A-Anti-Anticapitalista! Welcome to the Resistance

In people’s comments about M17, the six-month anniversary of OWS, you can see a broad agreement that there’s a new feel to the movement. It’s epitomized by the gradual shift in chant preference from “We Are the 99 Per Cent!” to “A-Anti-Anti-Capitalista!” The former is a statement. The latter expresses the new resistance.

AAAC–as we’ll call it–is also inherently danceable with a 1-2 2-2-3 rhythm built in. It helps that it’s in Spanish, it feels global and properly hemispheric. Not that anyone has consciously thought this out I suspect. On Saturday at Liberty, when hundreds were celebrating what felt like the re-occupation by singing AAAC, a young woman leaned over towards me and asked “What does it mean?” When I told her she smiled in a way that indicated both pleasure and relief–it was what she thought it was and that felt good.

At the General Strike panel at Left Forum, Mike Andrews–one of the leading figures in the May Day planning group–told a similar story. He described how he had seen a group of teenagers jumping up and down shouting “General Strike!” As he said, it’s unlikely that any of the events remembered by left archivists, whether Seattle in 1919 or Britain in 1926 were in their minds. It’s possible that they didn’t even really know what general strikes have been in the past. Right now, as Mike put it, it means for them: “Fuck my shitty job”–and the desire for something better. Some were clearly surprised by this choice of words but it rang true to this precarious generation.

Natasha Lennard, writing for Salon, also turned to this theme:

There’s no adequate explanation for why, for example, on Saturday, it was beautiful to go back to one of the dreariest slabs of concrete that lower Manhattan has to offer and find nearly a thousand other bodies — dancing, chanting “a-anti-anti-capitalista,” catching up and dashing off into spontaneous street marches.

It’s that “magic” feel of Occupy, the sense of making something different, something resistant to commodification that is the distinguishing factor here, especially from the shouting soap-box orators of the traditional left.

To add my own story, a couple of weeks ago I was in Arizona to give a talk at Arizona State, a place where the University President is aggressively neo-liberal and has hiked tuition dramatically. My hosts were very nervous about the attendance, expecting they said perhaps 12, maybe 20. Much to their surprise, about 150 people showed up for the talk because the word “Occupy” was in the title. After the traditional academic introduction, I looked at this group and said, “Hi, my name is Nick and I’m part of Occupy Wall Street.” The whole room smiled–not for me, of course, but for the idea of Occupy. So we consensed to occupy the room for the next hour and a half.

What you can feel here is the pleasure of resistance, not simply refusing to move on, but claiming the right to look at what there is to see here. Look back at September 2011 and there was of course plenty of outrage at the banks and at Wall Street–which is why, after all, it was Occupy Wall Street and not Occupy Lincoln Center. Some of the ideas being floated back then by Adbusters and others included reintroducing the Glass-Steagall Act, creating a one per cent tax on financial transactions and so on. You don’t hear much about those kind of ideas now, although they would have been sensible reforms.

In China Miéville’s photo-essay London’s Overthrow [by the way, the New York Times excerpt cut out all the politics, big surprise, read it online}, he writes

The lion looks out from its apocalypse at the scrag-end of 2011. London, buffeted by economic catastrophe, vastly reconfigured by a sporting jamboree of militarised corporate banality, jostling with social unrest, still reeling from riots. Apocalypse is less a cliché than a truism. This place is pre-something.

Pre-figuring is going on all day, all week. Here’s the logo from Occupy the Movie, currently being advertised online:

Occupy The Movie

The parody of Emmanuel Leutze’s corny Washington Crossing the Delaware was well-timed. This morning the Metropolitan Museum of Art used the painting for a full-page ad in the New York Times celebrating their corporate sponsors, including all the usual criminals from Goldman to Citibank and Bank of America.

They don’t get it. Do you? Do you feel the change?

Abolition (Free, Open) Education

If debt refusal becomes a point of self-affirmation, what then happens to education? The tactical answer is the common sharing of education in non-hierarchical institutions, as part of the strategic goal of creating free public education from pre-K to PhD. Yet this goal of abolition education since Reconstruction has always been undermined by debt. What’s so important, I think, is the emerging possibility of discussing this as a collective failure rather than as a set of individual problems.

Abolition education was forged by Reconstruction. Du Bois highlighted the complementary actions of the newly elected South Carolina Convention in ending imprisonment for debt and creating free, public education. While they complained mightily about their “loss” from the abolition of slavery

usury laws had been repealed by the planters in 1866, and interest rates rose to 25 and 30 per cent. Banks commonly charged from 18 to 24 per cent.

