No Apocalypse And No Democracy

Photo: Tim Russo

Photo: Tim Russo

So no apocalypse. Or as the Zapatistas reminded us, an apocalypse that has happened already in 2008 and continues to play itself out. When Occupy was all about the GA and direct democracy, the media harped on about demands. Now the movement has articulated some sharp critiques around debt, climate and disaster, notice the silence over democracy.The “democracy” we have is no longer defensible. The alternative is uncertain.

It is by now self-evident that representative democracy cannot contain or direct the crises of this curious time with no name. The media mistake the decline of the traditional left and the lunacy of the neoliberal right as a desire for centrism. But the center has collapsed most thoroughly of all.

Nowhere is this clearer than over the so-called debt debate. US Federal debt is not an issue. It’s easy to sell and offers almost non-existent interest. But the political class has talked up a grand showdown in order to be able to sell a further round of cuts in benefits and paid-for entitlements. Notice how Obama immediately gave up his only two clear election promises: to raise taxes on those making more than $250,000 and not to cut social security. So what will happen is a mealy-mouthed combination of marginal tax increases for the immensely wealthy, which their accountants will negotiate with ease, and two years more work for the rest of us. At this point the Congress will be exhausted and nothing else of note will happen until the next “most important election of your life.”

What does trouble me is the corollary collapse of the traditional left. It is as if without a point of reference against which they can call themselves “the left,” the whole project falls apart. In Spain, for example, movement activists referred to the unions as dinosaurs and would not even speak about the Socialist Party that introduced austerity. When I mentioned actions like the miners march from the Asturias, the come-back was immediate: what did they accomplish? Ironically, the movement is using the establishment critique of 2011 against itself. In France and the UK, I would hear very familiar calls for “socialism,” for Trotskyism or a popular front but without conviction and less chance of actual success.

This sense of frustration has led to extensive and continuing attacks on everything that isn’t canonically Left or Marxist or Trotskyist depending on the persuasion of individual groups or individuals. Much of this has been directed at Occupy, Strike Debt and the Rolling Jubilee. I don’t think that we’re beyond criticism, far from it. Movement de-briefs after actions or events can often be scathing.

But what are the continuing efforts to claim that the Rolling Jubilee will create unthought of tax liabilities, despite the well-publicized involvement of lawyers and accountants who say otherwise, supposed to achieve? The left critics have never contacted the movement directly, as it would be easy for them to do, let alone make a pre-publication intervention. This isn’t about correcting a mistake. It’s about sectarianism: the idea being that the success of the “left” relies on unorthodox elements being successfully purged or squashed. The fact that there is no “left” to speak of in the US does not mitigate the force of the true believers desire to purify.

The real questions nonetheless remain. After the passing of the General Assembly model, how would a movement work beyond the local scale? Strike Debt has several sister groups but there is no consensus as to whether these are affiliates, chapters of a union, or autonomous bodies agreeing to work together. While we delegate and allow for people to take on different roles, this practice is based on trust among known comrades and is not a model.

Even the Zapatistas had nothing to say on their powerful demonstration, nineteen years after their first appearance under the slogan ¡Ya Basta! There has been no apocalypse but there is clearly something that is either a collapse or a paralysis of the mechanisms of representative democracy that are used to validate neoliberalism. Far from being an emergency for the post-left alternative, this situation gives us a renewed opportunity. In the park, time was always of the essence–proposals and actions had to be decided immediately. As winter begins, we find the post-apocalypse post-democracy opens the chance to engage with new possibilities at a more reasonable tempo. Like not posting every single day;)


Gender and Democracy After Sandy

How do we now adapt to the climate-changed world that Sandy has woken us up to? Do we continue to militarize the world and talk of “hard” or “soft” options, in a country where hard means tough means masculine means good? And crucially who gets to decide? Early signs are troubling.

Rockaways one week after.

Since the storm swept into New York City, a long-frustrated lobby for the construction of a sea-barrier has seen its chance. Touting the $10 billion cost against the $50 billion the storm has supposedly cost, the barrier is presented as a “hard” option that will keep the water out. Except that it will do nothing for the barrier islands that suffered most. And if sea level rise is anything like what has been predicted, then even these barriers will be over-topped if and when a full-blown hurricane hits the region.

