The Future of Occupy 2012

It’s somehow December already and this project will not cross another change of month. After more than 325 posts, the end is in sight. So what’s next? Some ideas are in development and for others I thought I might ask you, the occupiers of 2012, what you think.

Already under construction is a web-based archive of the project using the Scalar multi-media software that I’ve mentioned a few times here. This will allow for better searching of the project and will have built-in “paths” tracking twenty keywords that have come up repeatedly, that allowing readers to track specific themes. And it will also serve as an archive of the project, whether for those in the movement, those interested in performative projects of this kind, or digital activists.

Perhaps that’s enough? But I’ve also had the thought of doing a book based on the two dominant ideas that have emerged during the course of the project. One of these is clearly debt and the emergence of the Strike Debt movement. Debt took me by surprise. I didn’t expect to be writing about it much in January. But once I did write about it, I noticed how people responded and that interest was part of the reason for my participation in Strike Debt.

The other area is all those issues now summarized by “climate”–climate change, food justice, primary extraction from mining to fracking, and the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. Here the process was reversed. I expected to develop ideas about climate, but at first found that there was not as much interest. Since the hurricane, that has dramatically changed. As occupiers will know, I’ve been interacting these themes as “climate/debt” and I would do so in any book.

I imagine a short book with a selection of key posts and some of the longer essays that I’ve written elsewhere during the course of the year on climate/debt, together with a general introduction. If there was any money that came my way, I would of course donate it to the movement.

Why a book? Because of the obvious impact that The Debt Resistors’ Operations Manual had as a book. The online archive will be there for everyone, always free. A book can go other places and attract different sorts of attention, perhaps create different forms of debate.

But there have been past controversies around books in the movement. I’d be curious to know what people think. Is this a good idea? Do you want to tweak what might go into the book and how?

Finally, what of the future? There’s going to be a movement in 2013. That wasn’t necessarily clear in January. I can’t possibly sustain another durational writing project. Should I carry on with occasional pieces in this format? Post in a different way? Or just stop altogether?

I would love to hear your thoughts by whatever means you feel comfortable with: please know that I am genuinely asking because, whatever else this project is, it was always for you, the occupiers, and the only opinion that counts to me is yours. With love.


For The Eight-Hour Digital Day

In order to talk about militant research, as I have been doing, it’s necessary to sometimes do some actual research. Like most people my normal problem with this is finding time to do any. Having this research leave, I’ve also found that research in the era of the digital library is not as simple as we are often told.

Supposedly, search engines and other tools make it easy to find whatever you need. It’s true, for example, that when I was asked yesterday whether there was a secondary debt market in the UK, it only took a little Googling to get an answer. But that was about as far as I could go. Given that I could already guess that there must be such a market, arguably I’d made no progress at all.

This is the point that you need to hit the books. And that’s harder than it used to be, ironically. The British Library, long my exemplar of a research library, has been opened to a much wider range of readers, including undergraduate students. The result is a much greater demand on the resources. Consequently, many books have been shipped out to the North of England and are available at what they call “two plus” days notice. It turns out that this means at least two (business) days but potentially more if that’s what happens, which, in my admittedly limited recent experience, it always seems to do. Or at the Natural History Museum Library, all materials must be ordered at least 24 hours in advance, so if you want to pursue a lead, it has to be at that time distance.

So what? For me, it’s not a disaster, it just means that I get less done in the time I have to do research. But for the young researchers I have been talking to here and elsewhere, time is of the essence. Funding is limited and departments pressure doctoral students to finish their dissertations within tight time frames. Of course, they are likely to also be teaching in that time.

So completing a research project, whether you are under intense time pressure or not, has become far harder than it used to be. And so you have odd situations, such as the national discussion on the Levenson report in the UK, which is 2000 pages long. It was released yesterday and no one can possibly have read it yet. But the national parties all have positions and are busy fighting each other over it.

Radical demands since the early nineteenth century centered around shortening the working day. In the 1960s, it was common to speculate that a four-hour working day would become standard because machines would do all the work. Instead, our digital machines have demanded far more work from us at all hours of the day and night.

