then everything would have to change.
Node two: Bolivia
In a classic legal essay from 1972, Christopher Stone asked
Should trees have standing?
Meaning can non-human entities have legal rights? As Stone pointed out, corporations do. And each time an extension of rights occurs, it had previously been “unthinkable” to do so. Stone proposed that “natural objects,” such as forests, rivers and oceans should have rights. Since then, such basic ideas have come to be enshrined in law but always fiercely opposed by the neo-liberals. For it creates a stalemate between the “rights” of the corporation and those of the natural object.
Bolivia’s government will be legally bound to prioritise the wellbeing of its citizens and the natural world by developing policies that promote sustainability and control industry.
This principle is known as Vivir bien, or “Living Well.” The proposed law defines it as follows:
Living Well means adopting forms of consumption, behaviour and and conduct that are not degrading to nature. It requires an ethical and spiritual relationship with life. Living Well proposes the complete fulfilment of life and collective happiness.
Bolivia does not have the luxury of considering climate change to be something you can ignore in two Presidential and Vice-Presidential debates (unless you count Romney’s “I Like Coal” sloganeering for West Virginia’s benefit). As the climate changes, Bolivia is running short of drinking water and is also, ironically, at risk of flooding from melting glaciers. Vivir bien is exactly what would motivate the South African grass-roots activism and why should it not?
Node Three: Texas (yes Texas)
While such ideas have routinely been dismissed as “tree-hugging” in the United States, the term is no longer just rhetoric. In East Texas, eco-activists have occupied the trees that have to be cut down for the Keystone XL Pipeline.
will create thousands of jobs and lessen our dependence on foreign oil.
Perhaps Canadians aren’t foreign? But what about that nasty socialized medicine they have? Sarcasm aside, it’s direct action in defense of vivir bien that might open a space in which the new legal doctrine of planetary non-human rights could take effect. To the immense benefit of humans–well, most of them. Say 99%?
How do movements grow? How do they relate to established institutions? Today we had a case in point at the Creative Time summit under the title “Confronting Inequity.” Creative Time, the well-established and regarded arts agency with a social justice mission, has held these events for the past four years. This year’s event incorporated a theme on “Occupations,” involved many social movement activists, but also got itself into an entanglement with Israel. Aside from the issue itself, the ramifications created a form of Rorschach test for how people feel about the movement.
So first the issue. Creative Time (CT) announced that it had a series of “in-depth partners” for these events. One was the Israeli Center for Digital Art. While the ICDA seems relatively progressive by Israeli standards, it is funded by the Ministry of Culture and Sport and the town of Holon. This connection was first discovered by the Egyptian video collective Mosireen, whom I have often written about here, and I was really looking forward to meeting. In a statement that was widely circulated on sites such as Electronic Intifada, Mosireen announced that they could not participate:
The invitation to participate that we recieved from Creative Time initially impressed us with its language, claiming to be a response to “a growing community of cultural practitioners working in the realm of social justice and socially engaged art practice” and exploring “the impact of wealth inequity across the globe as it engenders totalitarianism and undermines democracy.” This language and other similar statements about democracy, equality and revolution were encouraging to us. We believed that the discourse around these topics was finally shifiting from its traditionally unjust and orientalist political coordinates.
It’s true that no money directly came from Israel to New York and a rapid name change to “screening partners” was implemented. Mosireen were nonetheless not arguing about equivalency. Their attention was on the Israeli Center for Digital Art and its involvement with the state:
After the Second Intifada [ICDA director] Mr. Danon said “we started doing projects that were aiming at communicating with artists/curators working in similar conditions in the region (Palestinian authority, Arab states) as well as in the Balkan area.” This inappropriate emphasis on symmetry runs through their work ever since. The deaths of 13 IDF soldiers (4 from friendly fire) during the 08/09 assault on Gaza is not a “similar condition” to the killing of 1,417 Palestinians, of which at least 313 were children.
You might not agree with this argument. There has nonetheless been an ongoing call for “Boycott Divestment and Sanctions” since 2004, supported by major US intellectual figures like Judith Butler, as any progressive person must be aware. If I was organizing an event calling “Confronting Inequity,” I would not go anywhere near a partnership with an Israeli group. If for some reason I had to do so, I would surely have wanted to have many Palestinian organizations involved as well but CT missed that call, although there were screening partners in Morocco and Abu Dhabi.