Nonetheless, South Carolina committed itself to creating public education by means of an annual levy on all property and a poll tax. The reason was clear: for the first time, those without property were making decisions. Twenty-three out of 47 white delegates and fifty-nine of the 74 African-American delegates paid no income tax. In our own time of millionaire representatives and billionaire financing, this seems scarcely credible.

The “free common school system” was in place by 1868 and made permanent in 1870. Perhaps not entirely by coincidence, Wall Street financiers refused to back South Carolina bonds in 1868. Finally, with interest rates of between 15 and 20 per cent, bonds were issued, driving South Carolina into over $20 million of debt by 1871, at least half of which was payment of interest, a situation enabled, wrote Du Bois, by the

financial graft of Wall Street and its agents, made possible by the slander and reaction of the planters.

Debt has never been a separate question to public education in these not-so-United States.

On my way downtown for an Occupy meeting today, I looked up at the subway ads–no less than four for-profit “colleges” were advertised at my end of the car. These institutions like ASA College, Professional Business College and the Grace Institute are outside the research universities discussion about humanities versus STEM subjects: all degrees are vocational. That does not mean they are cheap: ASA expects tuition to be about $12,000 a year and total costs to be about $30,000 a year, according to its own website.

While this debt is, then, being imposed on people as a structural requirement for work, we still can’t ask people to renounce the formal structures of education: it’s going to be a process. Much of that might involve rethinking how we got here in the first place. Today I saw a discussion between the artist Deborah Kass and the young artist Amy Lincoln that highlights these issues:

Ms. Lincoln: …I don’t like the stereotype, the bohemian idea. We’re definitely very career-oriented. You have to be serious about spending time in the studio. You have no free time. You never have the day off…I know a lot of people who have to work a lot because they’re paying off a $30,000 student loan.

Ms. Kass: I didn’t get an MFA. I didn’t have a student loan. We expected our parents to pay for college.

Ms. Lincoln: We all got MFAs and the art market was booming. You could get picked up by a gallery at a student show. We had really high expectations. Now, there is so much angst over, “I want to be showing at such-and-such gallery, and this curator called but then I never heard back….”

Ms. Kass:I didn’t have any expectations. What you expected didn’t exist yet.

For all her debt, Lincoln sells work for between $300-700 in Bushwick where she lives. There’s no disgrace in that, far from it, and it’s interesting that in the short discussion, Lincoln doesn’t question her choices.

By contrast, J, the PhD student who I mentioned yesterday as being saddled with scary debt, wrote to me:

I used to have trouble sleeping at night because I was afraid that they would bring back debtors prisons … and hating myself for having taken out loans. It’s taken me a while to wrap my head around it and to decouple the value and necessity of education from the burden of the debt, and to see that debt structurally.

Here we see the full wisdom of the OWS slogan highlighted by McKenzie Wark: “Shit is fucked up and bullshit.”

Interim tactics: consider learning, or teaching, at free, open institutions like The Public School, OWS’s own OccU, or following courses by using free syllabi provided by institutions like MIT. If you teach, allow people to audit, sit in, podcast and live-stream. If you write, make it available free by open access means (you can publish it as well, of course, if you can find a press that will give you rights to your own work: and good luck with that).

I know people can’t learn how to be doctors like this and that’s why this is a tactic. Let’s also remember actions like those of the South African Students Movement in 1976, who refused to participate in the apartheid school system and set in motion the collapse of the regime. At the same time, many individuals deprived themselves of education to make things better for others.

So it is heartening to see the success of Chile’s high school students who did not walk out but occupied their schools:

“The assembly is the control center,” Cristóbal explains. “All students participate and at times it’s open to teachers. We have watch duty and volunteers come in to make meals. Teachers teach, but they also learn from the students. At the beginning we had classes subject by subject, but later we saw that parceling out knowledge wasn’t the real way to learn, and we all got together for each subject.”

The high school system is the key to an abolition education in the Americas. Here in New York the high schools are more segregated than they were before official desegregation. There was official celebration last week when admissions to the city’s selective high schools produced a class that is 6% African American and 8% Latin@–in a majority minority city. Behind that failure lies the still-greater disaster of data-driven quantification of education as a standardized test score result.

From Chile to South Africa and South Carolina, the impetus to a free, open public education is clear and elusive at once. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Arizona has banned the teaching of Paulo Freire’s classic The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. We might want to begin by re-reading it, assigning it, making free copies of it, and discussing it at Occupies everywhere.

