Posted: 16 Sep 2012 08:51 PM PDT
Last year we occupied the streets; the time has come to liberate them. The only way forward for our movement is to devise new forms of autonomous action.
A little over a year ago, my friend Pedro and I were sitting behind our laptops in the makeshift multimedia center at Syntagma Square in Athens. As volunteers in the Take The Square collective (the international brigades of the Spanish indignados), we had already been involved for several months in the transnational effort to build bridges between the various movements throughout Europe, putting key organizers in touch with one another, mobilizing an army of translators, reporting on important news and events, helping to coordinate international actions, and translating strategic documents of the 15-M movement into dozens languages and disseminating them across Europe.
We were already actively in touch with movements in Spain, Greece, Portugal, France, Italy, Germany, the UK, Belgium and the Netherlands, when suddenly we received an email from the United States. It was Micah White, co-editor of the widely-disseminated Canadian anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters. Something big was about to happen, Micah told us: Adbusters was about to launch the call for a Tahrir-style occupation of Wall Street and was looking for documents, information and experiences that could help with the complex promotion and organization of such a radical direct action. As we were just in the process of launching HowToOccupy.org, Take The Square was in a unique position to share some of the key experiences of the Spanish and Greek movements with the aspiring occupiers of New York — and beyond.
While my friend Pedro jumped on the news like a lion, sensing a historical opportunity to contribute in a humble way to the occupation of the very heartland of globalized finance capital, I have to admit I had my reservations. Maybe it was my Dutch soberness, maybe a misplaced movements-related sense of “eurocentrism”, but for some reason I just felt the Americans wouldn’t be able to pull off what the Spanish and Greeks had just pulled off before them. First of all, I felt that the most important mobilizing factors behind the Spanish and Greek protests (a massive debt crisis coupled with draconian austerity measures and unprecedented levels of youth unemployment) simply weren’t that clearly present in the United States. Secondly, I told Pedro with full conviction, apart from a few small pockets of resistance like Oakland, the cultural hegemony of capitalist ideology in the US would simply render large-scale anti-capitalist action most unlikely. Thirdly, and most importantly, I feared, the NYPD — which had long since been bought and sold by the powerful Wall Street banks — would never allow the occupation of the most iconic site of American capitalism. Police repression would simply make an indignados-style camp impossible.
Debt, Indignation and the New Class Consciousness
Thankfully, my skepticism turned out to be almost entirely unfounded. First of all, the mobilizing factor of indebtedness appeared to be just as pressing in the US as it was in Europe, where popular indignation about millions of home foreclosures, multi-trillion dollar bank bailouts, sky-rocketing student debt, stagnant wages, and the total subversion of democracy by powerful corporate interests quietly drove millions of Americans to the brink of despair. As David Graeber — the anthropologist, activist and author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years – just wrote in an article for The Nation:
This complaint was not very different from the indignation that underpinned the mass protests in Spain and Greece. As in Europe, indebtedness provided the basis for the emergence of a new class consciousness. After decades of having been told that “there was no alternative” to the massive neoliberal push for privatization, liberalization and deregulation — and actually being convinced by the vacuous argument that a rising tide would “lift all boats” and that the accumulating wealth of Wall Street would at some point “trickle down” — the people began to realize that something was amiss. With household debt as a share of GDP more than quadrupling over the course of the last half century, the subprime mortgage crisis and subsequent Wall Street meltdown of 2007-’08 finally brought home the realization that the “rising tide” and “trickling-down” was actually a deluge of debt; and that the lifeboats of social security and public services had long since been sold to “balance the budget” (or, rather, to finance an imperialist drive in the Middle East and Central Asia).
In the process, the American Dream — and the corrollary belief that everyone in the US belongs to the “middle class” — was brutally uprooted. The idea that “you are what you make of yourself” began to ring increasingly hollow as a landed aristocracy of financiers, CEOs and lawyer-politicians gradually began to take away the last-remaining opportunities of “middle class” Americans. Those who had lived the American Dream through a subprime mortgage on their dream house soon realized that the interest payments were extortionary and unaffordable. Those who had lived the American Dream through military service abroad soon realized that they had fought an imperialist war in some godforsaken corner of the planet, allegedly to spread democracy and protect the freedom of their fellow citizens, only to return home and find their houses and their democracy foreclosed upon by Wall Street. Those who had lived the American Dream through college loans soon realized that the dream jobs they had been promised upon graduation were no longer around — and that their student debt effectively enslaved them to a horribly underpaying job far below their actual skill levels.
A friend of mine in Seattle, who holds double major in political science and international law and who speaks fluent Italian and Japanese, literally ended up flipping burgers to repay his student loan. He had to postpone marrying his high school sweetheart for many years just because they couldn’t afford the wedding or a place of their own. He was the lucky one: at least he had a job and a girl! Another friend, an extremely smart young woman who did student exchanges to two renowned foreign universities and received a partial scholarship for a PhD in Philosophy at the New School in New York, suddenly saw her partial scholarship being revoked as the crisis struck. Meanwhile, her college loan and the additional loan she took out for the first year of postgrad still had to be paid, so she ended up dancing in a men’s club to be able to pay her bills and service her debt. Waiting tables simply didn’t make enough money, and the bank was threatening to seize her mother’s assets (including her trailer home) in compensation for her looming default, so she had no other choice. This extreme case highlights the fact that the profound injustice of today’s “debt crisis” (which is in reality just an elaborate state-enforced wealth extraction campaign to ensure full repayment for powerful creditors) is not far from the system of debt peonage that predominated in ancient Greece or Mesopotamia.