I think we need to start calling for an eight-hour digital day. By this I mean that we should only have online and email access eight hours a day, except in cases of emergency. It’s been shown that keeping Google/FB and everything else “always on” consumes enormous amounts of electricity, as well as generating extra emissions from the back-up generators that are run just in case. With the machines off, we could make a real contribution to reducing emissions and we could reclaim time for ourselves to live a life, not a loan.

How to Go Viral

It looks as if the Rolling Jubilee idea has gone viral. The signs are all there: lots of donations, groups all over the country, and even internationally, looking to follow suit.

Here’s a group in Long Island planning to occupy a local Dickens Festival with a debtor’s prison to raise awareness and funds for the RJ. And the infallible sign is the emergence of the trolls all over the Internet lining up to say why it won’t work.

It can seem in the mediascape that ideas simply go viral because people agree with them. Being involved in a viral event shows me how untrue that notably free-market idea in fact turns out to be. Here’s what you need: a network, a theory of what you’re doing, a grounded history and a great deal of specific action.

Obviously Occupy has a network. But it took months of meetings, assemblies, discussions and one-on-one conversations for the movement as a whole to get behind Strike Debt as an accepted group. There was considerable “pushback,” even after the successful days of action on S17 and O13. At this point, the strength of the Jubilee idea did make the difference. But launched cold, as it were, Occupy would not have backed it and there would not have been the first wave of “invisible” acceptance and dissemination. Because so many people in the movement are what advertising types call opinion shapers, this first wave was crucial.

Next, the directors had access to a media and entertainment network that brought in sufficient star-power that the event was desirable just as a night out, regardless of the cause. And then David Rees chose to launch the event on his blog. From that point, his many followers tweeted and FBed the concept, allowing it to take off in the way we’ve seen, Today the fundraising passed $350,000 or $7 million in abolished debt. That’s over 7 times the most optimistic target set by the RJ group.

Rolling Jubilee won over these opinion formers and influence generators because it had a strong sense of what it was doing and why. The concept is clean and clear. It’s backed with a history that goes back to the Bible and brought in a whole range of faith communities into the project. The research of George Caffentzis and David Graeber over many years set up the possibility for Strike Debt to generate its a historically grounded and theoretically powerful analysis of debt refusal. The publication of the book length Debt Resistors Operations Manual successfully conveyed that the group really does know what it’s talking about.

And then there’s the work. Websites don’t create themselves and organizing and publicizing a three-hour event in New York is a full-time job in itself. Press and media. Flyers, posters, social media. And then the very detailed preparation of the debt buy itself, the unpublicized trial run to be sure it would really work. Consultations with lawyers, debt buyers and accountants. Creating the 501 (c) 4 to be the legal entity. Writing copy for the website, the FB pages, the speed talks. Liaising with other groups to create the crucial first room of the Bailout with a diverse range of Occupy groups. It was the most prodigious amount of purely voluntary work I’ve ever seen from a relatively small group.

And then, when it gets launched, as if by magic, it goes viral. Enter the trolls, who assume that, because they have not been carefully coached on all the above, that none of it happened. Ironically, in this irony-obsessed culture, the appearance of the trolls confirms the importance of the meme. Trolls choose popular things to attack and their carping indicates what is trending by negative differentiation. I especially love all the posts that begin INAL (I am Not a Lawyer) and then go on to make legal rulings about the RJ. Newsflash: we consulted lawyers.

We’ve created a successful counter to the debt system. Now we have no time to congratulate ourselves, we have to try and use this momentum to create a movement.


The Digital Debt Workshops

What’s so extraordinary about Strike Debt and the Rolling Jubilee is the catalytic effect they have on people. So much writing, so much art, so much creativity and, unfortunately, so much email. During the course of today I wrote two separate op-eds for a journal about Strike Debt. There’s no decision as yet as to which one they want to use so I had hoped to post one here tonight but I can’t. So lots of good things tomorrow and the day after!

Our personal and work computers have become workshops for the movement, turning out material and communications at such pace that if you step away for a few hours, the influx is dizzying. Over the transom today we had first Strike Debt organizer Yates McKee on television–begins at 31″:

Then Andrew Ross in a very productive debate with an editor of The Jacobin  in Dissent. Here’s Ross:

To paraphrase Marx, you don’t get to choose the conditions under which you can make a little history. The massive level of household indebtedness and the entrenched power of the creditor class are the given conditions, and so you have to act on that terrain. It’s clear that the government is not going to provide debt relief, so people are going to have to do it for themselves, by any means necessary.