Alternatives have been proposed, such as the restoration of wetlands, the natural barrier to storms. We might try and restore shellfish like oysters to New York Harbor, where they used to grow in their millions, as a form of living reef. We can soften the waterfront with wetter and more absorptive environments. And we might have to stop living on the barrier islands, at least on a permanent year-round basis. That might make for cleaner water and beaches.

According to a widely-quoted geologist named Robert Young, however, in the United States:

Retreat is a dirty word.

Why designate a sensible life-protecting and ecological decision as a retreat? Why make the urban decision into a war?

In a long piece in today’s New York Times, the architecture critic Michael Kimmelman offers storm-destroyed communities a choice of futures but also unspecified responsibilities. It’s hard to see what this means in practice, as the costs involved in restoring services and roads are far beyond the reach of increases in local taxation, which is what I take “responsibilities” to mean.

As he thinks this through, Kimmelman gets more and more concerned. He starts thinking about Robert Moses, whose brutalizing pro-auto policies did so much to damage New York and against whom Jane Jacobs campaigned. Kimmelman notes:

His biographer Robert Caro wrote in the 1970s that Moses “bent the democratic processes of the city to his own ends to build public works,” albeit “left to themselves, these processes proved unequal to the building required.”

“The problem of constructing large-scale public works in a crowded urban setting,” Mr. Caro added, “is one which democracy has not yet solved.”

And it still hasn’t.

And out of the eye of the storm, which we were told so often did not discriminate, returns the spectre of Plato and his hatred of democracy.

In fact, the storm has mixed things up in an interesting way. Occupiers have been in discussion with cops and firefighters in Staten Island. National Guard have worked alongside community groups and FEMA has been notably receptive to comment. A democracy is happening. People haven’t had time to get to what’s next. I’ve heard every kind of idea from rebuild to retire or restart the urban idea altogether. There’s no consensus yet. Anyone looked at our supposed leaders, unable to agree on what day it is?

And yet for some, the new normal is just like the old normal, the white guys get to call the shots, pretend its a war and declare themselves winners. What do you expect from a country that still has gladiators?


The Continuing One Per Cent Hatred of Democracy

Today I got a packet in the post with copies of the new issue of Public Culture. I’d almost forgotten that I have a short essay in it called “Why I Occupy.” It’s actually not on the website yet. It was written back in January and I expected that it would feel badly outdated. There are some references to May Day that seem that way but the core of the piece is about democracy and elections, making it oddly timely.

After some personal contextualization, I argue:

In the space that has opened up between the disappointment engendered by “Obama” and the emergence of Occupy has come a widespread, realization that no election of a single candidate or party is likely to change the neo-liberal consensus, let alone transform capitalism. Hard on the heels of this commonplace (in certain left circles at least) came the opportunity and responsibility to try and do something about it.

What I mean here is that “Obama” does not stand for the person of the president himself, and his failings or successes, but the fundamental concept of a representative democracy functioning primarily via the occasional selection of a “great man” in the style of Carlyle (or the even more occasional selection of a great woman).

Of course, we can say that the Republicans chose to block Obama at all points. In most parliamentary democracies that wouldn’t be surprising: the opposition is supposed to oppose. What can’t happen here is a debate about neo-liberal capitalism. We are only allowed to hear about “government,” big or small. In this non-debate it becomes perfectly possible for a candidate like Romney to reverse his position repeatedly and still seem “serious,” not just because of the weakness of the US media (though that is real), but because the policy difference is not dramatic.

After all, neither candidate has taken a serious new policy position for the election. Obama will carry on muddling through, already signaling “concessions” to Republicans on the fiscal cliff. Romney will give tax cuts to the rich. Obama will appoint Supreme Court justices who probably won’t overturn Roe v. Wade. Romney will appoint those who probably will.

The drama comes in questions of culture and identity. By performing functionally in the first “debate,” Romney gained authority with those who wanted to act out a desire for heteronormative white masculinity. They call it “being a real man.” In those people longing for a reassertion of (white) American dominance, no policy position is as important as being allowed to express this sense of hierarchy.

After Colin Powell (himself let it be said something close to a war criminal in 2003) endorsed Obama, Republican John Sununu retorted that it was because both men are African American. Powell’s chief-of-staff pointed out the obvious:

My party is full of racists, and the real reason a considerable portion of my party wants President Obama out of the White House has nothing to do with the content of his character, nothing to do with his competence as commander-in-chief and president, and everything to do with the color of his skin, and that’s despicable.

