It’s Just Academic

When I was first involved with Occupy Wall Street, academics and intellectuals were everywhere. Education and Empowerment was a massive working group, which did achieve a great deal. A year later and the academics, with honored and honorable exceptions, are on the sidelines, sniping, even as conferences and courses with titles using words like “radical,” “rethinking” and “political” abound. While European movements seem ready to change the paradigm, universities here remain comfortably asleep.

This injunction is against my tenured and tenure-track colleagues. One of the most noticeable features of the movement is the prominent place of adjunct and contingent faculty, and especially graduate students–precisely the people who do have something to lose. These are the people behind Occupy University, the Free University, Occupy Student Debt and many other of the best movement moments. Meanwhile there are a growing wave of books and articles by the tenured, weighing in “more in sorrow than in anger” about the various failures that they perceive in Occupy.

Let’s take an example that has been bouncing around Facebook of late, called “Occupy Wall Street, Flash Movements and American Politics,”  published in the online section of Dissent by David Plotke, a professor of politics at the New School. I don’t know Prof. Plotke and as far as I’m aware we haven’t met at any Occupy event. The piece isn’t evil or terrible. It’s just operating in such a different conceptual to those of us working in the movement as to render it ineffective as as intervention.

Plotke offers four contrasting interpretations of Occupy, all of which make judgments in relation to electoral politics, especially the current election., enabling his conclusion that it was a “flash movement.” This undefined term is rendered as calling Occupy

the Herman Cain of the left.

It’s a cheap shot and Plotke quickly disavows it, in a “have your cake and eat it” form of writing.

The three paragraphs on his own answer to the question of Occupy’s meaning are followed by much longer excurses on the impact of Occupy on the Democratic Party, and whether it is more or less effective than the Tea Party. Nowhere does Plotke consider that Occupy was founded as a direct democracy movement, precisely because participants have little or no belief in the current system’s capacity to effect change. It’s right there in the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City:

no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power. We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments.

It is entirely consistent with such an analysis that, in Plotke’s words:

The Tea Party experience shows how political currents can now appear both inside and outside the party system.

For most in Occupy, and indeed many others, the Tea Party is a well-funded corporate vehicle, tapping into white racism for a brief set of “upsets” in 2010. Plotke is nonetheless impressed with the selection of a far-right candidate for the 2012 Senate election in Texas:

There is nothing marginal or purely symbolic about this sort of success.

We might question how much difference one right-winger from Texas over another will really make. We might make parallels with the nomination of Tammy Baldwin for Senate in Wisconsin, where Occupy activists have invested in electoral politics; or we might talk about Elizabeth Warren. But this is to hold the electoral mirror to Occupy as if it was the goal of the movement: and it is not.

In fact, it is remarkable that throughout the long essay, Plotke never once quotes anyone involved with Occupy, or any of the many documents it has produced, although he did apparently interview people for the piece. Imagine writing on the Republican Party without naming or quoting any known Republicans. Plotke prefers the straw man strategy:

Neo-anarchists and other far leftists provided part of the core leadership of Occupy

He gives these unnamed persons fake credit for starting the movement but continues to note ominously:

There were leaders—yet OWS tended to deny they existed. Without any formal means of selection, they were there.

This is a combination of familiar scare tactics. First, it suggests that there were good things at the beginning (the “flash” moment) that became corrupt. This is a version of the interpretation of the French Revolution that claims to like “1789″ but deplore everything that came after the storming of the Bastille. Next, it updates the “reds under the bed” meme of the Cold War to suggest that the poor dupes of the rank-and-file were manipulated by extremists:

Affirming the virtues of a leaderless and unprogrammatic movement afforded room for maneuver for actual leaders, without requiring them to articulate and defend their political and ideological positions. In this rapid and surprising sequence, neo-anarchists became Popular Front Leninists of a sort.

Does that sound familiar, Occupy people? Or does it sound more like a familiar Cold War paranoia from the New York “public intellectual” class?