Endebt and Punish

William Hogarth, "The Rake's Progress"--in the Fleet Prison for debt

Yesterday the M1 student march in New York stopped for personal and institutional histories. On three occasions people I’m working with at undergraduate, MA and PhD level recounted how debt has deformed their lives. I used to say that in academia one at least did very little harm. Now I feel like a pimp for loan sharks.

The accounts moved from an angry and articulate sophomore via an MA, who is teaching three adjunct jobs to keep up her payments, to a PhD candidate looking at 30 years of repaying $800-1000 a month. Hearing such stories one after another made it seem structural: the further one advances, the greater the debt and so the greater the pressure to conform.

The graduate students both spoke about wanting to stay in education, while not being sure that they could afford the profession. It’s the contemporary Student’s Progress, which, like a modernization of Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress, does not so much end in debtor’s prison as begin there–only it’s the “soul” that is imprisoned, not the body.

I started to think that debt was parallel to the transformation of the legal system over time. If Foucault taught us to think of early modern corporal punishment being transformed into modern discipline in the nineteenth century, Angela Davis has supplemented that analysis with her description of the prison-industrial system. Thus the penitentiary was instituted in the aftermath of abolition both to control and contain the free African population and to create lend-lease minimal cost labor to replace chattel slavery. The binary turns out not to be as simple as we had thought.

So we might think to map a parallel and intertwined structure for debt. In the early modern period, common people were hanged or otherwise punished for minor debt and theft. Those of higher social rank might find themselves incarcerated in the Fleet prison–bankrupts and those charged with contempt of the courts of Chancery, Exchequer and common pleas were not the working classes. Violent crime and theft was the province of the Court of the King’s Bench and the Assizes. The Fleet therefore usually contained only about 300 inmates, many of whom were well-known. It was closed in 1844, while imprisonment for debt was abolished in 1869.

This apparently Foucauldian pattern needs complicating. As David Graeber points out in his brilliant Debt, the violent punishments against debt crime were rarely enforced in the late Middle Ages, which is not to say there was no bad feeling:

the criminalization of debt was the criminalization of the very basis of human society. It cannot be overemphasized that in a small community, everyone normally was both a lender and a borrower….[C]ommunities, much though they are based on love, in fact because they are based on love will also be full of hatred, rivalry and passion.

The innovation of the “market” in the late eighteenth century was to challenge the possibility of such intertwined community by creating a new self-love, to quote the most famous passage of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776):

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love.

Graeber shows that the concept of self-love, or self interest, creates a new hybrid: a singular “self” that owes nothing except to itself; and “interest” that is paid to that self, now registered as “love.”

We might see Bentham’s Panopticon as a machine for the production of such self-interested operatives. For it was intended to function as well for the manufactures, or factories, as it did for the prison or asylum. Writing in the Panopticon Letters (1788) a decade after Smith, Bentham noted of Panoptic surveillance: “Each person should actually be in that predicament, during every instant of time.” If I follow Graeber’s suggestions correctly, we should as much stress the singularity as the permanence: it is the process of breaking up mutually-endebted communities and the subsequent production of self-interested individuals with singular debts.

With the end of the reforming Panopticon around the same time as the resurgence of financialization (c.1975-81) has come a new configuration: the individual is “locked into” debt from the earliest age. If this debt is centered around education, it is more likely to apply to middle and upper-middle class children, who may have college savings plans created for them at birth or before. This debt is now the largest sector of consumer debt in the US economy at about $1 trillion, and it is regarded as highly secure because you cannot declare bankruptcy on student debt and agencies can even garner debtors’ Social Security.

What has further changed is the transformation of the equation of interest and love into what I think we want to call hate. It’s not enough to make sure most graduates have their lives locked into debt before they even graduate. Everyone has to suffer.

When I was in Arizona recently, I heard about a proposal from the Arizona State legislature to require even students who have full scholarships or grants to pay at least $2000 in tuition. Here’s the legalese (in blue block capitals on their site):

each student who is a full‑time student enrolled at a university under the jurisdiction of the Arizona board of regents in fiscal year 2012‑2013 shall personally contribute at least two thousand dollars during the academic year for tuition.  A student may not use any other source of public or private funding, including grants, gifts, scholarships or tuition benefits or other types of funding administered by or through a university or an affiliate of a university, to reduce or eliminate that student’s contribution.