Such comments won’t swing a single vote because it’s been an open secret for years. Nonetheless, we should not underestimate the “end of Reconstruction” effect that a Romney victory would have, even if it later seems like the last hurrah of the white majority, before the demographic rise of a diverse majority.

Win or lose, I suspect that the Romney campaign has succeeded in creating a new wave of white male rage. And here’s the difference–Romney will have to give them things, whether on reproductive rights, or science education, or affirmative action that will make things notably worse. He will do so gladly in exchange for the continued rule of neo-liberal oligarchy.

But what of democracy? In the Public Culture essay I wrote about the perceived crisis in democracy:

For a thinker like Jacques Rancière, there would be no contradiction here. Rather than call this “post-democracy,” Rancière has argued that the Platonic “hatred of democracy” has always continued to apply to Western society. That is to say, in the fashion of Bruno Latour, we have never been democratic.

There are two component parts to democracy: the demos, the people, and kratein, to rule. Who are the people? The Romney view is that they are corporations and those that serve them, which would appall Plato and latter-day Platonists like Carlyle alike. There’s no sense left of aristocracy, the rule of the best. It’s palpably oligarchy that dominates, the rule of the few, those who have power but no authority.

The demos as all the people has never ruled. It has never even been allowed to speak. That’s what the 99% meme was all about: not that we are all identical, except in this one regard, we have never been allowed to have a part. Occupy tried to democratize democracy. It perhaps underestimated the forces of racialized and gendered domination that continue to classify and separate the people. It’s still not over.


The Global Agenda: Europe’s Move

We Don’t Owe, We Won’t Pay! (Spain 13O)

The global social movements move. First it was Tunisia and Egypt that moved the Arab Spring. Then Spain set in motion the Take the Squares Movement across Europe. Last September, a group of people in New York set off the Occupy movement. Now for good reasons and bad, it’s looking as if Europe may be taking the lead again.

The bad reasons are really bad. As austerity continues to intensify, there’s a real sense of desperation and urgency.This film by Ross Domoney about the situation in Greece over the last two years shows this intensification in process.

Athens: Social Meltdown from Ross Domoney on Vimeo.

Greek dockworkers yesterday managed to occupy the defense ministry in Athens, while conservative prime minister Samaras is reduced to comparing the national situation to that of Weimar Germany. Just to calm things down, Angela Merkel goes to Greece on Tuesday and should be met by a very clear rejection of her austerity plan.

The Troika’s Orientalist plan to build a firewall around the crisis in Southern Europe and pass it off as a set of local errors, caused by laziness and inefficiency, is blowing up in their faces. Occupy Fake Democracy began a week of continent-wide action today in Strasbourg, home of the European Parliament.

On October 17 and in the week around it you’ll see actions around the world but especially in Europe. Check out Barcelona and Madrid (in Spanish) for exemplary days and weeks of action.

What makes this moment feel different to me, however, is that long-term strategizing and planning about alternatives is well underway. In November a four-day meeting called Agora 99 will bring together participants from across Europe. Here’s their call (lightly edited for idiom:

The cuts and plundering policies we are suffering are generated on a global and European level. The financial economy plays its game in a board that very much exceeds national borders.

What does this space mean for the 99%? What made millions of people feel deeply affected by what had happened in Egypt, in Tunisia, in Portugal, in Syntagma Square in Greece, on Wall Street, in Chile, in Mexico and in many other places around the globe? How does this new type of political structure work after the outburst of the Arab Spring, Iceland, Greece, after the 15th May in Spain? Even more importantly, how do we proceed?

What for?
We want to put in relation what we have learned in the square and the networks in the context of the 15M movement with the knowledge of other European and Mediterranean networks. We want to produce a space for interaction, cooperation and organization that could work at least at a European level.

The aim is to end the meeting with a common working calendar and common events around the three axes (Debt, Democracy and Rights) and common working tools.

The themes of debt, democracy and rights are close to those of OWS’s S17 call relating to debt, the corruption of democracy and environmental justice.

Both sets of ideas feed into the major convergence of social movements, networks and civil society organizations called Firenze 10+10 to be held 8-11 November. The name derives from the European Social Forum that was held in the same location ten years ago but the new meeting

aims at creating a space for movements and networks to meet and to work towards the building of convergence of our struggles.