This America-centric reading is consistent with the lack of mention of any of the other global justice movements from the Arab Spring to the Indignados and Quebec strikers that both inspired and sustained Occupy. On and on, Plotke goes misrepresenting the movement. He snips:

We’re not likely to see large efforts by an Occupy Dallas or Occupy South Carolina.

Really? But Occupy Atlanta was very strong before its eviction, and Occupy Tampa continues to be so. Just today word came in of activists in Utah creating a Strike Debt project and reprinting the Debt Resistors’ Operations Manual. Plotke will say, well, that’s not a “large effort.” It is for the people involved. What has mattered in this first year to most of us is the chance to try to be the change we’d like to see. We’re carrying on, making links with colleagues in Europe and Latin America. It’s a shame so few have been willing to get out of the ivory tower to join in.

No Spectators

Over the last few days, the idea of the “wild” has, as it were, “accidentally” cropped up repeatedly, from questions of climate change, to Beasts of the Southern Wild and gaga feminism. That’s one of the intriguing things about a durational project of this kind, how ideas arise unexpectedly that you would not otherwise have spent much time on. So what would happen if we bring the three figures of wilding, walking and occupying together? You would not be spectating, that’s for sure.

Occupying is not in itself walking but it is moving in both senses. It creates (a) movement and it is emotionally stirring. The Zapatista koan of “walking while asking questions” has seemed a good way to describe it. If “walk on the wild side” evokes the subcultures of the 1970s, Occupy is not quite that. Subcultures had codes that were recognizable to themselves but mysterious or off-putting to others, from Oscar Wilde’s queer green carnation to punk safety-pins. They invited people to look but not to understand the internal dynamics of the subculture.

Both during the encampments and the “movement of movements,” Occupy has sought to change people. Or more exactly, people have made the Occupy movement into a vehicle for change. For many of us, this is the most important aspect of the project, like feminist, queer and other variants on “the personal is political.” In this case, the dynamic was intended to change those already there and draw others in.

Writing in the fifth edition of Occupy!, filmmaker Astra Taylor describes how this has worked for her as a stepping off the sidelines that

has stripped me of the self-righteousness and surety that comes with being a spectator.

As a filmmaker who has worked with Zizek we can safely assume that Taylor is not unaware of gaze theory. Yet she puts herself into the place of being looked at as part of her decision to be involved in the process, realizing that

people are complicated, that the way to achieve profound political change is not clear, but that we must move forward nonetheless, adapting our thinking and our strategy along the way.

This may not sound “wild” but that’s what it is– a refusal to define a “line” that we must follow, to make the now infamous demands, or to assume that clarity is the greatest of virtues.

By resisting the politics of representation, we have found, almost by accident, a performative practice that is unplanned, unscripted and seen only by the other “performers.” It couldn’t be further from the currently hegemonic vogue for Marina Abramovic-style staged performance, putting the self-styled artist fully in control. To occupy, to be wild, or to walk with questions is instead to perform the right to look, in which I invent you and vice versa, a fully mutual engagement.

So far, so hooray for us. Doing “not spectating” has worked for a year. We’ve countervisualized to good effect. What we have not yet done is get fully beyond the militarized tropes of visuality. We march. We lay siege to Wall Street. We do this in the name of direct action as opposed to symbolic action.

But it’s all symbolic. After all, very few of the one per cent actually work on Wall Street itself: they’re in mid-town or Connecticut but everyone gets why shutting down Wall Street is symbolically powerful. Better yet are symbols that do not rely on a rhetoric of power and force and do not mimic military tactics. They exist: the Occupy Town Square events, the Free University, guided walks around Wall Street to tell people hidden histories of the financial district, and many more. Within and without the movement, though, there is a sense that these are not “real” actions and that confrontation equals realness. As Lady Gaga can tell you, realness is way overrated.