What is the motive of this “personal contribution”? Last night I happened to see a production of Brecht’s classic play Galileo. It begins by stressing Galileo’s debt. His need to repay his debt leads him to leave Venice and venture into the monk-controlled regions of Italy. When his decentering astronomical discoveries imply a different social order than the Bible-sanctioned control of the nobles, he recants under the threat of the Inquisition’s torture, ending his days in a physically comfortable prison of the soul. He ends as he begins, locked into a system that only debt can supply.

If debt is a means to teach you to hate yourself, it is also and equally true that the imagination is dangerous. Ideas can overturn social order. The most dangerous idea now might be this: it’s not worth paying for college because there are no jobs anyway and no job that you want would pay you enough to service the debt.

Abolition Democracy–Visualizing Occupy

As part of the build-up to May 1 and beyond, I’m going to devote a series of posts to the concept of the general strike and abolition democracy as the means by which we might visualize Occupy. Over the next few weeks, I want to delineate a genealogy that draws its energies from the abolition crisis in the Atlantic world (1861-77), triangulated by the abolition of US slavery, the Paris Commune and Reconstruction. In a moment where we are so often told it is impossible to imagine the end of capitalism, let’s draw energy from the overthrow of a much longer-lasting means of production–chattel slavery.

While these events are of course remote from present-day concerns, the unexpunged energy of that moment can inform and illuminate our own. Just as Walter Benjamin looked back to the formation of Empire from 1830-71 to understand its crisis in the moment of European fascism (1923-45), so too might we imagine the resistance to the present crisis of the military-industrial complex by considering the resistance to the crisis of the plantation complex. In short, this is the work that an intellectual and historical materialism can contribute to visualizing Occupy as a movement in and across time as well as space.

In affiliation with W. E. B. Du Bois and Angela Y. Davis, I think of abolition democracy as the radical transformation of democracy both so that all have a part in its process and so that social institutions designed to exclude designated sectors of the population from that process should be abolished. In his 1935 classic Black Reconstruction in America, Du Bois saw that “the true significance of slavery” was the question of democracy:

What were to be the limits of democratic control in the United States? If all labor, black and white, became free, were given schools and the right to vote, what control could or should be set to the power and action of these laborers? Was the rule of the mass of Americans to be unlimited, and the right to rule extended to all men [sic] regardless of race and color, or if not, what power of dictatorship would rule, and how would property and privilege be protected?

If Occupy has a signature issue it is economic justice, but its signature as a movement is the commitment to a renewed democracy that reopens such questions. The force of abolition democracy is its capacity to at once visualize what needs to be transformed and what might result from that transformation. It is therefore realist in the sense that it envisages the real difficulties of the present, that which must be made sense of, but also is aware of real possibilities for future alternatives.

In the nineteenth century, the dynamics of abolition, colonization and revolution formed a new realism that I call “abolition realism.” Abolition realism brought together the general strike and the Jubilee (the end of slavery and debt) in order to forge a refusal of slavery, such that abolition was observable, and capable of being represented and sustained. Consequently, it needed to be legible to others as “real,” as well as to those involved in making it.

In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx summarized the dilemma of revolutionary change as “the creation of something which does not yet exist.” Such creation took two forms. First it was necessary to name what was being created and then to give it visualizable and recognizable form. In short, this was a task of imagination.

Timothy O'Sullivan, Untitled (former 'slaves', nr. Beaufort, S. Carolina), 1862

The enslaved in the United States engaged in this representative labor immediately at the outbreak of the Civil War. As soon as hostilities commenced, the Sea Islands of South Carolina were captured by Union forces in 1861, causing the plantation owners to flee in disarray. With the Emancipation Proclamation still two years off, the status of the enslaved Africans left behind was unresolved, in a kind of juridical no-man’s-land or interregnum. It was clear to many African Americans that this kind of freedom was better than none and many made their way there. We can now say that they occupied the Sea Islands.

For Du Bois, this mass migration was not a casual activity but a general strike of the enslaved, a decisive move to end forced labor:

This was not merely the desire to stop work. It was a strike on a wide basis against the conditions of work. It was a general strike that involved directly in the end perhaps half a million people.

Even today one can read historical accounts by Ivy League historians claiming that the abolition of slavery had been inevitable since 1776, as the logical end point of the Declaration of Independence. Du Bois and many others, insisted to the contrary that slavery was ended by the enslaved themselves.

Timothy O’Sullivan, who later became famous for his photographs of the American West, captured the “general strike” against slavery as official photographer for the Army of the Potomac. At the Old Fort Plantation, Beaufort, O’Sullivan took a group photograph of well over a hundred African Americans (above). The group represented a mix of those on the move during the war and those to whom the war had suddenly arrived where they were already located.