To that end 150 delegates have already met to define a set of “pillars” for the agenda in Florence:

1) Democracy in Europe

Democratic grassroots “constituent process” and development of a citizen pact and assembly; rebuilding European institutions beyond the current undemocratic treaties; migrants and the proposal of an European citizenship by residency; democratic floodwall against the right, neo-fascism and racism; rebuilding social solidarity.

2) Finance/debt/austerity

“Debt tribunal”, audit of the debt; campaigns against austerity measures and the fiscal compact; financial transaction tax etc.

3) Labor and other social rights

Labor and social rights in the time of neoliberal globalization and austerity; sustainable social development; social Pact; adequate income (wages and social protection) etc

4) Natural and social common goods + public services

Land, food, water, energy, climate and post-Rio agenda etc; the defense of territories against useless big infrastructures and projects imposed top-down; the struggle against the financialization of nature etc.

5) Europe in the Mediterranean and the world

Peace and support to the fight for democracy and peoples’ rights; War/peace and social justice; cooperation and solidarity; fair trade; denuclearization of the Mediterranean; arms trade control; “Arab revolutions”; stop the occupations; exchanges between different cultures and identities (building a bridge towards the WSF Tunisia – and the “World Social Forum-Free Palestine” in Brazil)

The gender dimension is transversal to all the pillars.

In addition to these five working groups or pillars, a sixth group will be working to co-ordinate the process of each working group towards a single agenda, comprising of  a general common action in the short term, and a proposal for a joint common strategy in the long term.

There will be “demands” after all. Somehow I don’t think that all those media types are going to like them nonetheless.


Que se vayan todos!

It’s time for them all to go. Who? The global neo-liberal Goldman Sachs-dominated financial elite. Around the world, it’s clear that people are coming to this conclusion and for good reason. In Portugal mass demonstrations forced the government to backtrack on cuts and raise taxes instead. In Egypt, workers are meeting in assemblies. What’s happening is a widespread withdrawal of consent to be governed in the name of austerity, cuts and finance. There are alternative programs emerging. The last year and a half was the warm up. Now it begins.

Egyptian car workers

I spent the morning reading about the civil rights movement as part of Strike Debt’s project to think about how to expand and build its campaign. Then I get online to see what’s going on in Spain, and there it is, happening. Today was a day of action 25S/S25 in which the Congress was encircled.

You wanted demands? They have demands:

– The dismissal of the entire government, as well as the dismissal of the Court and the Leadership of the State, because of betraying the country and the whole community of citizens. This was done in premeditation and is leading us to the disaster.

– The beginning of a constitutional process in a transparent and democratic way, with the goal of composing a new Constitution

They want the elimination of all remnants of Franco-ism and the beginning of a new democracy and sustainable employment. Central to that process is the citizens’ audit of debt:

– The audit and control of the public debt of Spain, with moratorium (delay) of debt’s payment until there is a clear demarcation of the parts which not have to be paid by the nation, because they have been served private interests using the country for their own goals, instead the well being of the whole Spanish community

This is the outline of a political alternative, one that could operate state power, albeit in a very different way.

It was in order to visualize that claim that the massive encircling of Congress took place today. It began earlier with a rally in the Avenida del Prado at the center of Madrid. Here’s a video (HT Marina Sitrin):

They’re chanting: “They don’t represent us.” Indeed they don’t with official unemployment at 24% and poverty at 22%.

They moved off to Congress:

To Congress

There were, shall we say, quite a few people there by the time they arrived and established the circle.

The police behaved with typical restraint.

But as often as the police waded into the crowd, they reformed, sat down and held the ground. Their chants reflected the manifesto: “It isn’t a crisis, it’s a fraud!” and “This is not a democracy, it is a Mafia.”

Ugly Naked Man with a sign: “Life Without Hope in Madrid”

The tunes were often ones used at soccer matches, together with classic left slogans like “El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido.” These are forms of social connection that Occupy in the US can’t really draw on. Attending professional sport is a luxury event here, as is class activism. The Indignados are activists because they activate such patterns of social life. NFL referees can go on strike–NY state workers cannot.