So “what was remarkable,” about Occupy Wall Street, Graeber points out in The Nation, “wasn’t so much the fact that the camp began to fill with so many debt refugees, but how much of their plea resonated across the political spectrum.” Indeed, the movement’s slogan — “We Are the 99%“, itself a stroke of genius from Graeber and a small group of co-organizers — helped to radically re-draw the class lines in American society. Whereas previously virtually everyone had considered themselves part of the “middle class”, and popular anger had been turned mostly against upper-middle class Liberals and members of the so-called “creative class”, the 99% slogan helped to pinpoint the exact nature of the problem: a tiny elite of creditors was living parasitically off the vast majority of Americans. And financialized capitalism, dependent as it is on the debt-based model of consumerism, simply couldn’t survive without the active participation of the state in a process of wealth extraction from the productive classes — the 99%. Blue collar or white collar; student or pensioner; black, white, Latino or Asian — it no longer mattered what side of the divide you were on: as long as you were dependent on someone else to pay you these increasingly shittier wages (and on the bank to help supplement those shitty stagnant wages with additional loans), you were the 99%. As Graeber put it, “Something clearly had changed. We had come to see ourselves as members of the same indebted class.”
The Delegitimization of Democratic Institutions
In addition to underestimating the immense popular indignation about debt, I had completely misjudged the widespread disillusionment in the US with the established avenues of political action. The Obama election campaign had managed to mobilize millions of young liberals in a kind of quasi-grassroots campaign that, on a superficial level, presented itself like an electoral insurrection of the American Left against eight dark years of neoconservatism under Bush. Obama’s election campaign, replete with its “Hope” poster in the Soviet tradition of Socialist Realism, almost made it look like America had just elected its most left-wing President ever. Obviously, nothing could be further from the truth. But the sheer depth of the sense of disappointment with this fact had taken me by surprise. The hegemony was already crumbling.
The fact that Obama hadn’t just failed to take on the powerful interests of Wall Street but was actively catering towards them quietly radicalized a generation of Americans. If even Obama, the candidate of hope and change, couldn’t put an end to corruption and corporate collusion in Washington, what hope was there for the “democratic” system? Obama’s “no strings attached” bailout of Wall Street was simply the last straw in a process of delegitimation spanning over three decades — from the dramatic degulation of Wall Street under Reagan’s first neoliberal government to Wall Street poster boys Robert Rubin and Larry Summers and the abolition of the Glass-Steagal Act under Clinton; and from the gargantuan Wall Street bailout of former Goldman Sachs CEO and Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson under Bush Jr, to the return of Larry Summers in the Obama administration and the President’s slavish signature under the farcical Dodd-Frank bill, which clearly failed to solve any of the massive underlying problems facing the country. To those still in doubt, Obama’s presidency made it absolutely unmistakable that US “democracy” was no longer a polarized two-party system; the country had long since degraded into a one-party state ruled by what David Harvey has called the Party of Wall Street.
This final delegitimization of the democratic capitalist system helped push countless disillusioned Liberals into the arms of the Radical Left. Rather than helping to reinforce the cultural hegemony of Wall Street ideology, Obama’s failure to regulate the financial sector actually completely undermined this hegemony. Luckily, a committed core of activists with experience in the Global Justice Movement was ready to seize on the historical opportunity. With the images of Tahrir Square still very vivid in the popular imagination; with the guiding principles of anarchism and its focus on leaderless direct action and horizontal decision-making firmly estalished as the political culture of the nascent movement; and with the concrete lessons learned from the Spanish indignados and their months-long occupations in over 60 cities across Spain, Adbusters’ dramatic call-to-action landed on fertile ground.
Police Violence as the Naked Essence of Capitalist Democracy
So when thousands of outraged Americans marched on Wall Street on September 17, 2011, the capitalist state (in this case embodied by the NYPD) suddenly found itself in a bind: now that the near-total hegemony of neoliberal ideology was suddenly being contested by an overwhelming mass of peaceful protesters, how could “order” and “control” be secured? Just as I had feared, the state immediately resorted back to physical force and tried to brutally repress the protests through mass arrests and unwarranted police violence against peaceful protesters. As Antonio Gramsci — the Italian philosopher and Marxist revolutionary who came up with the influential idea of hegemony — already pointed out in one of Mussolini’s prisons in the 1930s, the power of the capitalist state closely mirrors that of Macchiavelli’s image of the centaur: half man, half animal. The ruling class will generally seek to maintain its position of dominance through the human capacity to build consent among different groups in civil society; but when this hegemonic strategy fails, it can always fall back on the more animalistic impulse to maintain its dominance through physical coercion.
Completely contrary to what I had imagined, though, this state coercion — in the form of a dramatically exaggerated police response — rather than pacifying the movement, actually reinvigorated it. Of course I knew that movements tend to benefit from police brutality, both from a moral and a mediatic point of view. As I already pointed out in numerous previous pieces about the crackdown on anti-austerity protesters in Athens and Barcelona, police violence captures the headlines, thereby helping to spread awareness about the protests and portraying protesters in the benevolent position of the “underdog” (even though many mainstream media outlets still somehow manage to spin police violence against peaceful protesters). But there is something more profound at play here. What the heavy-handed police response made clear to Americans was that the state — even our “advanced” and “democratic” one — ultimately rests upon an institutionalized system of violence. As Max Weber pointed out long ago, the state, at rock bottom, is simply a “monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force” (which is precisely why the state is so crucial to the wealth extraction campaign of the banks, which rely on police assistance during foreclosures, for example). When popular consent on the legitimacy of the ruling classes suddenly disappears, even a democratic state is forced to fall back onto its dictatorial foundations. The first great achievement of OWS was therefore to bring to light the physical violence at the heart of capitalist democracy.
The brutal and utterly unjustifiable crackdown on these peaceful protesters therefore greatly boosted the movement’s potential. The rapid online dissemination of videos displaying police violence helped draw in supporters and sympathizers from across the political spectrum. In order to protect Wall Street bankers from the reputational embarassment of having to directly face thousands of peaceful protesters in front of their doorsteps every morning, the state was apparently willing to suspend the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. The 700+ arrests on Brooklyn Bridge; the brutal police assault on Occupy Oakland (and the near-lethal wounding of Iraq veteran Scott Olson); the pepper-spray “incident” at UC Irvine — each and every single one of these iconic events helped to firmly dislodge the hegemonic idea of the US as a truly democratic state in the eyes of its citizens, replacing it with a critical consciousness of the profoundly violent underpinnings of what is, in effect, the world’s most powerful bankocracy.