 

 

 

Temperature Check: Needs Work

At a Strike Debt meeting yesterday, we discussed the joint call for action on O13. One person looked askance and commented: “We better not just get 25 people wandering around New York.” In other words, the tens of thousands that routinely turn out for Europe’s anti-austerity demonstrations are likely to be matched on a scale of one in a hundred at best in the U. S. Why are we still so marginalized?

It’s certainly true that the Eurozone disaster is extraordinary. And of course, Occupy is no more than a year old. In a broadside published today, Rebecca Solnit isn’t having any of it. She firmly blames the left for its own divisiveness and celebration of failure. Having begun to think about hope, she writes,

I eventually began to refer to my project as “snatching the teddy bear of despair from the loving arms of the left.” All that complaining is a form of defeatism, a premature surrender, or an excuse for not really doing much. Despair is also a form of dismissiveness, a way of saying that you already know what will happen and nothing can be done, or that the differences don’t matter, or that nothing but the impossibly perfect is acceptable.

This tendency to not only see defeat looming but revel in it is a familiar figure. The great heroes of the left from the Commune to the Spanish Civil War and so on all lost. It was the second edition of the first ever punk fanzine Sniffin’ Glue that declared punk dead back in 1977.

Now, however, there’s an added social media snarkiness to it all. All over ZuckerBook you can read dismissals of OWS, its publications and campaigns as being insufficiently anti-capitalist and otherwise deluded. As if posting to Facebook was anything other than  a way of making money for its shareholders.

All that said, there are real contradictions here. As a number of people have pointed out, and I am well aware myself, my explorations in militant research are a part of my privilege. I tend to think it a better use of that situation than simply perpetuating the status quo but nonetheless it is fair to ask whether it helps people in the New Academic Majority. My hope is that by acting and writing in the way that I would prefer to do, I make it possible for others to do the same and use my project as a model or reference. That said, you won’t hear much from me after 12/31/12 for a good long time.

For Occupy more broadly, the feminist-inspired culture of trust, process and love has been one of its great accomplishments. But when I hear, as you do from time to time, someone yelling at someone else that they are “bourgeois” or some other infraction, it’s always a male-identified person defining a female-identified one.

At the first GA I remember attending in Zuccotti, I was impressed by a young woman of color talking about the way the assembly did not yet look like New York City. Well, what’s left of that body still doesn’t resemble its parent metropolis, and there’s a renewed bout of questioning as to why. Some people are criticizing the topics we’ve highlighted recently, such as debt, as if debt did not affect the poorest and most discriminated against in our society. Can we do better? No question. But there’s a real issue out there. Here’s a visualization of payday loan stores in Bushwick. There are a lot in a small area.

Here’s the Upper East Side:

Exclude A and C which are bank branches and you have three such payday loan places from 59th St to 106th St on the entire East Side.

So why is OWS in general and Strike Debt in particular still lacking diversity? Part of it stems from the bulk of Solnit’s article about the election. African Americans are strong supporters of Obama, with over 90% in most polls saying they will vote for him. If anyone was in any doubt that Republican hatred for Obama was motivated in whole or in part by race, the rash of “chair lynchings” that followed Clint Eastwood’s speech should have settled the issue. If you’ve missed this, a set of chairs have been hanged in trees with American flags attached to them. Given Eastwood’s identification of an empty chair with Obama, the message is as clear as it is repellent. In the 1960s civil rights activists carried US flags to claim equal rights in contrast with the Confederate flag. The Vietnam War put paid to that association and the flag can now be meaningfully tagged with racist murder.

So while how to vote is almost a technical debate in New York or California, at least at Presidential level, it’s not hard to see why people of color, women, LBGTQI folks and many others don’t see it that way. As Solnit trenchantly puts it:

You don’t have to participate in this system, but you do have to describe it and its complexities and contradictions accurately, and you do have to understand that when you choose not to participate, it better be for reasons more interesting than the cultivation of your own moral superiority, which is so often also the cultivation of recreational bitterness.