If Occupy is to follow, it will have to learn how to cross the color lines that still prevent social activism from cohering here. It’s not that social conditions are different. Poverty in New York City, center of global capitalism, stands at 21% and the top 20% make an incredible 38 times the income of the bottom 20%. Madrid’s unemployment rate is 18.6%, while it reaches 13% in parts of New York like the Bronx, with much more stringent conditions and shorter eligibility. Of course, that difference is both  marked by and defines racialized hierarchy in the US. That’s the task ahead on this side of the Atlantic.

For the Indignados, today was simply a step on the road to the Global Day of Action on October 13, preceded by  O12’s celebration of America Latina Indignada or Occupy Latin America! Which makes sense because this refusal to be governed by neo-liberalism follows in the wake of similar Latin American refusals from Argentina to Bolivia and Chile. As so often, resistance moves from the decolonial regions to the former colonial metropole.

Last March, Madrid led and New York followed in September. Can we close the gap this time?

To Walk Asking Questions

This is the theme of a fascinating new book, Occupying Language, by Marina Sitrin and Dario Azzellini in the Occupied Media Pamphlet Series. The authors situate the present Occupy movement in the context of the insurgent movements in Latin America over the past quarter of a century. From this perspective, to occupy is to walk asking questions. And it’s ok to get lost.

Cover of Occupying Language

The authors develop their project in the colonial context suggested by the original meaning of occupation:

Language is not neutral, and words transport and express concepts and ways of thinking. They can consolidate and perpetuate hierarchies, domination and control just as they can underline equality and strengthen consciousness. Latin American struggles for dignity, freedom and liberation are rooted in more than five hundred years of resistance. Language derived from their struggles comes with historical antecedents.

The book goes on to describe concepts like Territory, Assembly and Rupture that translate easily, as well as more elusive and perhaps productive forms, such as política afectiva (≈affective politics), poder popular (≈popular power) and autogestión (≈collective democratic self management).

Each term is “openly defined” in a short sentence and then given living form in a piece of reportage of the authors own experience with the concept. The rest of the entry analyzes the use and meaning of the term.

Such fascination with language was a commonplace in the early days of Occupy. The word “occupy” was odds-on favorite to be chosen as the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year.And so it proved, with the citation arguing

It’s a very old word, but over the course of just a few months it took on another life and moved in new and unexpected directions, thanks to a national and global movement. The movement itself was powered by the word.

In this project I also undertook a decolonial genealogy of the word. So it’s renewing to see how much energy can still be generated by an attention to the politics of language, now that everyone is “over” Occupy and wishes we would just go away.

Sitrin and Azzellini’s book reinforces some of my own thoughts about our present direction. We know, for example, that many mainstream reporters will declare S17 a failure because there will not have been a new Occupation, even though we no longer intend to do so. Sitrin and Azzellini point out that the global movements have all gone through

a process of reterritorialization…after a few months….Thus, around the world there has been a shift into neighborhoods and workplaces, to focus on local needs yet at the same time come together to co-ordinate.

Whether because of anxieties about the Presidential election, or because people still harbored hopes for a more thorough-going transformation, we’ve not paid enough attention to this process and not given it a high enough value. For Sitrin and Azzellini, the project is one of

Caminar Preguntando (To walk asking questions)….[M]ultiple histories that help create multiple open-ended paths.

This walk leads us into what Benjamin called “a secret rendezvous between past generations and our own.” For Anglo readers, we might understand this as a decentering and decolonial vantage point on the history of the present as understood by those who have been colonized for five centuries.

There are many moments that resonate in this slim volume. One that caught my eye was the discussion of política afectiva. The term came out of the post-2000 autonomous movements in Argentina, meaning “a movement based in love.” This was no easy sell in a place like Buenos Aires, as Toty Flores from the Unemployed Workers Movement recalls:

Imagine being in a neighborhood like La Matanza, which is full of really tough men, men who have lived, and still live, a violent macho life, and we’re talking about new loving relationships. No, it isn’t easy, not even to talk about, let alone practice. This is part of our changing culture, and as we change, we notice how much we really need to.

I was reminded of a visit I had the chance to make to FOMMA, a performance space and center in San Cristobal, Chiapas, where Maya women have used performance to educate their community about domestic violence. Such spaces are amazingly empowering and inspiring, however local their project.