From Peak to Decline: Did the Movement Die?
On September 17, 2011, we were watching the livestream from New York with several members of the Take The Square collective in a temporary activist headquarters in a Parisian squat. The indignados’ march from Madrid to Brussels was just arriving in the French capital, and we were there to welcome them and paralyze the city in a global day of action against the banks. Along with images from Madrid, Barcelona, London, Berlin and Tel Aviv, we were able to follow the occupation of Zuccotti Park being beamed live onto the wall. It was an exhillerating experience. It felt as if the very Earth upon which we stood was trembling. And this was only just the beginning. A month later, on October 15, millions of people took to the streets of almost 1,000 cities in over 80 countries in a global day of action called for by Spanish indignados and coordinated partly by Take The Square through the United for Global Change platform.
In the month between September 17 and October 15, the Occupy movement had already spread to countless American cities — but the actions of #15O helped the movement go global. Cities and countries that had previously seemed impervious to the “virus” of popular protest emanating from the Arab Spring and debt-stricken Southern Europe suddenly caught fire. In London, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo, Cape Town, Melbourne, and even Tokyo, Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur, hundreds of impromptu protest camps suddenly sprang into existence. Across the world, the horizontal and consensus-based model of decision-making suddenly took hold in a bout of spontaneous self-organization that rapidly politicized and conscientized an entire generation of previously apolitical, apathetic or unaligned citizens. In the protest camps, a new modality of social life briefly came into being, based on direct democracy, direct action and mutual aid. And from Oakland to Wellington, the mainstream media suddenly started talking about the devastating impact of debt on the lives of ordinary, hard-working citizens — and the corrupting impact of the financial sector on the functioning of our democracies.
But then, as late summer finally turned to fall, the global Occupy movement suddenly seemed to disappear almost as fast as it had risen to prominence. Pundits were quick to point the finger and call the verdict: by late November, the consensus in the US and international media was that the Occupy movement had died a quiet death. Protest camps were forcefully evicted across the world — and noone apart from a handful of campers truly seemed to care enough to mobilize against these evictions. At the peak of the protests in Puerta del Sol, a sign on a wall read that “the worst thing that could possibly happen would be a return to normal”. Those passing by Zuccotti Park in New York, City Hall Plaza in Oakland, or St Paul’s Cathedral in London today could be forgiven for thinking that that is exactly what happened. A year after the spectacular siege of the global Wall Street empire, the world appears to have returned to normal. We failed to have the debt cancelled. We failed to defeat the modern bankocracy. We didn’t even manage to realize Adbusters’ reformist call for a Robin Hood Tax. Was the entire Occupy movement really just an elaborate anti-capitalist flashmob? Where the hell did we go wrong?
Occupy as a Victim of its Own Success
The unexpected answer, perhaps, is that the question itself is wrong. Instead of “failing” as a movement, Occupy actually became a victim of the unrealistic expectations generated by its own immense success. Indeed, it was largely its incredible achievement of completely transforming the popular discourse on debt, finance and politics — in the timespan of just a few weeks! — that somehow led to the belief that the movement would continue indefinitely with its massive waves of popular mobilization. But at some point even the most spectacular actions become “normalized” in the eyes of the public, and the corporate media gradually return to their daily routine of reporting on absolute nonsense. The moment fall kicked in and the camps dwindled, the movement disappeared from public view (something that was invariably bound to happen at some point anyway). The pundits immediately took this as an admission of defeat.
While such a superficial analysis was to be expected from right-wing and centrist media outlets like Fox News and the New York Times, the surprising part is that it was taken up by some of the early supporters of the movement — including the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek. In the conclusion to his latest book, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, Zizek concludes that “OWS is losing momentum to such an extent that, in a nice case of the ‘cunning of reason,’ the police cleansing of Zuchotti Park and other sites of the OWS protests cannot but appear as a blessing in disguise.” But what did these skeptics and pessimists expect? A permanent encampment in Zuccotti Park? The overthrow of capitalism as such? The emergence of a proto-Leninist vanguard party? The problem with these kind of vacuous statements about the “failure” or “death” of Occupy is that their metrics of success are entirely unspecified. Leaving aside Adbusters‘ somewhat naive and reformist call for a Robin Hood tax, the NY General Assembly deliberately decided not to formulate any demands, precisely because it does not recognize the legitimacy of those in power.
This extra-parliamentary, post-statist approach to activism turned out to be much more effective than anyone following the movement from its very inception — myself included — had dared to dream. Yet it widened the schism between mainstream commentators (including Zizek) and the movement. Those who relied solely upon the corporate media for their information on the movement were fed the standard diet of confusion, denigration and belittlement so endemic to the pedantic tone but ultimately ill-informed discourse of contemporary journalism. “What do they want?” and “What are their alternatives?” were some of the most annoying questions asked by these mainstream commentators. Wasn’t it obvious to anyone willing to see what we wanted? We want an end to all the brutalities of debt-based financialized capitalism and its attendant corruption of the political process — and we are building the alternative right in front of your fucking eyes!
Creating Alternative Pathways of Political Engagement
From the very beginning, the point of Occupy was to create alternative pathways of political engagement. The occupation of public spaces was first of all an experiment: an experiment in new forms of collective decision-making and leaderless self-organization. In this respect, it would be absurd to claim that mobilizing millions of people around the world in a timespan of just a few weeks — without any centralized form of authority coordinating these actions — somehow constitutes a “failure”, just because that incredible mobilization wasn’t sustained indefinitely. The moon landing wasn’t a failure just because we refused to set up a permanent lunar base. Similarly, Occupy wasn’t a failure just because we refused to set up permanent encampments everywhere.