There were African Americans illegally volunteering for the Union army, known as “contrabands,” wearing soldier’s caps (most clearly at extreme left, third row back.) The term was a legal fiction, reinforcing the paradox that these soldiers fighting for freedom were not free and had “stolen” themselves. The camera was placed high up on the roof of a former slave cabin in order to get everyone into the shot in a bright, sharp light that produced some strong contrasts leaving some faces in “white-out,” others too dark to see. Others moved before the exposure was complete, creating a “ghost” at the left edge and many blurred expressions.

The long exposure time prevented any displays of celebration but the very event of the photograph itself suggests that all the participants were aware of the historical significance of the moment. There was no leader present, or a suggestion of a hierarchy. Men, women and children are gathered together in a collective assertion of their right to look and therefore be seen.

Under slavery, the enslaved were forbidden to “eyeball” the white population as a whole, a law that remained in force in the Carolinas until 1952 and is active in today’s prison system. So the simple act of raising the look to a camera, and engaging with it, constituted a rights claim to a subjectivity that could engage with sense experience. The photograph can be seen, then, as depicting direct democracy, the absence of mastery.

On the Sea Islands, the space between regimes became a space without regime, democracy. Their occupation hails ours across time, one space of temporary autonomy to another. See them.

Horizontal Writing and Abolition Publishing

Over the course of a long day at CAA, we debated with artists and art historians as to the value of open source, open access digital media projects. For many in the audiences, the question at stake was one of professional development.  Personally, I feel a synergy between the horizontalizing work I have been developing in new media, including on this blog, and the pressure for a direct or abolition democracy in which horizontal process is a central tactic. Merge the two and you might get: abolition publishing.

A horizontal “writing” is always on our side, whether that writing be text, code, or a drawing. It is simple, as in the sign drawn on cardboard, as well as complex. As the technology of the right to look it goes backwards and forwards between its authors and its audiences, constantly affirming consent. It worries about the “author” in “authority” from the place of its claim for autonomy.

This in-between is the place of the spectre, the place of revolt. In terms of today’s discussion, this is the in-between space of “revolt” in the art history of the 1970s and 80s that got me involved in questions of the visual, beginning with feminist questionings of the gaze, moving via a Marxist interrogation of the “popular” image, to an engagement with the social that produced visual culture. More recently, there has been the widely discussed “revolution” of digital humanities, especially in the 2008-9 period, even though many are distancing themselves from these rhetorics now. And now these spectres are confronted by the real revolutions of 2011 and the challenges of 2012.

As I have often observed here, this circulation of information and ideas has been enabled by a public/private interface from the Privately Owned Public Spaces like Zuccotti to the interface of Facebook, Twitter and bodies in space symbolized by Tahrir. It is now time to think about sustaining those exchanges in the common space that we can produce together. As we have seen, we cannot rely on occupying the interstices, the in-between. We need to be bodies in space where they are not supposed to be. Such bodies are writing in places they are not supposed to: in the most vertical of institutions that is the university, the most vertical of all verticalities is publishing. Direct democracy in publishing exists, is needed, and can be whatever we all want it to be. It would be abolition publishing for an abolition democracy.

The need is well-known—debt epitomizes it, whether in the crisis of student debt, university debt for neo-liberal expansion, or the debt presumed to be owed by authors to publishers. Last year, scientific publishers Elsevier generated $3.6bn revenue of which 36% was profit—that’s a billion dollars of profit on academic labor. This isn’t market forces, it’s extortion.

Alternatives exist from the open access publishing of Open Humanities Press to the non-hierarchical multi-media platform Scalar. These formats allow for an exploration of autonomy. I call it non-hierarchical in the formal sense: every entry is equal, whether you think of it as a page, a tag, media or whatever. Thus Scalar is not so much non-linear—because we tend to use it to tell stories, just ones that are recursive and looped—so much as it is non-hierarchical. This is a counter-visuality to the authority which insists on the viewpoint of the hero or great man. So whereas projects like the excellent Vectors were vanguardist, like the Leninist party, Scalar is horizontal like Zapatismo or horizontalidad.

These alternatives can enable us to do what we want. My sense of working within this open-ended project for the past couple of years has been of a reboot consisting of a new openness, a sense of flow, and the thinking of the interactive/interdisciplinary as activity. We learn what we want by doing it, whether in the academic form of horizontal writing, or the horizontal democracy of Occupy. These are not simply equivalents of course: the latter carries a far higher degree of engagement and risk than the former (though the writing is not without professional risk for those in less secure situations than mine). They have been transforming when interactive. Occupy 2012 has by its durational form allowed me to explore and instantiate some of what I think might be meant by solidarity and horizontalidad.