Sitrin and Azzellini remind us that too often such transformative projects are written off as being “identity” or “gender” issues, unlike the “real” economic or class issues. They riposte:

Fortaleza de la Mujer Maya

Responsibility for the other and solidarity are basic conditions of a future society not grounded in capitalist principles.

OWS once knew that very well. There are days where I worry that the focus on confrontational direct action, arrests and civil disobedience seemingly for its own sake rather than as an articulation of a wider idea, has allowed us to forget it somewhat.

When we talk of Democracia Real Ya! that is what we mean. Anti-capitalism, this book reminds us, is a politics of walking and of love.

Sometimes, as Rebecca Solnit has taught us, when you walk you get lost. And she suggests that’s a good thing, a way to let go of our hyper-disciplined OCD selves and wandering to wonder. That might be where we are now.

Move on, no crisis to see here

It seems that there’s a concerted effort at the level of the nation state and the transnational institution to assert that the status quo is assured. The European Central Bank has written a blank check for the Euro, pollsters are predicting a win for Obama and stock markets are back to 2008 levels. The wrinkle comes from Quebec, where forty years of organizing has laid the background for the election of the new Parti Quebecois government, committed to abolishing the tuition hike and the noxious Loi 78.

Mario Draghi, head of the ECB, announced yesterday that it would buy bonds from member nations in unlimited quantities. His action was designed to forestall all rumors that the Eurozone might break up, by restoring liquidity to nation states. For the inflation-shy German central bank this action was held to be

tantamount to financing governments by printing banknotes.

And indeed it is. Against neo-liberal economics, Draghi and other central bankers assume that there will be no inflation because consumer demand and wages alike continue to be depressed.

Across the world we see the reasons why. The US economy added no more than a rounding error of jobs last month. The battered Greek welfare state is about to undergo another $11.5 billion in cuts. Portugal increase its social security tax from 11 to 18%. Like all the other money poured by government into banks, none of this will find its way out to people.

Meanwhile, in the NAFTA-zone, Mexico is set to return to the institutional rule of the PRI and Canada remains under the oil-first government of the Liberals. The 538 blog (now hosted by the New York Times gives Obama a 77% chance of victory, which is good news in terms of preventing further neo-liberal and culture wars insanity by the Republicans. Given the low chance of the Democrats taking the House, it will nonetheless mean the continuance of gridlock, with continued impunity for banksters and no risk to the one per cent.

The exception to all the gloom comes from Quebec. After the narrow election win by the Parti Québécois, they smartly decided they did not want to be saddled with the Liberals’ baggage:

“We had a call from the PQ assuring us they will cancel the tuition increase and Bill 78,” said Martine Desjardins, president of the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec, noting students will also meet with Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois. “They said they will reimburse any students who have already paid.”


CLASSE have indicated that the national demonstration of September 22 will go ahead, in the absence of an actual repeal, and in support of their claim for a student grant increase. It will most likely have the feel of a victory party.

There are no doubt questions as to what happens next in Quebec. For now, let’s note their successul formula so far

  • building a radical community over an extended period of time
  • working in alliances, even with groups with whom you have distinct differences, towards specific goals
  • great messaging and symbolism, together with resolute direct action
  • keeping it local.

These tactics resonate with those used by the horizontal and popular movements in the Southern half of the hemisphere. They did not back down, even in the full force of law, and have made a real difference. There’s really something to see there.

Secrecy now, secrecy forever

How long ago WikiLeaks seems. Yet for Bradley Manning and Julian Assange, the whole world is defined by the scandal. While the materials released were not of particular consequence, often merely confirming well-read suspicions, the culture of secrecy that they represented continues to assert itself. In this area, there is precious little distinction between the mainstream US political parties.

Manning has been confined in appalling circumstances, treated like a Nazi war criminal, rather than a person whose principles came into dramatic conflict with what he was being asked to do. As the military expanded its intelligence network as a key part of counterinsurgency, it was taken for granted that any person allowed to see what there is to see, and not told to move on, would do so gratefully. Never mind that, according to Manning, most spent their time downloading music and movies onto blank DVDs. He himself smuggled out his documents on DVDs labelled “Lady Gaga” so as not to arouse suspicion.