Secondly, the popular assemblies that were held in a thousand squares across the world served as a crucial lesson for the hundreds of thousands of people who participated in them. We should never underestimate how the Occupy movement radicalized an entire generation of concerned citizens across the US and around the world. Countless people were exposed for the first time in their lives to a genuine post-capitalist Utopia: a mini-society which radically re-constituted the norms, values and rules of social interaction and collective decision-making. Most people who participated in those efforts continue to carry this lesson with them in their everyday lives and actions. As Manolis Glezos, the 89-year-old Greek WWII resistance hero and anti-austerity campaigner told us in an interview in Greece earlier this year, “the occupation of Syntagma Square in Athens was a lesson in direct democracy — and that lesson has now gone beyond us and spread to the neighborhoods around Greece.”
Thirdly, it would be preposterous to claim that we have somehow “returned to normal”. The movement has left things: it has created an immense global network of activists and an elaborate system of communication that lives on through countless citizen-run initiatives. The sudden surge of Occupy-related Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, blogs, magazines and journals has managed to create a vast array of alternative sources of news and analysis outside of the purvey of the corporate media. Just consider ROAR: prior to the Occupy movement, we had a few hundred followers at most. It is almost entirely due to the success of the movement that a website like this now continues to attract a global readership, in the process providing a platform for young writers from Brazil to Japan to share their critical reflections on the crisis of global capitalism and provide alternative ideas for the future of the movement. Similarly, former Occupiers continue to be active in neighborhood assemblies, workplaces, guerrilla gardens, soup kitchens and countless other forums where anti-capitalist resistance can be effectively integrated into everyday life.
Fourthly, Occupy has radically shifted the “limits of the possible”. Just a year ago, it was utterly inconceivable that a mass movement of popular resistance against the capitalist system could emerge in the very heartland of the US empire. Today, after a year of worldwide protests against the neoliberal status quo, we almost take such resistance for granted. Where prior to OWS almost everyone in the US was talking about the deficit, such talk has now largely been obscured by a concern with unemployment. Surely the Republican Party continues to draw on the same old rhetoric, but few serious people still take this kind of talk seriously. Radical America has shown its face, it has roared from the top of its lungs and while the screaming faces may have temporarily retreated from the streets, their echoes continue to reverberate against the walls of power. This vast expansion in the activist “field of possibility” creates new opportunities for direct action that simply did not exist a year ago.
Fifthly, and perhaps most importantly, the Occupy movement has once and for all moved the Left beyond its 20th-century obsession with hierarchical organization and centralized leadership. If anything has died over the course of the past year, it’s not the Occupy movement but the Old Left. With all due respect for our comrades with a more statist or communist orientation, the guiding principles of the Occupy movement (which is, without a doubt, the most spectacular anti-capitalist movement to have emerged in the West since the 1960s) are thoroughly autonomist in nature. As Nozomi Hayase just pointed out in an important ROAR article, and as David Graeber has endlessly emphasized, the spirit of OWS can be traced back directly to that of the Global Justice Movement and the many anarchist-inspired mass movements that came before it. The emphasis on spontaneous self-organization, the commitment to leaderless and horizontal forms of decision-making, and the embrace of radical direct action (defined by Graeber as “acting as if one is already free”) helps to make the movement as such a living experiment in direct democracy. Labor unions and political parties were left playing catch-up as the people marched miles ahead — without any need for leaders whatsoever.
Beyond Occupy: What’s in a Name?
But all is not rosy on the Occupy front. If the movement made one strategic mistake it must have been in coining its name. While the Adbusters marketing behind OWS was brilliant (and its poster of the ballerina on top of the bull truly epic), it is always extremely dangerous to link a movement too closely to its form of action, which is by its very definition transitory. The transition of the movement from one course of action to another can therefore be taken to signify its demise rather than its transformation. This seems to be the image that OWS is currently struggling with — an issue that was neatly avoided by the Spanish indignados in two ways. First of all, the Spanish movement simply goes by multiple names, each referring to different levels of action and organization within the movement: the date of a major rally on which the protests started (15-M, for the 15th of May); the basic goal that everyone in the movement agrees is at the core of the struggle (Democracia Real YA!, or Real Democracy Now!); the popular mood that gave rise to the movement in the first place (los indignados, or the indignant); and, finally, the form of direct action taken after the initial rally of May 15 (Toma La Plaza, or Take The Square).
Secondly, in Madrid, the indignados had the brains and dignity to clear their protest camp at Puerta del Sol before it began losing its momentum. That way, the collective spirit of the popular assembly at Sol realized, the authorities would never be able to claim victory over the movement by letting it die out and eventually evacuating the remaining protesters from the square. It would also never suffer the indignity suffered by the camps in New York, Athens, Amsterdam and countless other cities, where the protest camp ended up being populated by tents without any people in them. Most importantly, however, moving away from Sol allowed the Spanish movement to decentralize into the neighborhoods — where, as Marta Sanchez has repeatedly pointed out for ROAR, an incredible amount of activity now takes place below the radar of the authorities and the corporate media.
In an interview for the first ROAR documentary on the Greek anti-austerity movement, Niki, a 19-year-old activist who participated in both the occupation of Syntagma Square and the occupation of Puerta del Sol, pointed out that “this was just a method we used; especially occupying a square with tents — it’s just a method. By itself it cannot change the world.” Similarly, Maria, who was one of the key organizers of the Syntagma multimedia team, admitted that the occupation of the square didn’t change the political equation in Greece as such. After the brutal police crackdown of June 28-29, the austerity memorandum was still voted through Parliament. The economic situation continues to deteriorate and the Greek people continue to suffer. But while some in the square held “the naive belief” that they could simply overthrow the austerity memorandum, Maria pointed out that for many activists in Syntagma that was not even the goal. The goal of the occupation was much more radical than debt cancellation alone: it was to create a new form of political life. “If there is a difference,” Maria maintained, “it is in the will actually, the will to participate.” What the “unsuccessful” occupation of Syntagma achieved — and what the worldwide Occupy movement has done in similar fashion — was therefore to help create a new political subjectivity among those who were there in the assemblies; a subjectivity revolving precisely around their identity as participants in a co-creative process, as opposed to the pacified and reified role of the voter in representative democracy.