Unnoticed by Mosireen and others, there was also another partner in Israel at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, founded by the Seventh Zionist Congress in 1905, which seems fully integrated with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and has had the Prime Minister visit in 2006, and so on. More than the ICDA, this partner seems troubling.
Following Mosireen’s withdrawal in regards to the ICDA, the hip-hop duo Rebel Diaz withdrew in solidarity.
So at the opening of the Summit, CT president Anne Pasternak had the difficult task of announcing these withdrawals but did not do so in a way that made it clear to the audience what had happened, other than that it was over Israel-Palestine. Curator Nato Thompson followed and said that while CT “get it” about the issue, they wanted “to get everything on the table” and discuss it. Which would entail a screening partner in Palestine, even if you accept that argument.
The issue was widely discussed on Twitter (#CTsummit) but did not make the platform until the editorial team from Tidal, the OWS theory journal that I have again often discussed here, had their moment in the segment called “Occupations.” Amin Husain, a well-known figure at OWS, talked from his own background as a Palestinian. He recalled debates over whether to use the name “occupy” that had been decided in favor of reclaiming the language but not, as is often suggested, without being aware of Palestine. He noted that Israel is an “economy set up to benefit the elite at the expense of the indigenous,” while pointing out from direct experience of the negotiations that nationhood for Palestine has always come with conditions of subscribing to neo-liberalism. Tidal raised the question of the boycott but did not call for people to walk out. They used the remainder of their time to discuss what they had wanted to talk about: the Strike Debt campaign and a video they had made to show, which is below:
Before this view could take hold, it was undermined by the Spanish artist Fernando Garcia-Dory, winner of a prize for Art and Social Change. Garcia-Dory, who has done remarkable work with shepherds, giving attention to the Spanish Federation of Shepherds, which he describes as
a social system design that allow[s] an excluded community to get together, share worldviews and problem analisys, pose alternatives for action and unite[s] voices to get listened [to].
He further suggested that the assemblage formed by the activist artist working on a social justice project in a given community constitutes the artwork in itself, which has further mutual relations with questions of audience and content. Nowhere present in the diagrams he used to visualize this relation was the art gallery, museum or institution. Such realizations lie behind both the turn to performance and the occupy movement. If we have already seen a vogue for institutionalizing performance, to very mixed effect, we should be cautious about institutionalizing occupation.
That’s not to say that the social movement has to stay literally and metaphorically outside, but that, in the manner hinted at by Garcia-Dory, we have to build our own institutions. How those institutions are funded and networked cannot be treated as matters of convenience, as we have so often done in the past. We should not be preachy about it but we have to consider the much harder question posed to us by Slavoj Zizek in his keynote: what kind of future is that we want? And by Occupy lights, that means we have to act as if the future is now.
In short, it’s not just debt abolition. It’s what does a world without debt look like? How do we start living it? Who should we talk to in this discussion? The real shame of the whole imbroglio at the Summit was that the conversation could not begin there. But it will begin tomorrow across the world with the 13O day of action and week against debt. Get outside.
I took a road trip to Rochester for the last two days, where I gave a talk about my work and how it has led me into militant research practice. What’s really useful to me about giving such presentations is watching the way that people respond to different aspects of the talk. In this case, it consolidated the sense that I have had for some time that while digital networks are vital to organizing, the actual activism remains necessarily analog.
There would not be a global social movement without digital network tools, that much is obvious. To take a very trivial example, sending out a tweet about my talk brought a group of different people over from Syracuse to the event, who otherwise would not have come. In the next few weeks, Strike Debt will initiate the first Rolling Jubilee project, which will buy debt on the defaulted debt market, sold at 5% of face value: and abolish it. The action will be centered on upstate New York, so it was great to make contact with people from across the area.
More importantly, the globalNoise people launched a Europe-wide Twitter campaign today to get the #globalNoise or #GN tags trending and managed to register it at the national level in Spain, which is impressive and a sign of what’s to come on October 13. Now that Facebook is trying to monetize your friends list by charging you to reach all your friends with a post, Twitter is all the more useful and relevant as the activist communication network.