Assange has likewise been hounded in palpably absurd ways, whatever you think of him personally. Who else would Britain agree to extradite merely for questioning by prosecutors in what seems like a suspiciously convenient case? Of course, I am not condoning sexual harassment and, if this does prove to be a case encouraged by the authorities, it was a clever choice, knowing that progressive people would be torn between the two issues.

Here in Australia, Assange’s case is very much understood as one of civil liberties, both in the US and in Australia, where the Labor government has carefully followed the American line. Here’s the Sydney Morning Herald:

We now have an American president who continues with indefinite detention outside the protection of the US constitution, who orders the killing of US citizens, who allows pre-trial punishment of Manning, and who continues to keep American officials immune from prosecution in the International Criminal Court for war crimes. With Assange, we now have a democratic government in the American hemisphere granting asylum to someone on the basis of well-grounded fear of political persecution in the United States.

A while ago, only my Occupy friends were posting material like that, now it’s mainstream opinion.

One more irony has yet gone unnoticed. The purported scandal of WikiLeaks in the first place was in part its flaunting of diplomatic protocol, as cables from diplomats were a major part of the leaked material. All kinds of huffing about the damage to diplomacy followed. Now the British government threatens to snatch Assange from the Ecuadorean embassy in London. I wonder how Anglophone diplomats in some of the world’s less secure locations feel about that? Not to mention that, as any reader of John Le Carré knows, half the so-called diplomats are spies anyway.

So it’s clear that what’s at stake here is not what happens to poor Bradley Manning or the career of Julian Assange. What matters to the Anglophone governments working in synch over this matter is preserving their right to act in secret, to continue to tell us not to concern ourselves with what they do, and to punish any effort to breach that divide. Here, finally, is something the political class can agree on: that they think they’re better than us.

Reconstructing Haiti 1801/2010 and on

Reconstruction in the US after abolition was, whether it knew it or not, following the pattern established by Haiti during its revolution. So it seemed like a good time to take a look and see how reconstruction after the disastrous earthquake of 2010 has been going. The headlines are bad: multinational sweatshops and mining are moving in, very little of the promised aid has been disbursed, debt continues to be a burden. The glimmer of hope comes from the literally grassroots work of the Haitian peasant movement. It is as if nothing has happened since 1801: capital wants to see a restoration of the plantation, while the peasants want land, water and sustainable employment.

The Haitian revolution was long and violent. By 1801, it was clear that the formerly enslaved would win. Toussaint Louverture issued a constitution, which intensely disappointed his own side. For Toussaint, large scale cash-crop agriculture was vital both to the formation of a nation-state in general and to repaying his loans to the United States in particular. The formerly enslaved were to work as laborers for a wage.

The subaltern rank-and-file revolted against their own revolution, in search of small plots of land they could farm collectively and create a long-term guarantee against re-enslavement, whether as chattel or wage slaves. Toussaint felt compelled to repress the revolt, and even assassinated his own nephew Moïse who was its leader. The Trinidad radical C. L. R. James later saw this as the defining failure of the revolution in his classic The Black Jacobins (1938, reissued 1968).

CLR James

Although Pétion, later President of Haiti, did indeed begin an experiment with land redistribution, until the imposition of a massive indemnity on the country by France in 1825 did away with it. The indemnity of 150 million French francs is widely held to have decimated Haiti’s nascent recovery from the revolutionary wars and pushed it towards the poverty with which it is now synonymous. At the time of the disastrous earthquake in 2010, Haiti had once again accumulated extensive external debt of about $1.8 billion, mostly due to the antics of the U. S.-backed Duvalier dictatorship. Although the IMF and World Bank were pressured into cancelling about $250 million of that debt, the bulk remains.

A group of intellectuals, led by Etienne Balibar and Noam Chomsky, reiterated in 2010 the call made by former President Jean-Baptiste Aristide in 2003, for French reparations to Haiti. Needless to say, given that Sarkozy was then President of France, this did not happen. But finally, two centuries after the citizens of Haiti had done so, the op-ed intellectuals began to call for small-scale sustainable agriculture as the way ahead for the country.

At the Rio+20 summit, some information did emerge about what has happened since 2010. The UN has come to be seen as a neo-liberal occupation force. Mining companies have moved in. The Guardian reports:

More than a third of Haiti’s north – at least 1,500 sq km – is under licence to US and Canadian companies.

It’s such a small country, but there is allegedly copper, silver and gold up there and very little of the environmental legislation that is so bothersome to mining elsewhere.