Liberating Ourselves from Debt and Bankocracy
This brings us to a fundamentally different vision of what the future of a global people’s movement against capitalism, debt and bankocracy could look like. The Occupy movement is not, never was, and never will be about an occupation — this movement was always about liberation. At a certain level, the idea of a popular occupation invokes the image of a protest. The time has come for the movement to move beyond protest. We know the political class is rotten from within. We know the institutions of capitalist democracy are fundamentally staged against anti-capitalist ideas and interests (or, as George Carlin put it, “the table is tilted; the game is rigged”). We know that Congress and the White House have long since been bought and sold by Wall Street. And we know that this state of affairs can only be ended in one of two ways: either by seizing state power (again, good luck with that!) or by liberating public spaces that operate outside of Wall Street’s sphere of influence altogether. Such spaces are rare (if not non-existent), so rather than finding them somewhere on a farm in the countryside or on a small island in the Caribbean, we should go out and create them for ourselves — within the very cracks of the capitalist system.
Think of all the houses that are currently standing empty — and all the families who are currently without homes. Add one and one together and you start squatting. It’s been done forever. But as a mass movement you can take squatting to a whole new level. You can do what they’ve already done in Madrid, London and Oakland: liberate unused former bank headquarters or other bank property, dedicate experienced squatters to the defense of the building, and provide the space to homeless families. Or think of all those who are currently unemployed — an army of millions of them: Marx called them the reserve army of labor – and then think of all the foreclosed factories, workshops and small businesses. Add one and one together and you start producing. Like they did in Argentina during its crisis in the early 2000s, when laid-off workers returned to take back their factories and ran them as worked-owned cooperatives without capitalists — a phenomenon brilliantly displayed in Naomi Klein’s documentary The Take. The point is that there are ways of engaging in direct action that can radically disturb the very foundation and flow of the capitalist system, but that don’t involve the type of childish dependency on a political class that seems both unwilling and unable to bring about change.
The real point of our movement is to liberate debtors from the shackles of debt; to liberate workers from the uncertainty and exploitation of wage labor; to liberate public spaces from the persistent drive towards enclosure; and to liberate democracy from the sham of political representation and the claws of corporate control. If the government is unwilling or unable to do that for us, we will have to do it for ourselves. By the same token, we will need to liberate the internet from the relentless drive towards monopolization and censorship, while liberating our culture and education system from the commodification of art and knowledge and the assault on the creative commons. Similarly, we will need to liberate our environment from the destructive powers of the bio-industry, the extractive logic of accumulation and the wasteful nature of pointless debt-driven consumerism. We will need to liberate our bodies from of the biopower of the pharmaceutical industry and liberate our relationship with our families and friends from the ticking of the clock and the terror of our agendas. But perhaps most importantly, we need to liberate our minds from the subtle thought-control of late capitalist ideology, replete with its reformist tendencies towards “Green”, “conscious” and “fair trade” consumerism and the great farce of neo-Keynesian deficit spending, all of which will merely shove the existential problems we face further into the future.
I remember very clearly when I was riding my bike through London a few years ago. It was the spring of 2009, about half a year after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the onset of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. It had been a long, cold and grey winter indeed. But as I spun my wheels through the City on my way to a friend, and I passed all the soulless glass-steel skyscrapers inside which I sometimes imagined zombie bankers in suits eating the brains of their customers for lunch, I suddenly caught sight of something colorful in the middle of the street. It was one of the first sunny days of the year and I saw a ray of light beaming right onto that radical little object that somehow refused to blend in with the lifeless greyness around it. As I drew closer, I suddenly saw what it was: a flower struggling to break out through a crack in the tarmack. It just stood there, oblivious to the concrete jungle of corporate greed and zombie capitalism that was gradually collapsing all around it.
As we get ready for another long, cold and grey winter, let it not be forgotten that spring awaits us at the end, and that no matter how long and deep the darkness may be, one day the sun will shine again. And on that day, after the seeds of our revolution have laid dormant for many a stormy night, let us finally break through the cracks of capitalism like millions of brightly-colored flowers, reaching out for the light that still shines upon us all. Undivided. As one.
Last year we occupied the streets; the time has come liberate them.
Posted: 16 Sep 2012 09:44 AM PDT
From Occupy to Wikileaks, the anarchist spirit of leaderless resistance, decentralized decision-making and autonomous self-governance, is rising.
Photo: Tess Scheflan/Activestills.org
In the fall of 2011, as the autumn leaves were turning color, America’s largest metropolitan city was about to grab the world’s attention. On September 17, the first occupiers descended onto lower Manhattan and marched on the stock exchange, eventually settling in Zuccotti Park. Wall Street, the center of capitalist wealth and power was now under siege. As the word ‘Occupy’ indicated, it was not a one day protest. They were there for the long haul.
“The Occupy movement just lit a spark.” Noam Chomsky spoke of its historical significance as creating something that never existed before and bringing a marginalized discourse to the center. At Zuccotti Park, with a library and kitchen, a cooperative community arose with open spaces for sharing and mutual aid.
In a time of rampant apathy and weakening civic power, the Occupy movement came as a surprise to the status quo. In the wake of the Arab Spring, some may have seen a rising tide on the horizon. From the indignados movement, an iconic picture of Anonymous holding the sign “Nobody Expects the #Spanish Revolution“ went viral around the globe. The spirit of the uprising on Wall Street was similarly unexpected. Once the wave moved beyond the East Coast, Occupy inspired the nation and spread across the world.
Yet, after the winter’s slowdown and the brutal police crackdown of the encampment, the movement lost momentum and the waves of change seemed to be evaporating. Is it true that the Occupy movement is weakening? Are people not yet ready to truly challenge the corporate greed that is exploiting the majority of population for the benefit of 1%? The truth is, the tidal wave of world revolution is far from over. Just because it is less visible doesn’t mean Occupy is dead.