In reporting back on the various projects I’m involved with from this writing project to the Scalar multi-media project and the book from which it was derived, there was no doubt that the Debt Resistors’ Operations Manual attracted the most interest. In part that was because I was talking to a group that contained a lot of people with student debt. But it was also because it was a real material object that has a certain heft and displays care in its production values. The digital versions of the DROM are vital too: there have been 19,000 reads and over 65,000 embedded reads of the text, far more than we can possibly print. But if it was only a PDF file, I feel that it might not have the same resonance.
So far all the wired revolution talk, it seems to me that an activist movement that centers around putting our bodies in space where they are not supposed to be can’t but be an analog movement. As media theorist Brian Massumi has put it
The processing may be digital but the analog is the process
And Occupy is nothing if not a process, as is direct democracy, as indeed should be all forms of democracy.
Democratic voters have had to learn this the hard way. While the Obama campaign said to them, “move on, we’ve got this,” there was nothing for people outside the handful of swing states to do but watch the mediatic representation of a “campaign.” In such a campaign, as Romney apparently realized, holding rallies and ground-game are totally secondary to a media event that draws 70 million viewers. We have to confront the real possibility that unless he shows up to the other debates in game-changing mode, Obama’s virtual campaign has undone itself. It’s no good having banks of paid tweeters and Facebook posters if you have nothing good for them to tweet or post.
At a Strike Debt meeting yesterday, we discussed the joint call for action on O13. One person looked askance and commented: “We better not just get 25 people wandering around New York.” In other words, the tens of thousands that routinely turn out for Europe’s anti-austerity demonstrations are likely to be matched on a scale of one in a hundred at best in the U. S. Why are we still so marginalized?
It’s certainly true that the Eurozone disaster is extraordinary. And of course, Occupy is no more than a year old. In a broadside published today, Rebecca Solnit isn’t having any of it. She firmly blames the left for its own divisiveness and celebration of failure. Having begun to think about hope, she writes,
I eventually began to refer to my project as “snatching the teddy bear of despair from the loving arms of the left.” All that complaining is a form of defeatism, a premature surrender, or an excuse for not really doing much. Despair is also a form of dismissiveness, a way of saying that you already know what will happen and nothing can be done, or that the differences don’t matter, or that nothing but the impossibly perfect is acceptable.
This tendency to not only see defeat looming but revel in it is a familiar figure. The great heroes of the left from the Commune to the Spanish Civil War and so on all lost. It was the second edition of the first ever punk fanzine Sniffin’ Glue that declared punk dead back in 1977.
Now, however, there’s an added social media snarkiness to it all. All over ZuckerBook you can read dismissals of OWS, its publications and campaigns as being insufficiently anti-capitalist and otherwise deluded. As if posting to Facebook was anything other than a way of making money for its shareholders.
All that said, there are real contradictions here. As a number of people have pointed out, and I am well aware myself, my explorations in militant research are a part of my privilege. I tend to think it a better use of that situation than simply perpetuating the status quo but nonetheless it is fair to ask whether it helps people in the New Academic Majority. My hope is that by acting and writing in the way that I would prefer to do, I make it possible for others to do the same and use my project as a model or reference. That said, you won’t hear much from me after 12/31/12 for a good long time.
For Occupy more broadly, the feminist-inspired culture of trust, process and love has been one of its great accomplishments. But when I hear, as you do from time to time, someone yelling at someone else that they are “bourgeois” or some other infraction, it’s always a male-identified person defining a female-identified one.
At the first GA I remember attending in Zuccotti, I was impressed by a young woman of color talking about the way the assembly did not yet look like New York City. Well, what’s left of that body still doesn’t resemble its parent metropolis, and there’s a renewed bout of questioning as to why. Some people are criticizing the topics we’ve highlighted recently, such as debt, as if debt did not affect the poorest and most discriminated against in our society. Can we do better? No question. But there’s a real issue out there. Here’s a visualization of payday loan stores in Bushwick. There are a lot in a small area.
Here’s the Upper East Side:
Exclude A and C which are bank branches and you have three such payday loan places from 59th St to 106th St on the entire East Side.