So when David Graeber highlighted the most critical development of 2011 as a transformation of the imagination, how might we apply this to academic and writing contexts? In other words, how does it begin to become possible to visualize a writing in which the economic is not the dominant value?

In terms of the horizontal imagination, imagine what was once the case: a public education from pre-K to PhD that is entirely free. This long-time position of abolition democracy needs to be insisted upon not in terms of accounting–that people need degrees to get jobs and so on–but in terms of democracy: a direct democracy needs citizens who are critical, knowledgeable, resourceful and autonomous. And they would get that by using the products of abolition publishing from the tweet to the long-form text: open-access, open source, live.


Debt Servitude and (Micro)Fascism

IMF leader Lagarde to Greek PM Papademos: "Do something for the poor? that's hilarious!"

The widely-circulated photographs of the Troika laughing it up as they imposed their settlement on Greece reflect their triumph at imposing a neo-liberal colonization of Europe. As Frantz Fanon noted in 1963:

What is fascism but colonialism at the heart of traditionally colonialist countries?

The debt servitude being imposed on mass populations in the interest of transnational capital represents a neo-colonialism, in which the colonial powers like Portugal, Spain and Italy will be recolonized after the long-term Ottoman colony Greece.

It’s worth rehearsing the breath-taking Treaty-of-Versailles-style conditions imposed on Greece. According to the Guardian:

the European commission will present proposals for “an enhanced and permanent presence” of debt inspectors in Athens later…Greeks have already suffered a 30% cut in wages and can look forward to steep cuts in the minimum wage as well as pensions…Eurozone finance ministers have demanded that the Greek Constitution be revised to give debt payments top priority in government spending.

The money for the bond markets will be placed in a charmingly named “segregation account,” as if to remind everyone of the fascist neo-colonialism that has been created.

There was an alternative: an 2001 Argentina-style default, with a relaunched currency. From this crisis emerged the practice of horizontalidad that has been so influential across the Occupy movement. In Occupy!#3, Marina Sitrin quotes Neka from the unemployed workers movement near Buenos Aires:

it was a sort of waking up to a knowledge that was collective…It was like each day is a horizon that opens before us

This “horizonism” is the direct opposite of debt servitude.

Towers of Debt at NYU

Today I was reminded that such servitude is local as well as global, a microfascism to match the global neo-colonial project. At my institution, NYU, there is currently a plan to build 6 million square feet of new office and residential space in a series of skyscrapers. As well as destroying the character of Greenwich Village, and making Washington Square a building site for 20 years, this plan will cost $6 billion.

When asked where this money would come from an official replied: “NYU is not afraid of debt.” Given the enormity of the sum–twice the entire endowment of the university–and the crisis of debt worldwide, you wonder why. I asked a friend who works at Credit Suisse–in the compliance department that makes banks abide by regulation–and she replied “Money is cheap.” Which is to say, the interest rates on the bonds will be so low that the investment makes perfect sense to a Board of Trustees filled with people from JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Paulson, Met Life and so on.

Who will repay the money? According to NYU4OWS and the Occupy Student Debt Campaign, the only possible answer is students–via their tuition fees, financed in turn by student debt. Student debt is about to surpass one trillion dollars and is the largest single sector of consumer debt, even exceeding credit cards. NYU is already top of the league for student debt per capita. What is especially heinous about this exchange is that money borrowed at less than one per cent interest is likely to be repaid by loans carrying interest in the range of eight to ten per cent. Student debt cannot be liquidated, meaning that even people who are bankrupt, or on social security have to repay it. As a powerful essay in the Village Voice last year showed, many NYU grads have to abandon ideas of careers serving the public good for corporate positions in order to make their payments.

What can be done about this servitude? Horizontalism insists that there is no point in applying for redress to leaders–as you can see above, the very idea makes them laugh. Yesterday at an event in New York City, David Graeber argued that one of the most critical developments of 2011 was a transformation of the imagination. In other words, it began to become possible to visualize a world in which the economic was not the dominant value.

In terms of debt, this would mean refusing the demand that debt repayment is the highest form of morality. When debts are imposed or exacerbated beyond any realistic possibility of repayment, the ethical approach is to move beyond the horizons of money. You can pledge to refuse to repay your loan if one million other people do so here: and decide whether you’re actually going to do that when it gets into the high 900,000s–for now it’s about pressuring for change. For faculty supporting debtors, pledge here and for family and others supporting debtors pledge here: this is important to show that the community supports debt refusal, but demands little more than a few clicks for now.