Occupy’s Anarchistic Impulse
Despite police efforts to dismantle it, Occupy has already changed the direction of society. It brought a new impulse that many felt was urgently needed. Mic check and consensus decision-making arose as a new style of communication that offered alternatives to traditional hierarchical modes of communication.
David Graeber — an anarchist, anthropologist and author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years – was one of the activists involved in the creation of the General Assembly (GA) at Zuccotti Park, which was the gestation of the Occupy movement’s model of horizontal decision-making. Graeber has described anarchism as a form of social organization that embraces direct democracy and a form of self-governance without hierarchy. In Graeber’s vision, “anarchism is a commitment to the idea that it would be possible [to build] a society based on principles of self-organization, voluntary association and mutual aid.”
Graeber has shown how anarchist principles are at the very heart of the Occupy Movement, particularly its commitment to the leaderless, consensus-based decision-making model practiced in the GA. He has pointed in particular to the movement’s effort to stay autonomous and independent from the extant institutions of representative democracy. This autonomous spirit manifests itself through direct action, which Graeber characterizes as “the defiant insistence on acting as if one is already free.”
In his Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, Graeber offered a historical context by showing how anarchism inspired the early waves of global resistance against the WTO and IMF and also, prior to this, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) and their revolt in Chiapas. The Zapatistas’ rejection of the idea of seizing power and their creation of an autonomous self-government inspired movements throughout Mexico and the rest of the world.
Graeber deliberately connects the dots, showing how the democratic practice of the Zapatistas led to the “This is what democracy looks like” moment in the Battle of Seattle, providing a glimpse of anarchist-inspired direct action:
A decade later, OWS felt like a revival of the Global Justice Movement and the 1999 uprising in Seattle. Occupy’s spirit of horizontal decision-making and decentralized mobilization emerged spontaneously instead of being the result of centralized coordination or the guidance of a single charismatic leader. The culture of Occupy is a leaderless one, something which profoundly worries the authorities and their Conservative and Liberal intelligentsia in the press.
“If there is no leader, then that’s chaos — that’s anarchy!” exclaimed Stephen Colbert in a mock-debate with Carne Ross, author of The Leaderless Revolution. Colbert pontificated on how he wanted stability and certainty about the next day’s profits. His tongue-in-cheek comment summed up the mainstream response to an imagination that moves beyond the current free-market-winner-takes-all social structure. In response, Ross noted how the status quo is itself profoundly unstable and that it is capitalism which produces chaos.
A similar sentiment arose within the movement itself, creating some internal conflict. Mark Binelli of the Rolling Stone has shed light on the tensions within OWS between those holding firm to anarchist principles by refusing to allow top-down structures of coordination and decision-making. Binelli highlighted the story of Marisa Holmes, a 25-year-old anarchist who had been one of the core organizers of Occupy Wall Street. While facilitating a GA meeting, the well-known figure of Russell Simmons came by Zuccotti Park to participate and wanted to bump up the speakers list. He was not allowed to because this went against the egalitarian form of assembly.
“Anarchy is the Mother of Order”
Historically, the word anarchism has often been portrayed in a negative light for political aims. The term anarchy has long been associated with chaos and violence, depicted as mob rule with no coherent demands except for a chaotic dismantling of the existing social order. With the general state of ignorance surrounding the idea of anarchism, the very word itself has become susceptible to extensive government and media manipulation.
Sean Sheehan, the non-anarchist author of the book Anarchism, has elucidated how anarchism’s re-emergence in Seattle at the end of 1999 helped propel it onto the world stage. With the media focusing on broken Starbucks and Nike windows, sensationalizing the vandalism of a tiny minority, the massive peaceful rallies in downtown Seattle were overshadowed by negative and false media portrayal. The mainstream perversion of the word anarchism was widely disseminated.
Once again, in the rise of Occupy, peaceful protesters were regularly portrayed in this negative light by the press. The media deliberately generated an ungrounded fear of the movement within the general public, despite the fact that its true nature and aims were precisely to peacefully resist the systemic violence and market chaos of contemporary financialized capitalism. After all, as Proudhon always emphasized, the “O” in the anarchist symbol stands for “Order”.
The FBI has also been attempting to brand occupiers with this demonizing image of violent anarchists, a term now treated by the US government as virtually synonymous with the term terrorist. In Chicago, during the NATO summit in May, Chicago police entrapped activists by having FBI informants provide bomb-making materials to them. In Seattle and Portland, agents raided homes, seeking ‘anarchist’ literature and black clothes.
Using eerily similar rhetoric to the manufactured ‘war on terror’ of the Bush-Cheney years, the crafted image of ‘violent anarchists’ has become a pretext for police to justify their militarized abuse of power. Recently, new evidence has surfaced of police infiltration inside the Occupy movement. In Austin last December, an undercover police officer was involved in setting up occupiers with felony charges by distributing devices that were later considered weapons.
A recently disclosed data sheet from a company called Ntepid outlined a secret spying software product called Tartan. It revealed a high level of surveillance on Occupy and other protesters, and clearly displayed the establishment’s cognitive framework of being involved in a witch-hunt on activists. The case study document entitled “Tartan Quantifying Influence” spoke of data mining software meant to enhance ‘national security’, enacted through a kind of political profiling that clearly lumped together all progressive activists with the new bogeyman label of ‘anarchist’ that assumes, a priori, a certainly predisposal towards violent and/or illegal actions. The Tartan data listed the activists of Occupy Oakland, citizen journalism networks like Citizen Radio, and even a PBS station as “influential leaders”.