The reduced numbers of active people in OWS need to heed such warnings and realize that we can’t turn things our way by hyperactive organizing alone. It turned out that the crisis was not of a brief duration and nor was there to be a revolutionary solution to it. Perhaps for a moment last October we glimpsed the mountaintop but we’ve slipped a long way down the slope since then. That’s OK. Instead of turning on each other, we need to turn outwards and start engaging with the constituencies we most want to be in dialog with.

The Global Debt Resistance

 

Another day, another enormous resistance to the neo-liberal austerity regime. Today it was Greece, yesterday Spain. before that Portugal. Now a media and governmental meme is emerging in which it is said that “only” the periphery of Europe are in trouble and that the “strong” countries are doing well. It is hinted that Greece can and should leave the Euro. This is all bravado.

In “strong” France, it was announced today that unemployment has passed the three million mark. Despite the socialist victory in the Presidential elections, French activists see a continuity of austerity. I’m translating below a call to action on October 13 issued by the Paris Assembly of Démocratie réelle maintenant, the French equivalent to Spain’s Democracia Real Ya! Anti-debt groups across Europe and in the Americas are now working to co-ordinate a call for O13. Can what we used to call the left finally get its global act together?

Here’s the French call, translated rather literally, to be true to the original, which centers on the “casseroles” used in Montréal, the banging of pots and pans (all emphasis original):

Citizens! Into the Streets and To the Casseroles to Cancel Illegitimate Debt!

Debt is a racket!

Closure of schools and hospitals, reduction or suppression in social services, increased sales tax, absence of affordable housing…Such politics of austerity, applied for years in Latin America and Africa, are now current in the European Union. No population has been or will be spared, with the most precarious being the first affected. The situation is serious: let’s wake up!

Austerity claims to be legitimate because it results from excessive expenditures on benefits…In reality, sovereign debt comes from both the savagery of private banks since the 2008 crisis and the numerous fiscal gifts to the richest and to corporations for decades.

The debt also results from the excessive interest rates that we pay to private banks from whom the State borrows to finance itself, since it can no longer borrow from the Central Bank. The total debt results from compound interest built up over the past forty years!

The public debt is odious when we are told to reimburse the same people who are responsible for the crisis and who have not ceased to enrich themselves since.

The public debt is not legitimate when it impoverishes us, the 99%, in order to sustain private and unwarranted lenders.

To pay the public debt is just to produce… private debt: that of students, those in precarious housing, the sick, workers, the unemployed, farmers, undocumented immigrants, as well as all those who have to pay the individual price of the dismanteling of public services and benefits.

To continue with growth at all costs imposed by the blackmail of debt is also to increase our ecological debt, which, far more than the public debt, is what’s really at stake in the 21st century.

Where is democracy if we cannot say NO to that which is in the interest only of the privileged and when collusion reigns between them and those who govern us? Where is democracy when all future debate and politics is barred by European treaties, the latest of which, known as the Budget Treaty, is even now in the course of ratification by our so-called “representatives”?

The abolition of illegitimate debt must also be extended to other countries: we demand that the French state cease to shake down other nations in the name of odious debt, which they have already largely repaid, while we continue to pillage their wealth. We won’t pay illegitimate debt, not here or elsewhere! The only legitimate debt that we have is to respond to the call of the African [President] Thomas Sankara to create a global front against debt.

October 13 is a global day of action! Paris, rise up, everyone in the streets with your casseroles for a great unity march from Goldman Sachs to the Assemblée Nationale [Parliament/Congress]: stop the European budget treaty, cancel illegitimate debt here and elsewhere.

After the march, we will meet in an assembly to discuss alternative futures and to build common outcomes from the mobilization.

So there are a couple of points to note here. Obviously this is a more substantive and less media-oriented press release than is now common in the Anglophone world. And the focus is at first more on sovereign (or public) debt. The analysis moves into full agreement with global debt campaigns as it highlights how public debt produces private debt at the expense of developing nations and the biosphere. What might just be happening here is the formation of global anti-capitalist movement with a common theme. I find that idea more than a little intriguing.