In terms of the horizontal imagination, imagine what was once the case: a public education from pre-K to PhD that is entirely free. This long-time position of abolition democracy needs to be insisted upon not in terms of accounting–that people need degrees to get jobs and so on–but in terms of democracy: a direct democracy needs citizens who are critical, knowledgeable, resourceful and autonomous.

That won’t happen overnight but here’s what we can do now: stop using economic metaphors for the critical projects that we engage in. Stop asking “how’s your work going?”, or using metaphors and scales of productivity, or otherwise commodifying the common intellect. In work using digital technologies in particular, leave aside notions of “rich” data, “robust” platforms and all the other quasi-market metaphors.

Stop thinking like a market. A market likes an investment (a beginning), a time of production (the middle) and, above all, profit, aka the end. This is why Occupy insists on the primacy of the everyday because it needs doing every day, like child care, sustenance, farming and other forms of sustaining.

Try it. It’s fun.

Greece, Slavery and the General Strike

Today the Greek parliament met to approve the deliberately humiliating terms of the German-backed bond rescue plan (aka the bailout). In the streets, it is more precisely defined as slavery. The response is, as it has long been, to organize the general strike. For globalized neo-liberalism this is the moment to bring an “end” to 2011, a year after their man in Egypt, Mubarak, had to step down.

Estimates suggest 50,000 people in the street in Athens, perhaps as many as 100,000 with thousands more elsewhere, and many buildings occupied. The inevitable riot police and tear gas have been deployed. Exarchia, the radical district resounded to explosions. As fires burned, allegations circulated that the police had started them or ignored them. (Watch on Livestream here.)

Athens 2 12 12

The scenes were extraordinary–Starbucks on fire, smoke bombs, riot police–with the word “chaos” on every Greek website.

General Strike in Greece

The troika-installed Prime Minister Papademos–whose name seems to evoke a patriarchal “father of the people”–pushed the market line about debt refusal:

It would create conditions of uncontrolled economic chaos and social explosion. The country would be drawn into a vortex of recession, instability, unemployment and protracted misery.

Such remarks fly in the face of existing reality, in which those are already the prevailing conditions. Official unemployment exceeds 20%. Reports have suggested people returning to family farms in the countryside and islands from the cities in order to survive. The Church feeds 250,000 people a day in a country of 11 million people. Homelessness has increased by 25% (although the absolute numbers are low by U. S. standards. The official EU statistics agency Eurostat reports that one-third of the country is living in poverty. And yet Papademos called for more “sacrifice.”

Nonetheless, even this is not enough for the one percent: “The promises from Greece aren’t enough for us any more,” the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schauble, said in an interview published in the Welt am Sonntag newspaper. When the vote is passed, the minimum wage will be cut by over 20%, pensions will be reduced and the already ruined state will cut back still further. The graffiti in the streets calls this slavery.

"We Should Not Live as Slaves"

“We should not live as slaves,” it reads [Na men zesoume san douloi]. Evocatively, the word “doulos” is used for “slave,” the same term used by Aristotle in his Politics to approve the institution of slavery. His meditation on slavery is in fact one of governance, which manifests itself as the necessity of dominance. I’m going to quote at some length because it is the inability to “reason” according the “logic” of the markets that is being used to justify Greek slavery today. It’s also important to read this to realize how thoroughgoing and long-lasting the Western commitment to slavery has been.It is also a passage that contains within it so many of today’s critical concerns from the human/nonhuman, to the “soul at work” (Bifo), governmentality, Rancière’s division of the sensible, and the persistence of slavery. Let us note this is not a coincidence:

for that some should govern, and others be governed, is not only necessary but useful, and from the hour of their birth some are marked out for those purposes, and others for the other, and there are many species of both sorts….Those men therefore who are as much inferior to others as the body is to the soul, are to be thus disposed of, as the proper use of them is their bodies, in which their excellence consists; … they are slaves by nature, and it is advantageous to them to be always under government. He then is by nature formed a slave who is qualified to become the chattel of another person, and on that account is so, and who has just reason enough to know that there is such a faculty, without being indued with the use of it; for other animals have no perception of reason, but are entirely guided by appetite, and indeed they vary very little in their use from each other; for the advantage which we receive, both from slaves and tame animals, arises from their bodily strength administering to our necessities; for it is the intention of nature to make the bodies of slaves and freemen different from each other {1254b-1255a}

The present rhetoric of the “lazy” Greeks, shiftlessly avoiding tax payments and demanding state support defines people driven entirely by appetite. They must therefore become the chattel of the troika, despite the likelihood that the cuts will still worsen the economy and necessitate yet more support for the external bond markets. What matters is that the Greeks be made an example: “Can’t pay! Won’t pay!” is reworked into “Can’t pay? Become a slave.”