The concocted image of a ‘black bloc’ using the word anarchist to describe violent street gangs that vandalize store windows is repeatedly drummed into the public mind, as they are told they need to be afraid. But we must ask, what does the word actually mean? Is an anarchist someone who incites violence and wants bring about chaos through the overthrow of ‘democratic’ government? Anarchist Susan Brown (1993) demystified some of these misconceptions:
Sheehan (2003) traces back the word anarchism back to its Greek roots:
DJ Pangburn, editor of the online magazine Death and Taxes, cautioned the public regarding the government’s active promotion of hysteria through the prediction that violent anarchists would disturb the Republican and Democratic Conventions. Pangburn reminded the people of who have historically been the real anarchists:
When current misrepresentations of the word anarchism are dismantled, something more nuanced and vital emerges. Anarchy does not refer to chaos or the absence of rules. It simply indicates a society in which authority is not defined by hierarchy and power over individual autonomy. It calls for the direct participation and the ongoing engagement of citizens with creating an inclusive form of decision-making and an egalitarian form of social organization.
The Occupy movement opened up a space for public discourse that, in the last 20-30 years, has gradually been taken over by corporate actors. In these liberated spaces, a delicate tension arose between the familiar frame of reference for social change such as electoral systems and the more egalitarian and largely unknown or misunderstood idea of anarchism. This new movement has struggled to keep the horizontal space open and growing in the midst of a mental and physical battle that is orchestrated by those in power, desperate to keep things as they are.
People often ask how a society could be organized without centralized control and hierarchy. But once the initial, highly stylized and negative image of anarchism is debunked and the nonviolent and decentralized nature of the model is understood, some might still feel that the world imagined by these free thinkers is simply impossible or unrealistic. And yet the core principles that anarchists try to bring about in society already exist all around us in our everyday lives.
As we move deeper into the new millennium, many sensse that historical social change is imminent and are excitedly imagining a different world. The truth may be that inwardly, a revolution has already taken place and people’s perception of the world and each other has fundamentally changed. It is a revolution of consciousness brought about in great part by the internet, an inherently decentralized communication platform that has led to a networked revolt.
The very existence of the internet signifies a triumph of connectivity over isolation, free flow over the control of information, and sharing over ownership. Before the Occupy movement emerged in the streets, squares and parks of the world, millions already occupied the global square of the internet. The miniature culture based on egalitarian ways of collaboration that blossomed in the early stages of Occupy, had already been thriving on the web for many years.
This is the generation of the internet, connected to a world that is now just a click away; a generation that saw its reality captured in the metaphors and images of the Wachowski brothers’ film, The Matrix. As Morpheus explained to Neo:
Many might have seen in Neo their own struggles. The Matrix that he was born into is much like the modern corporate state we all live in, where the biopower of commercial interests has taken over so much of our lives and torn the delicate interconnectedness out of the fabric of life itself. Intellectual property rights are used to protect and promote the hegemony of Western market values. Corporations like Monsanto genetically modify and attempt to control life itself. Trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) are all part of an artificially-made world order in which a tiny minority quite literally feeds parasitically off the vast majority of humanity.
Just like Neo, we have already taken the red pill and chose not to go back to ‘reality’. By plugging into a universal online network, each and every culture has collectively gone through a kind of virtual rite of passage without realizing what they were getting into — or just how deep the rabbit hole might go.
From screen to screen across the vast internet, the centralized structures of outer society are rapidly melting away. Here is a world free from traditional boundaries and rules. In the digital space, this new field of pure potential is paved with online connections and shared visions among human beings from all corners of the globe.
At first, this digital space appeared as a lawless Wild Wild West without borders. Nobody owned the Internet. It was a field of potential that could evolve in countless unknown directions.
Over time, digital pioneers created their own rules of coding and programming that stretched traditional boundaries and limitations. In this early stage, computer programmers were like the first settlers of an online borderless land. Richard Stallman, the programmer and cyber-guru, worked with other computer-savvy fellows to develop a set of principles through which new forms of coding could be designed to ensure that the digital commons stayed open. Stallman later instigated the Free Software Movement to maintain a stream of source code outside of the realm of proprietary licenses.
Stallman described free software as that which users develop and operate without restrictions other than keeping it free of propriety. It was created to respect the rights of developers and users to maintain control, both individually and collectively, over the invention and improvement of software that cannot be locked-down by vested interests. The goal is to fight against surveillance, digital restrictions management (DRM) and backdoors activities that serve private interests by making changes to a program or installing intentionally malicious software.
What drove Stallman’s endeavor was part of the so-called ‘Hacker Ethics’ – the commitment to unlimited access to computers and internet, free flow of information and a general sense of mistrust of authority. These hacker ethics are fundamentally anarchistic in their commitment to decentralization and in their deeply anti-authoritarian views.
Stallman’s work influenced individuals like Julian Assange of Wikileaks, especially through his association with a group known as the Cypherpunks, which originated with an electronic mailing list set up to tackle the challenges of internet security and the development of cryptography.
Episode 8 and Episode 9 of Assange’s syndicated interview show, The World Tomorrow, focused on three of the seminal figures of the Cypherpunks: Andy Müller-Maguhn, member of the German hacker association Chaos Computer Club; Jérémie Zimmermann, co-founder of the Paris-based group La Quadrature du Net; and Jacob Appelbaum, American independent computer security researcher and activist working on the Tor project. Together they explored a wide range of cyber-activities such as online threats, internet privacy, censorship bills, repressive anti-piracy laws, and the future of the internet as such.
As a result of the sophisticated discourse that emerged from the information revolution, unique philosophical views arose on the meaning of freedom, forms of governance, and the individual’s relationship to society more generally. In Episode 8 of his show, Assange described how Cypherpunks worked to provide the cryptographic tools with which one can independently and effectively challenge government interference, to help people take control their own lives.
In Episode 9, Jérémie Zimmermann spoke about the recent tendency towards centralization in cyberspace and showed how censorship and privacy issues are really about exploitation of people’s power:
The Cypherpunks were like pioneers of the open internet model that works to preserve freedom online. It is interesting to find so many anarchistic principles at work in their actions. One thing that guided the Cypherpunks is an ethos of independent control of networks and a general distrust of governments, as well as the value of individual privacy and freedom. The methods developed to secure these values were inherently non-violent. By expanding the laws of mathematics, these cyber-activists developed encrypted code that no level of state violence could break.