And then late at night, the one we’ve all been waiting for, our “exclusive” in the New York Times:

A group of professors, documentary filmmakers, corporate dropouts and others had spent months protesting Americans’ debt burden when a novel idea arose: What if they could just wave a magic wand and make some of it disappear?

It sounds a bit odd if you put it like that, but it’s not inaccurate. More importantly, this is the second more or less favorable piece on Occupy in the Times in the course of a week and suggests that the new projects are well-planned enough to pass media scrutiny. The last word goes to an unsung hero of behind-the-scenes organizing for Strike Debt, the Rolling Jubilee and much more:

“This is a long-term thing,” said Christopher Casuccio, who graduated with about $100,000 in student debt. “We all know it’s going to take years to transform the economic system.”



Digital Networking and Analog Activism

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.

“We Are All Children of Algeria”

This is the name of an online multi-media project that I made in collaboration with design intellectuals Craig Dietrich and Erik Loyer that went live today. The project looks at how to decolonize visuality; or, to put it affirmatively, how to visualize a society after colonialism. It uses the central example of Algeria and its decolonial struggle from 1954 to the Arab Spring. Here I want to talk a bit about how this project both laid the ground for my involvement with the Occupy movement and for the shape that Occupy 2012 has taken since. While this is a tad narcissistic, this is a blog a) and b) there might be relevance for other people thinking of taking on similar work.

In this project, “Algeria” is also a metaphor for the contested border between North and South in the formation of financial globalization and thus exists in many places other than the geographic space known in English as Algeria, in French as Alger and in Arabic as al-Djazair. In the book, I wove a tight narrative that tried to hold these pieces together across about forty pages. When I came to make this section into a digital project, I thought it would be a simple task: cut the text into pieces and add the films, photographs and other images.

At the first meeting I had in LA with the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture, which designed the software used for “We Are All Children of Algeria, they asked me a  question that threw all that out of the window: how did I want to design the project? What was the concept? I didn’t think I had one but I found myself saying that it was about a demonstration. Or what is called a march in the US. This was, it turned out, what you might call a retrospective realization about where the work was actually going.

So I took the title from chants used at French anti-fascist marches that I had been on as a student in Paris back in the 1980s. As part of solidarity, crowds chanted “Nous sommes tous enfants d’immigrés” or “We are all children of immigrants.” French anti-fascism was not notional: then and now the National Front were racist and violent. Their targets were “Algerians,” meaning any person who is from or descended from North Africa–or in any way sympathetic to them.

When I began the project in the summer and autumn of 2010, I felt that I needed to justify the very idea of marching, or simply putting bodies into public space, as not being totally outmoded. Now of course it seems that this tactic, far from being redundant, has been key first to the extraordinary movements in North Africa and the Middle East and now to Occupy. So that in and of itself seemed to prepare me for Occupy and to be part of the movement.

Although I got involved fairly early, I at first felt that I did not want to make academic work about Occupy at all. When I decided that as part of a strategy to develop my own sense of commitment and understanding that I did want to write about it, I took the performative or artistic model of the durational project, rather than just say “I’m writing [yet another] book about Occupy.” I wouldn’t have done that before thinking how to make a digital project.

It’s also enabled me to do something to the way that I write, which, when it works, seems now to be able to speak to both activists and academics. Again, I say this not to claim some spurious status for myself but to encourage other, younger artists, writers, performers and intellectuals to embrace the challenges of such cross-platform projects. As this way of thinking and imagining is so much more familiar to you, you will do far more exciting and ground-breaking things than I can conceive.

There’s so much lazy reluctance in academia to be involved with either the intellectual or political forms of the present moment. I can count the other (full-time tenure track) faculty that I see at Occupy events or meetings where they are not speaking–well, let’s just say easily. On the other hand, the design and programming group involved in ANVC are all in different ways productive intellectuals and engaged activists. Enough said.