 

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?

The Beloved Community After the Disaster Of Capitalism

I led a workshop at the Free University of New York City on Strike Debt and one of the participants was an African American woman who had been active in the civil rights movement. She exhorted us to remember Dr King’s idea of “the beloved community” and to follow the lead of groups like the Student Non-Violent Co-Ordinating Committee. Then yesterday the activist and writer Rebecca Solnit proposed that Occupy was precisely a form of beloved community, one that came together in response to disaster.

In her book A Paradise Built in Hell, Solnit offered a stunning reversal of the fundamental neo-liberal worldview. As Mitt Romney so disastrously confirmed in his 47% video, neo-liberalism believes people to be fundamentally “brutish.” The term comes from the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, whose distate for the “multitude” has been much noted of late. Hobbes argued that only a centralized, authoritarian state could mitigate the fundamental violence of the human animal.

Solnit shows how this presumption structures official responses to disaster and catastrophe, such as the wildly inaccurate claims of mass looting, murder and rape in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Solnit describes how, not only are such charges wrong, but what actually transpires after disasters are remarkable instances of mutual aid. At her teach-in yesterday, she proposed that OWS was one such instance of this response. There had been a disaster, in this case, a financial one. People responded by providing shelter, food, clothing, medical care and other fundamentals, free of charge and in a collective fashion. It was clear to all that such provision was a direct challenge to the normative capitalist economy, leading to the evictions on the (spurious) grounds of “brutish” dirt and disease.

Illuminating NYU

In her book, Solnit develops this contrast into a theoretical distinction that she borrows from the apparently unlikely source of William James. In his lectures on Pragmatism, James asked:

What difference would it practically make to anyone if this notion rather than that notion were true?

Solnit applies this to disaster and reformulates it:

What difference would it make if we were blasé about property and passionate about human life?

That’s a great way to pose Occupy’s challenge to neo-liberalism. Its radicalism was the palpable sight of all kinds of people placing the beloved community as a higher value than material goods, not in the name of a renunciation of the world, but of a radical change to it.

It might also suggest that the local and small-scale nature of Occupy is in fact an apposite response to the disaster of capitalism. As an Oxfam report on Cuban responses to disaster put it, there is a:

distinct possibility that life-line structures (concrete, practical measures to save lives) might ultimately depend more on the intangibles of relationship, training and education

than the wealth so beloved by neo-liberals.

So small-scale organizing centered on community, training and teach-ins is not a utopian alternative to capitalism but the best available response to its disaster. Lessons to be learned here by Strike Debt as it moves from being a campaign to a movement.

Freedom, Justice and Privilege in NYC

The intense last few days in New York City have reminded us of the interaction between the desire for freedom, the operations of legally-sanctioned justice, and the workings of privilege that constitute the moment. The social order functions, but it does so in ways that are palpably out of joint. In the cracks of capital, a desire for radical change has emerged that is not unmarked by these contradictions.

Late on S17, a group of us headed to 100 Center Street, where arraignments are held in Manhattan, to do jail support for some of our friends, who had been arrested for protesting in a bank. Note that this bank, which was one of the most culpable during the crisis, has not yet had any of its operatives arrested. We walked a surreal trail through winding walkways and a maze of buildings to a Rite-Aid under the Brooklyn Bridge, where, somehow, a police officer returned one arrestee’s personal possessions to her spouse. In our tired state it seemed for a moment that those arrested would emerge from the pharmacy as well. In fact, we had to return to Center Street, which turned out to be complicated because no-one could remember the way and none of the many police officers on duty knew. Once finally there, we discovered that none of our friends were on the docket for night court.

We returned the next day in greater numbers but it was not until 5pm that the OWS people were scheduled for arraignment. We entered the court and sat on the unforgiving wooden benches. A theater of the absurd played out at the front as lawyers muttered to the judge and their clients, while officers of the court walked this way and that with endless sheaves of paper. Thick files appeared for each person, visualizing the density of the carceral bureaucracy. People appeared for arraignment through a door, behind which bars and cells painted that depressing shade of official cream could clearly be seen.