In the process, these frontier hacktivists inspired and empowered an entire generation. Jacob Applebaum talked about how the Cypherpunks radicalized and empowered people with the idea of open software:
This trend continues. In August, the idea of CryptoParties was born from a Twitter discussion. A Wiki-page was set up recently that defines CryptoParties as “Interested parties with computers and the desire to learn to use the most basic crypto programs. CryptoParties are free to attend and are commercially non-aligned.”
Asher Wolf, an Australia-based privacy activist who played a key role in its inception, described how CryptoParties came about: “A lot of us missed out on Cypherpunk (an electronic technical mailing list) in the nineties, and we hope to create a new entry pathway into cryptography” (as cited in SC magazine, Sept, 4, 2012). Two weeks after the term was coined, CryptoParties found their way all around the world. From one movement to another, this anarchist spirit revealed its diversity, crossing generations and boundaries.
Anarchy in Action
Just as the Occupy movement was initiated by anarchists, the social habitat of networking in cyberspace appears to have been inspired by this same spirit. Creative manifestations of anarchy-in-action are found everywhere online. Without even knowing it, millions of people are already participating in this flow.
The Open Source Movement, an offshoot of the Free Software Movement, emerged to promote the collaborative production and free dissemination of information. Examples of important manifestations of Open Source Software that have benefited millions of people are projects like Linux, the online encyclopedia Wikipedia and web browser Mozilla.
Wikipedia is unprecedented as a space where everyone can participate in developing the foundation of historical knowledge. Through voluntary collaborative processes, there emerge a horizontal surge of creativity directed toward a common goal with no personal profit motive. This collaborative action of Wikipedia evolved and inspired many different movements such as crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding used to fund other non-profit projects.
Similarly, social media links people together with the spirit of voluntary association and mutual aid. Instant information sharing and live-streams weave people in a network of citizen-led news media. This is quickly becoming a participatory process of understanding the world as it unfolds. People tweet and re-tweet, post and share, modifying the original message, correcting errors before they are reported as fact. The advent of social media, with videos and photos is empowering people to bring out their creativity and collaborate for what they care about.
As a result, communication flows beyond borders and people have access to multiple perspectives on unfolding events. Mathew Ingram, a senior writer with GigaOM opined how this development “has already become a real-time newswire for many, a source of breaking news and commentary on live events”. The exploding popularity of online networks in this anarchic spirit is quickly replacing traditional print media and becoming the new global “Fourth Estate“.
As noted earlier, anarchism is often associated with chaos and lawlessness, but it does not mean lack of order, nor does it oppose all forms of governance. Those who cherish the idea of anarchy simply oppose the concept of domination; one particular person, political or religious view taking a centralized position of authority. Peer-to-peer networks are a perfect expression of this anarchist stance. They bypass centralized control of information and transform social relationships that in the past have typically been formed through hierarchy of class and professions. These peer-to-peer based connections are unprecedented in that they circumvent built-in filters in the flow of information.
The peer-to-peer communication model is developing as a primary mode of working with the Internet, where each person’s free choice to become a bridge helps to build communication avenues that are so decentralized that they are virtually impossible to censor. They are meshed together, computer to computer, creating new pathways through which freedom and autonomy can flow.
Peer-to-peer trends are implemented in many aspects of daily life. Circumventing the traditional centralized banking system, people at the grassroots level are increasingly engaging in peer-to-peer lending. Michael Bauwens, creator of the Foundation for P2P Alternatives has revealed how a new form of innovation is emerging out of distributed peer-to-peer networks. He explained how P2P production is itself a byproduct of networked communities.
Unlike the corporate model of internally funded research and development (R&D), this P2P process fully engages individuals and often has better results as it gives them more access to the production process and more influence on the purpose and outcome. He noted how P2P production extends to direct action and participation, bringing the notion of democracy beyond a vague promise in the political realm to every aspect of our daily lives. With peer lending and production, why not create a peer-to-peer currency? Bitcoin, digital money, is one answer to this call.
The creation of this new digital currency is at its very core an anarchistic initiative, as it circumvents the centralized authority of central banks and the monopolized debt-based banking system. Morgen E. Peck summed up the way Bitcoin works as follows:
Recently, Bitcoin gained public attention through its usage in combating the ongoing financial blockade of Wikileaks. Forbes reported that following the massive release of US diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks, Bank of America, VISA, MasterCard, PayPal and Western Union stopped processing transactions to them. In spite of this banking blockade, Wikileaks has gained substantial Bitcoin donations. This is a good example of the effective use of open source digital currency in counteracting private centralized monetary control and economic censorship. Although it still requires some improvements, such as securing real anonymity, BitCoin is a successful and inherently anarchistic concept aimed at reshaping economic interactions and providing decentralized avenues of exchange and money-creation.
Below the surface of the internet, a rapid transformation is underway. Peer-to-peer connections in cyberspace found their way onto the streets. With Mic Checks and General Assemblies, the people are coming together to create a circle. By looking each other in the eyes, they find one another anew as peers, equal partners and fellow citizens. It is not politicians and self-proclaimed experts, but peers — ordinary fellow citizens — that we have come to trust.
Wherever two or more gather in the light of cooperation, there is the anarchistic spirit. This is the path of voluntary association and mutual aid where an unmediated partnership is born. Now, at last, we find ourselves at the beginning of a resurgence of the anarchist spirit.
Continued in Part II
This artile was distributed under Creative Commons license by our comrades at the Associated Whistleblower Press.
Brown, S. L. (1993). The politics of individualism: liberalism, liberal feminism and anarchism. New York: Black Rose.
Graeber, D. (2004). Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.
Sheehan, S. M. (2003). Anarchism. London: Reaktion Books.