Map of Caracol from the NY Times

The one major financial investment to date is by a South Korean company who intend to create a maquiladora site in Coracel. Needless to say, the plant will use heavy fuel oil for electricity generation (built by the US) and is situated on prime farm land and at a key watershed.

Jean Anil Louis-Juste (1957-2010)

There are glimmers of hope, even if one of most effective intellectual advocates for change, sociology professor Jean Anil Louis-Juste was mysteriously assassinated just prior to the earthquake. He created reading groups like the Gramsci Circle at the State University’s School of Human Sciences and Ethnology, where he taught. He wrote and taught in Kréyol, the local language that emerged out of slavery. Anil had advocated for a $5 a day minimum wage, especially at his university, and for an a new environmentally-centered education program and citizenship. He noted that the ecological disaster in Haiti has accelerated, rather than improved:

In the 1920s, we had 20% of the country covered with forest. In the 1990s,we had less than 2%. We are about 60% short of the land we would need to live in equilibrium with the environment.

The Mouvement paysan de Papaye (Peasant Movement of Papaye) are another. They advocate for sustainable agriculture, health care, education and a self-supporting Haiti.  MPP’s website appears to be down at the moment but others report on their work educating farmers how to conserve water through the dry period and to create irrigation. However, this is slow work, 60 peasants at a time.

But the multinationals won’t stay once the easy money from the Clinton foundation dries up.

The MPP have been working on this for two hundred years.

Occupy is ten months old today.

Learning to Organize

The Strike Debt campaign had its fifth assembly today in a very warm Washington Square Park. Summer madness was affecting some of the transient population that use the park during daylight hours but the assembly was surprisingly focused and businesslike in the close to 100 degree heat.

I’ve learned some interesting things about organizing and about learning already. Debt is a very technical topic, full of complexity and difficult math. Seen another way, it’s not about that at all. It’s a set of stories, often about lives or projects begun in a flurry of optimism only to founder on the hidden reefs of compounding interest, credit ratings and wage garnishing. We’ve learned that to organize around debt, you must first allow people to tell their stories and to reclaim their personhood.

What we’re doing here is reclaiming the 99% as a set of individuals, all of whom made choices that were inspired by their hope of making a contribution in some way. Seen together, even in the relatively small groups that gather in hot New York parks, you get a vertiginous glimpse of what has been lost, not just in this crash but in the turn to finance capital as a whole.

So what we don’t yet know is the end(s) of the stories. Where we’re not going is to put our trust in a higher power, divine or human. A system that places so many people in servitude can only properly end in abolition. Before abolition, it can seem hard to envisage reconstruction but in the moment it’s not so complicated. Now I’m getting ahead of myself, except that part of this moment is to give people a sense of a different outcome, which the original OWS sketched in far broader terms. By being specific about debt, which is not exactly a small field, we can target real but very different futures.

In organizing this story telling and imagining, we’ve found that it works best either to allow the meeting to proceed as horizontally as possible or to have it tightly facilitated. There’s a glib one-liner about direct democracy that uses the title of Jo Freeman’s 1970s pamphlet “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” Freeman was discussing consciousness raising sessions in the (then) Women’s Liberation movement and how they could lead to a “star” system. There’s a long discussion to be had here but for the moment I want to suggest that these strategies are precisely directed towards avoiding what is less tyranny than muddling in the middle.

Self-facilitated peer-to-peer discussions also rely on the group making sure that individuals don’t dominate and that a due division of points of view is heard. Such discussions are great when you’re trying to get a sense of where to go and what the possibilities are in a given area. Facilitation allows you to make progress from that beginning and to not repeat the same discussions over and over. What we had to learn in the case of debt was that you could not separate the personal and the political, even in organizing. It’s a very old lesson now but one that needs to be relearned until absorbed or until things have actually changed sufficiently that we no longer need it. Which will not be soon.

We’ve learned not to target specific dates by which certain things must happen and to set low, achievable goals as part of creating a sense that things are happening, rather than shoot very high all the time. Some might say that political organizers have long known these tactics and that may well be right. On the other hand, it is my impression that sometimes such organizers take the content of the action too much for granted. Certainly we’ve heard that debt is a “weak” concept. Perhaps it lacks a one-liner so far. We’re working on that.