As is common in such arraignments, the protestors appeared very late on the docket. As we sat in this bleak space, we witnessed a seemingly endless parade of people of color, mostly men, mostly African American. From the widely-available literature, everyone knows that the prison-industrial complex is a central component of the apparatus of racialized segregation. We know that 2.3 million people are currently behind bars and another 5 million or so under some form of correctional supervision. Seven times as many African Americans as “whites” are in the system.

Even knowing all this, it is something else to see it in action, to see shackled bodies, the bruises on one woman’s face that shocked her defense lawyer into taking photographs, a man with his hands bound behind his back in such a way that to sit caused an involuntary rictus of pain, still another hobbling up the aisle to the arraignment, barely able to walk.

From the DA’s office, a lawyer intoned the terms “the people” and “justice” with regularity. We were not so convinced. Does it serve the people to have a woman incarcerated for fifteen days for the alleged crime of stealing a bottle of shampoo? Would this have happened if she had been “white”? My soto-voce comments on all this caused me to be expelled from the courtroom for “talking,” as if it were a school assembly.

Of course, you may be thinking that it is a reflection of my own privilege that this sight was new to me. Yesterday at the Free University in Madison Square Park, which continues until Saturday, the subject of privilege was raised in a discussion hosted by Tidal. Facilitating the discussion, Rosa L., who happens to be a person of color, pointed out that OWS has its own privilege by virtue of being in New York City. As I have often recalled, Arundhati Roy made exactly this point when she visited. She also insisted that it was, paradoxically, all the more important that we continue to make visible the lack of consent, even at the very heart of neo-liberal capital.

Nonetheless, the intensity of the media attention to New York does mean that OWS receives more coverage and discussion than is equitable in relation to other Occupations and radical actions. The discussion explored how we might best make use of that attention by stressing global initiatives and other interfaces outside New York.

In the Strike Debt teach-in that I facilitated later on, I again felt this double-bind. The participants looked to New York for models, perhaps even for leadership, but there are inevitable tensions that follow from that. Is the way forward, then, to create the best movement we can in New York and see if and how it inspires others? This was the pattern set by the original occupation. Or should there be an attempt to create an organization that reaches outside New York? I tend to the former, others to the latter. It’s such tensions between how to claim freedom while recognizing privilege that create the need for new practice and new theory.

The Many Futures of Occupy

In its first year of life, Occupy has transformed the American political landscape by opening a space for radicalism. By radicalism, I mean a questioning of the fundamental ways in which life is lived. It has done so by defining and executing a form of political practice that is a hybrid of grass-roots organizing, direct action and digital-era networking. The new radical opening created by Occupy is now proliferating in four main directions that were represented by the four “zones” of action on September 17: debt, the ecological crisis, education and the 99%. There are, then, many futures for Occupy.

A year ago, the tactic of occupation brilliantly visualized what has become Occupy’s signature gesture: to put bodies into public space where they are not supposed to be. In so doing, Occupy called attention to exclusion and inequality in public affairs in a manner that had become unsayable in American life. By making themselves visible, the occupiers made it possible to speak once again about the extraordinarily divided society in which we live.

To realize what a difference this has made look at this New York Times editorial on Mitt Romney, which uses language unthinkable a year ago:

The shame is not that those people don’t pay income taxes. The shame is how many poor people there are when the top 1 percent can amass uncountable fortunes fed by tax breaks and can donate tens of millions of dollars to political candidates to keep it that way.

If, as seems likely, this video moment turns the Presidential election from a close-run race to a canter for Obama, Occupy can take a slice of the credit.

Occupy now sees itself as a “movement of movements.” These were represented in the different clusters that took action around Wall Street. Let’s look at these futures.