So why is OWS in general and Strike Debt in particular still lacking diversity? Part of it stems from the bulk of Solnit’s article about the election. African Americans are strong supporters of Obama, with over 90% in most polls saying they will vote for him. If anyone was in any doubt that Republican hatred for Obama was motivated in whole or in part by race, the rash of “chair lynchings” that followed Clint Eastwood’s speech should have settled the issue. If you’ve missed this, a set of chairs have been hanged in trees with American flags attached to them. Given Eastwood’s identification of an empty chair with Obama, the message is as clear as it is repellent. In the 1960s civil rights activists carried US flags to claim equal rights in contrast with the Confederate flag. The Vietnam War put paid to that association and the flag can now be meaningfully tagged with racist murder.
So while how to vote is almost a technical debate in New York or California, at least at Presidential level, it’s not hard to see why people of color, women, LBGTQI folks and many others don’t see it that way. As Solnit trenchantly puts it:
You don’t have to participate in this system, but you do have to describe it and its complexities and contradictions accurately, and you do have to understand that when you choose not to participate, it better be for reasons more interesting than the cultivation of your own moral superiority, which is so often also the cultivation of recreational bitterness.
The reduced numbers of active people in OWS need to heed such warnings and realize that we can’t turn things our way by hyperactive organizing alone. It turned out that the crisis was not of a brief duration and nor was there to be a revolutionary solution to it. Perhaps for a moment last October we glimpsed the mountaintop but we’ve slipped a long way down the slope since then. That’s OK. Instead of turning on each other, we need to turn outwards and start engaging with the constituencies we most want to be in dialog with.
Take a moment out of the beautiful fall day to mourn the passing of the biosphere. It seems to have barely registered on the global hive mind that the Arctic sea ice melted this year to an extent never seen before. In a matter of years, not decades, there will be no ice in the Arctic in summer. A world without a North Pole. A biosphere that no longer plays out according to its own rhythm and time but has become a by-product of the capitalist profit/loss cycle.
People often say this is too depressing to think about because it’s so overwhelming. Let’s try and come at it through a single detail. And get angry, not sad.
She was unable to find one sufficiently dense to support her weight. In the nineteenth century, when British whaling ships went to exactly the same region of the Arctic, near Spitsbergen (Svalbard in Norwegian, as in the map), the ice was so dense and heavy that they moored their ships on ice floes. They would then use chains to lift whales out of the water to strip their blubber, while counterbalanced with the ice.
Visually, in a century we have gone from here, a whaling ship trapped in the ice with other ships operating nearby:
to here, a former whaling site in the summer of 2012, the whaling season:
Baffin Bay in 2012, former whaling site (AFP photo)
This isn’t long in human time. In what used to be geological time, it’s too short to measure. Capitalist time has now eliminated geological time, it’s extinct. This wasn’t supposed to happen until 2050 or later, according to projections made only five years ago.
The cause is the same as that which led the whalers to the Arctic in the first place: the relentless autoimmune destructive force of capitalism’s need for energy. Whalers first hunted commercially in the Bay of Biscay in the sixteenth century. Soon, the animals were extinct there. They turned to walruses and eliminated them. By the late eighteenth century an Arctic whaling boom was in full swing, as whale oil could be used in the textile and lighting industries. So the whales died to keep factories open after dark, as the oil produced by Arctic whales was low quality compared to sperm whale oil. The shift, the working day and the concept of separating time into “work” time and “leisure” time are by-products of the human conquest of diurnal time and space.
By the late nineteenth century, Arctic whales had disappeared in turn and the British industry went fallow for a few decades. Another time we’ll think about whaling as the first paradigm for globalization. The remnant of all this destruction is the continuing Norwegian insistence on hunting whales, despite their extensive oil reserves.
The message of the open Arctic is clear. Capitalism is constitutively incapable of restraining itself. It cannot be reformed or regulated in its quest for energy, as indicated by the insane efforts of governments and corporations to use the melting in the Arctic to drill for more oil. Its only measure of time is the profit cycle, which must always move forward and always creates “externalities,” such as the death of the biosphere.
So don’t mourn the biosphere: organize. It’s time.