In Black Reconstruction, W. E. B. Du Bois insisted that the enslaved had ended chattel slavery themselves by mass migration from South to North at the beginning of the Civil War, long before the Emancipation Proclamation:

This was not merely the desire to stop work. It was a strike on a wide basis against the conditions of work. It was a general strike that involved directly in the end perhaps half a million people.

The result of the strike was an abolition democracy, whose participatory process centered on education and the capacity to be self-sustaining. The measures have passed. The occupations have been ended. It’s up to us to keep this present, to remain in the moment, to be present.


J16: Visuality is Slavery

Today is of course Martin Luther King Day. OWS observances included a gathering at the African Burial Ground in Manhattan, followed by a march to Wall Street, where there was a slave market, established in 1709. This was not simply a historical recovery but a reminder that the authority claimed by present day claims to visualize the social derives from the power of the slave-holder.

The slave market on Wall St circled in red

New York was not a marginal place in the history of slavery:

the city contained the largest absolute number of enslaved Africans of any English colonial settlement except Charleston, South Carolina, and held the largest proportion of enslaved Africans of any northern settlement. By the first decade of the 1700’s, forty percent of New York’s households contained at least one enslaved African.

Its slave market was an unimpressive building designed for the rapid circulation of human property.

Print depicting the New York slave market

It is routinely claimed that such histories can safely be consigned to the past. There are three ways in which such claims are invalid.

1. Slavery and Capital

The Caribbean historian and decolonial politician Eric Williams established a key link between capitalism and slavery in his 1944 classic text of that name. In his recent magnum opus Debt, the OWS theorist and occupier David Graeber has shown that debt and money owe their very existence to slavery: “Money, then, begins, as [Phillipe] Rospabé himself puts it ‘as a substitute for life.’ One might call it the recognition of a life-debt” (133). Thus so-called “blood-money” is exactly the same as money that is used to arrange a marriage: money in exchange for a life. The “slave” is the person utterly alienated from life, so that to all intents and purposes they are socially dead.

2. “The New Jim Crow”

This is the name given by legal scholar Michelle Alexander to the extraordinary racialized disparities in the US “justice” system. One in three young African American men are in some way involved in this system. In Washington DC, 3 out of 4 such men will be imprisoned or otherwise subject to penalty, part of the 2 million in the current prison system. Such figures exceed even the ratios generated by the apartheid system in South Africa. As drug use is about the same in white and black communities, the cause is not outlandish substance abuse by African Americans. Alexander shows that:

A huge percentage of [African Americans] are not free to move up at all. It is not that they lack opportunity, attend poor schools, or are plagued by poverty. They are barred by law from doing so…To put the matter starkly: The current system if control permanently locks a huge percentage of the African American community out of the mainstream society and economy. The system operates through our criminal justice institutions but it functions more like a caste system than a system of crime control. (13)

That is to say, the possibility of democracy is permanently impaired by a caste system, itself the direct descendant of slavery, as W.E.B. Du Bois and Angela Y. Davis have shown. Any direct democracy must first be an abolition democracy, a democracy that refuses the caste system at a minimum and, Davis would argue, the prison-industrial complex itself.

3. Visuality and Slavery

Visuality is a means of suturing authority to power. Power can be reduced to the means to compel people to act or not act by force. Usually, however, people respect the authority of the state, even when they disagree with it. Authority is a separate category to power. It is derived from the Latin term auctor, meaning the head of a family. As head of this family, the auctor had control over the possible purchases of land, animals and slaves. His patriarchy depended on this power, just as his financial empowerment reinforced his patriarchy. This is why any questioning of authority sooner rather than later generates questions of gender and (in countries where Africans were enslaved) racialized difference.

This analysis still begs the question of why the auctor was held to have such authority. In the Roman historian Livy, authority is distinguished from power (imperium) by the ability to interpret signs. This ability to discern meaning in both the medium and the message generates visuality’s aura of authority. When it is further invested with power, that ability becomes the ability to designate who should serve and who should rule.

The rulers in these histories are the named, those whose genealogies are held to count. Those without part, who do not count, are the anonymous, as incapable of visualizing the social as they are of being themselves visualized. Abolition democracy begins with the history of the anonymous, a project for this week’s posts.