Debt

In the past two months, a key theme for many activists has become what economists call “household debt,” meaning the range of personal debt from credit cards to mortgages, student loans and medical debt. Fully 75% of Americans are in debt. The other 25% are mostly too poor to qualify them for credit, excluding them from access to everything from airplane tickets to home ownership. 14% of Americans are being pursued by debt collectors. So it’s not surprising that The Debt Resistors’ Operations Manual published this weekend by the Strike Debt collective has become an instant hit. The Manual gives detailed practical information on how to deal with debt and what to do if you can’t. As yet another bailout for the banks was announced by the Federal Reserve with its purchase of $40 billion of mortgage-backed securities, there has still been no debt relief for the 99%. Expect to see a debt refusal movement in the US, following the precedents of Quebec, Greece, Spain and Portugal.

Ecological Crisis

Nowhere is the gap between the planetary crisis and the current governing solutions more in need of radical rethinking than the environment. As scientists struggle to get their heads around the enormity of the acceleration of global warming, which now suggests that the Arctic will be ice-free in summer very soon, all global government can do is squabble over drilling for yet more hydrocarbons in the newly-revealed land. While the Obama administration is mocked by Republicans for wanting to slow the rise in the oceans, they have given all possible encouragement to Shell’s efforts to drill for oil in the Arctic, even after the company failed to complete its safety devices. In the face of this consensus, direct action is the only option remaining, such as that taken by Greenpeace when it occupied an Arctic drilling rig, or the successful encircling of the White House to protest the Keystone XL pipeline. Carbon-based capitalism is now a threat to life itself and Occupy can make the connection to create a politics of the living.

Education

From all sides, we hear that education is the key to success in the global economy. Unfortunately, someone seems to have changed the lock. In K-12, neo-liberal education seeks to inculcate data for multiple choice tests, rather than educate people to evaluate. The measure of their success is precisely that climate-change denial continues to flourish. Higher education is presented as a customer-driven, goal-oriented service economy. Hard to reconcile this with $1 trillion in student debt, 41% of the class of 2008 in default on their loans, and mass unemployment of graduates. The Bar Association is actually recommending students not to go to law school because of the combination of debt and unemployment. In Quebec, students took strike action against tuition hikes and won. In Chicago, teachers have just ended their strike against teacher evaluations based on tests with a deal whose terms are as yet unclear. In Chile, high school and university students continue to revolt against tuition-based secondary and higher education. The goal is now clear: a free public system that educates for life, rather than indoctrinates for work.

The 99%

On September 17, the 99% action centered on the slogan “money out of politics,” perhaps Occupy’s most impossible demand yet. There are plans to occupy the Presidential debates. If the White House race becomes  a done deal, look closely at what happens in Wisconsin, where electoral activism has been the focus of the movement. Activists in Madison have long claimed to have started the Occupy movement with their action at the Capitol building. The occupation resulted in the recall of Gov. Walker but he was able to win re-election, seeming to set the movement back. Now Rep. Tammy Baldwin is in a close race for US Senate against former Governor Tommy Thompson. If the Republicans win, even greater gridlock is the likely outcome of the Obama second term. So what happens in the Dairy State may be a good indication of whether there’s a significant role for Occupy in electoral politics.

These are the fundamental issues of our time. Occupy’s many futures will continue to make radical solutions visible and sayable and thus newly possible.

 

We Disrupt Wall Street To Strike Debt

After a long day of action planning, including training in Zuccotti Park, a performative walk around the Financial District and a late night discussion in a pub, Strike Debt consensed on its actions for September 17, using the slogan: “We Disrupt Wall Street to Strike Debt.” This will be a non-violent disruptive and celebratory refusal of those who would subjugate our lives to debt, in the place where they do that work of subjugation. It affirms life, love, and companionship over the isolation and fear that is the debt society.