The Media and the Message

Yesterday I left one significant May Day lesson off my list: the mainstream media in the United States cannot be seen as a means for the movement to develop. It’s not enough to say that the sparse coverage that appeared was lazy and predetermined. It means accepting that the military-industrial-entertainment complex (MIE) uses the same strategy in its entertainment “wing” as it does for military interrogations. The goal is to produce a state of perceived helplessness in the detainee/spectator in which the only source of redemption is the interrogator/media authority.

Counter-spectacle cannot expect the MIE to broadcast our discourses of “truth” any more than the interrogator is likely to suddenly agree with his prisoner. That said, the MIE is not monolithic, is not subject to a single directing authority. and currently has very little sense of what narrative to offer. It’s precisely that crisis that gives us our opportunity.

Certainly, we should be careful of conspiracy theories. Yesterday, many of us found our inboxes filling with emails about planned activities for May Day. Some quickly assumed that there had been some cyber-skullduggery, delaying the messages until they were irrelevant. Given the pre-event raids by the NYPD on Occupy activists, it did not seem impossible. Quickly, however, it emerged that the list administrators had been too overwhelmed with work to approve all the messages.

So we should not assume that all the media directly conspire against Occupy. If the New York Times City Room stopped covering May Day events after 5.25pm, my guess is that the one employee working on it went home at that time, rather than there being censorship. On the other hand, some media certainly do fabricate their narratives. There were no less than four hostile pieces in the New York Post, a Murdoch tabloid. The editorial entitled “Goodbye, Occupy” opined that the protestors’ “ranks, as usual, were largely made up of union members, dispatched by their leaders after their workday ended.” In fact, union turnout was low but this was not reporting.

Meanwhile, in the business section a “May Day inspires markets” piece lets us know that “Wall Street celebrated May Day by driving the Dow to its highest level in four years.” That coincidence has been followed by a sharp decline, not attributed to the success of the day’s demonstrations. It’s hard to give a rational explanation as to quite how the same people who have told us for years that all markets are globally interactive can maintain this confidence in the face of the double-dip recession in Europe. In Spain there are now 5.6 million people out of work, a staggering 24.4% of the population. Greece is close behind at 22%. In both countries, youth unemployment exceeds 50%. Across the Eurozone as a whole, the unemployment rate is 11%, kept that “low” only by countries like Austria and the Netherlands.

There are two aspects of this crisis to notice. First, despite the dogma that only markets let people survive, Southern Europe has not had a social collapse, despite very real suffering. As ever, people help each other “against” their purported self-interest. Second, U. S. commentators have recently chosen to celebrate the “success” of 8.2% official unemployment here, a rate that is certainly comparable to Europe’s given the different means of accumulating data, which they will do right up until they begin attacking Obama again for his “failed economics.”

Here it’s hard not to think of David Graeber’s claim that neo-liberal economics has in fact been primarily directed to political ends:

it’s a political program designed to produce hopelessness and kill any future alternatives.

That is to say, the extraordinary efforts devoted to overkill policing on May Day and derogatory media coverage afterwards can be understood as component parts of a collective movement against the possibility of imagining a different way of being. As Graeber puts it:

So what is this obsession they have with us never feeling we’ve actually accomplished something? And I thought: everything in neoliberalism can be thought of in that sense.

I would want to frame that learned hopelessness in the context of the MIE. What Paul Virilio calls “the admininstration of fear” takes place in the counterpoint between the persistent identification of permanent global and domestic insurgency. Over and again, domestic security tries to frame Occupy as insurgency.

It has nonetheless notably failed to convince people of that equation, even as various security agency engineered “plots” have secured court convictions of their hapless fall guys. For Occupy has been able to generate its own counter-narrative, using the Internet as a mass medium. From countless individual projects like this one, to aggregator sites like Occupied Stories and, to a panoply of Tumblr sites stemming from the iconic We Are the 99 Percent, not to mention all the videos and photographs, Occupy has forged an effective counter-narrative.