The morning begins at 7am at 55 Water Street. From there the movement will swirl around Wall Street, spreading confetti, bubbles, balloons and a ticker tape parade as a celebration of our refusal to be debt peons and to insist that debt abolition is both necessary and inevitable. There’ll be visual and performative acts of non-violent civil disobedience that will make the point that to live in the red is not a valued life. We assert that we are not a loan in the shadow of the towers built by ratings agency Standard and Poor’s, who give credit ratings to student loans and the CDOs that brought down the global economy. We assert life in the face of AIG, the disastrous insurance company that took billions of federal bailout money as household debt went through the roof. We assert a culture of mutual aid in front of JPMorgan Chase, one of the many corrupt banks that have paid no penalty for their scandalous behavior.

The action will not be measured in numbers, whether of participants or arrests. It’s a qualitative difference, one that will compel Wall Street to show its true colors in barricades, fences, security cordons and mass police presence. All for a few people carrying banners and balloons. What are they so afraid of? Could it be that they worry that the concept of living a life that is not measured by debt might prove popular if people became aware of it?

Want to find out more? Check the Strike Debt Facebook page for updates, come to the Convergence in Washington Square Park on Saturday 15 from 1-4 pm. Figure out how to get involved: because if you’re reading this, you already are.

Portrait of the Activist as a Middle-Aged Man

Home after a full day of OWS-related activism, I want to share with you all what I did today and what everyone else is equally busily doing to get ready for S17 and the formal launch of Strike Debt.

First thing this morning I checked on the “Stand With Occupy” site and it was great to see signatures building and many thanks to those of you who signed (if you haven’t had time to sign, click here.) There’s also a great new piece on the Strike Debt action last Sunday in the Village Voice. You have no idea how much email comes out of Occupy. As so many active people are young, there’s always a tide of new posts from the early hours to be read, Facebook posts to be checked, tweets to be looked at.

Out of the door, off to an interview with for a Brazilian documentary about the legacies of the Iraq War. In some ways that was the theme right there: a British author being interviewed by a Brazilian in New York about Iraq. It’s amazing to think that it’s almost ten years since that fiasco began and it’s harder than ever to explain why and what it was about. I do think the rise of citizen media would have made it harder to sell the whole ludicrous venture. Not impossible.

I grab the car and head off to Bushwick to meet with Tidal editors Amin Husain and Rosa Luxemburg (I use people’s names if they have publicly identified themselves as active). Over an excellent papaya shake in a local café–where monster portions of arroz con pollo were being consumed all around–we discuss Tidal distribution and the Strike Debt video the two are working on. Thousands of Tidals go into the trunk and off we go: Riverside Church, Columbia, Labyrinth Books, CUNY Graduate Center, NYU. Bundles of magazines are dropped off at each place.

While I drive the others maintain a constant dialog with others by text, voice and Facebook. I stay with the car when we stop and do the same. Since the post on Clint Eastwood went viral, the Huffington Post has reposted my piece on Occupied Language, and I’ve fielded some other requests. I mention this out of sheer vanity, of course, but also to show why I keep doing this every day. It has built slowly but seems now to be of use to the movement, which was the goal.

Park the car and then down to Zuccotti. I touch base with Marissa Holmes, with whom I will be co-facilitating the Debt Assembly in Washington Square Park on Saturday, NYPD permitting. We already have a good framework and establish some action items to get it done. As one of the leading lights of the occupation, Marissa was just off a CNN Radio interview and all the attention seems to be fulfilling the expectation that S17 gives OWS a platform, even if only for the day.

We moved into a training for the days of action. The trainers concentrated first on establishing friendship among the group by some games and then talked about how to stay calm and goal-focused in the streets. One of the NYPD’s goals is to scare and intimidate protestors, first from attending the action at all and then from carrying it out. It’s a good lesson to relearn and I realized that I had been feeling nervous. It’s a shame you have to be aware of how to act to sustain your physical safety in the streets of New York if you choose to demonstrate dissent. But it’s a fact.

At this point, the fact that I had forgotten to eat all day made me tired and I headed home, knowing that I’m going to another training tomorrow. Good day.