The various government efforts to censor the Internet and to monitor web traffic are not unconnected to this movement. Such clumsy stratagems have run into the immense corporate influence of Google and Facebook, causing a stalemate. In the academic context, this is what I have called the crisis of visuality: authority is not fully able to visualize itself in such a way that it appears that its narrative cannot be questioned. In the political context, it means that the Law and Order view of the world, in which the police are always right, has been reduced to its Special Victims Unit, a ritual excoriating of a series of cartoon villains. That is the message of the media: authority is always right. Can the Internet be subjected to that authority? As long as the answer to that question is not clear, there’s a chance for the current wave of global social movements.


Once More Into the Debt, Dear Friends–at TEDx

I spent today at a TEDx event organized by NYU students. I was approached to participate by a woman who had taken one of my classes. I wasn’t sure I really wanted to do it, so, knowing that most of the organizers were from the Business School, I proposed a talk on the student debt crisis, expecting them to reject it. But they called my bluff.

So I presented the now-familiar cocktail (to regular readers) of $1 trillion of student debt, the 27% default rate and declining applications to high-cost institutions. I localized it by considering the rising debt crisis at NYU. At present some 55% of NYU students graduate in debt with the average debt amounting to just over $40,000.

Some of this is unintended debt. One young man came into a class of mine last semester smiling broadly. When I asked him why, he said that the loan office had given him four times as much money as he had requested. Horrified, I asked why he had accepted it and he said: “Free money!” If only it was. No surprise then that NYU ranks #6 in the nation for student debt. Ahead are a group of very much less well-known institutions, such as the Florida Institute of Technology and Barry University, scarcely the New Ivy company that NYU likes to claim for itself.

So we are all puzzled that NYU has launched an expansion plan that will build immense new towers across the middle of Greenwich Village, including a hotel. No indication has been provided as to how this will be paid for but NYU has announced that “[it] is not afraid of debt.” Perhaps it should be. It has been calculated that, if you use a low estimate of $4 bn. for the construction, the interest payments alone would be more than the current tuition and fees generated by the flagship College of Arts and Science.

The University is pursuing debt financing like never before at what may turn out to be precisely the wrong time.For other participants in the TEDx event highlighted the continuing impact of the global financial crisis, arguing that it was likely to redefine our sense of how markets operate–in this new context, debt is certainly something to be concerned about.

There’s another form of convergence going on, whose consequences are less clear. No less than three TEDx presentations highlighted the interface between new ideas about marketing, the viral idea, and the global Occupy movement. All the presenters wanted to see socially good results from this, but it’s not hard to see how others might try and appropriate it.

The concern about being co-opted is widespread in Occupy circles at the moment. Are the Move On 99% training sessions–direct imitations of the OWS Spring Training–which are patently directed towards promoting the Democratic Party, a good thing or not? We can take a positive view and see the progressive wing of the Democrats being mobilized by Occupy. Or we can be less sanguine and see the ideas as being diluted into the usual election-year boilerplate.

Berlin Biennale Occupy space

Another discussion is happening around the Berlin Biennale, one of the many global art fairs, hosting a space for Occupy (as above). Based on discussions with Occupy Berlin, the space includes recycling, a garden, an autonomous university and undefined action space. Here Occupy is rendered into a shopping list for a want-to-be radical art fair, whose ultimate rationale is the continuation of the global art market, the epitome of one percent luxury furnishing.

Yet the very packaged nature of the Move On and Berlin Biennale projects misses the key element to all viral memes–the unexpected. These gestures are so predictable within the context of two-party politics and art world solipsism that I’m not sure I can even be bothered to be annoyed by them.

The last convergence is the most obvious–the interface between Occupy and structured digital media platforms like TEDx, which is a licensed and carefully-filtered project:

  • TED does not grant licenses to those associated with controversial or extremist organizations.
  • TEDx events may not be used to promote spiritual or religious beliefs, commercial products or political agendas.

Given that, as Alessandra Renzi pointed out in her recent talk at NYU, many apparently familiar organizations are now being officially designated as “extremist” from environmental groups to art activist performers The Yes Men, you wonder how such filtering is applied.

Organizers of TEDx events always hope that one of their talks gets “promoted” to the highlighted section of the site. My guess is that a talk on student debt–especially one given by a surprisingly nervous professor–won’t make that list. Except maybe with a little help from his friends…now that would be unexpected;) Links to follow.