Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Anarchist DNA of Occupy

I was invited to contribute to the discussion on the #Occupy movement, from an anarchist perspective for the American Sociological Association journal, Contexts. The short essay appears in the Spring 2012 issue Other contributors to the #Occupy discussion include Ruth Milkman, Benjamin Barber, Mohammed Bamyeh, William Julius Wilson, and Deborah Gould.

Occupy has drawn inspiration from many of 2011’s insurrectionary episodes, including Egypt’s Tahrir Square, Spain’s indignatos, and Puerto Rico’s student strikes. Also important has been Latin America’s horizontalism and zapatismo. But, the most immediate inspiration for Occupy is anarchism. This should surprise only the oblivious: many activists have noticed that American youth are influenced by anarchism more than by Marxism. The first manifestation of this influence is the emphasis upon anti-authoritarianism. There are no leaders (or, more radically, everyone is a leader). Anti-authoritarianism gives Occupy a strength and resilience not enjoyed by most movements. Like a multi-headed hydra, when Occupy’s enemies attempt to chop-off one head — arrest a certain individual — others take their place. No one is in a position to order anyone else around — everyone must participate in all decisions. Corporate media simply can’t understand this paradigm and it’s frustrated by Occupy’s disavowal of spokespersons.

Occupy’s next debt to anarchism is a procedural structure and aesthetic. For OWS, direct, participatory democracy is the order of the day. Lacking official leaders, consensus-building is the only feasible option. Every General Assembly (GA) attendee must be able to accept a decision. The task is assisted by multiple working-groups that meet regularly to discuss nitty-gritty issues. Facilitation guarantees that everyone’s voice is heard, and hand-gestures visually involve everyone. These techniques have popped-up in countless post-1960s anarchist projects. The results of this process can be seen in leaflets circulated at Occupy Oakland, characterizing several of the GA decisions as anarchistic in character: rejection of government endorsements and political parties, equal treatment of GA speakers, preventing police from entering the encampment, and solidarity with striking workers and students.

The movement’s militancy derives from its name. In contrast to other movements, Occupy attempts to reclaim public space, to confront others with its presence, and to stay in the news. Its impatience with polite lobbying or voting has an anarchist flair. Historically, anarchists have encouraged citizens to seize (and decentralize) political power, peasants to occupy private estates and collectivize them, and workers to take over the means of production. Occupy plays with anarchist notions of expropriation and seizing ill-gotten property for individual and collective needs.

How does Occupy aim to accomplish such goals? Anarchists participating in the movement seek to keep it radical, pragmatic, and uncontrollable by authorities. Occupy Wall Street’s active militancy ensures this: daily protest marches and actions attempt to create constant disruption of business-as-usual, while remaining unpredictable. The movement’s prefiguration attempts to (as advocated by the Industrial Workers of the World) create a new world in the shell of the old. Occupiers provide for all their own needs. Instead of entrusting one’s life and daily requirements to corporations or the state, people do it themselves: creating sleeping arrangements, free meals, classes and workshops, a multi-thousand volume library, sanitation, first aid, and security. In this respect, the Occupy movement is utopian and practical — a better world can be created, not in the distant future, but right now.

Occupy has already enjoyed many victories, convincing countless people of the potential for radical social change. The mass media is now running stories on capitalism, social inequality, and direct democracy. Someone ought to thank Occupy for accomplishing in a few short months what sociologists have been unable to achieve over decades.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Activist Burn-Out

(an essay from about eight years ago)

The question of counteracting activist burnout is always on my mind and I've struggled with it for many years and assume I'll continue to struggle with it. Here are a few thoughts about what we can do about it.

If you view (as I do) activism as organizing outside of the institutional system of politics, the cards are already stacked against us, because we are challenging that system. Therefore there is more resistance within the system and by other citizens who are socialized to not see problems.

We sometimes get so focused on the need for political change that we neglect other important things (both to social movements and ourselves), such as the social aspect. Having more potlucks, picnics, bowling and dancing parties, movie nights, bar-hopping, etc. can help solidify relationships between activists and help let-off steam. It's much better to fight for a better future with friends you like, admire, and respect than with strangers.

Middle-class privilege (which I grew up with) seems to suggest to us (especially for those of us who are also White men) that if we just try hard enough we can accomplish anything. Thus, we misunderstand the reality that change is VERY HARD and a lifetime struggle sometimes. If you talk to African-American organizers they have a very long-term vision, because they know the going isn't always easy. Having the patience to do things right and to realize that the world ain't gonna change just because we try real hard can help us to pace our expectations.

We go through basic life changes. This is especially true for college activists, who have the “free time” (I use this term with much reluctance) to be active, yet once they graduate, a full-time job and other obligations gets in the way. For those who get married and/or start families, obligations and commitments grow even more. We can try to make our events family/child friendly in order to encourage participation from those in their 30s and 40s.

Mass media makes every effort it can to denigrate political activism that doesn't fit with the ideology of its editors, producers, and owners. Don't believe me? Read anything by Ben Bagdikian, Norman Solomon, Robert McChesney, or Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman's “Manufacturing Consent”. Mass media makes protesters look stupid, ill-informed, childish, worthless, ineffective, and counterproductive. Whenever there is a clash between demonstrators and police, media focuses (90% of the time) upon that clash instead of the reasons that caused the protest, and almost always slants the story to provoke sympathy for the police instead of the demonstrators (which invariably is almost always backwards). One possible solution: Become the media!

Sad as it is to admit it, some activists are megalomaniacs, and, although they feign to be egalitarian, they are dictators at heart. This is a very small minority, of course, but these attention-grabbers ruin it for everyone else. These people have to get put in check. If that can't be democratic, get lots of people together to call them on their crap.

This problem is compounded by how some organizations operate in very undemocratic ways, that are disempowering to those who wish to be involved. Instead of using consensus decision making, the group votes between two marginal options that most members had little role in formulating or discussing. This reason alone causes many people to drop out entirely because they don't think their opinions are valued by the group. If we're activists who are serious about the causes we struggle for, we should also be serious about the means we use towards that struggle. This also means fighting sexual and racial marginalization in groups. White men (like me) need to shut the fuck up, and listen to women and people of color more often....

.... just like I'm going to do now.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Electoral Action Ain't Democracy

[Another oldie-but-goody from 2003 that I like to re-read every American election year (or as Chaz Bufe called it, "hell").]

It should be a given that voting isn't the be-all and end-all of democracy. If people think that walking into a little booth once every year (or every four years) and poking a few holes in some pieces of paper is the pinnacle of modern democracy, they are selling themselves-- and the idea of democracy-- short.

There are many avenues for people to act politically, many of which can be conducive to the practice of democracy. People can join block clubs, PTAs (Parent-Teacher Associations), social and economic justice organizations. They can contribute financially to organizations that encourage public participation-- League of Women Voters, NAACP, American Friends Service Committee, United Way, etc.-- or they can volunteer their time toward that end. They can directly lobby politicians, protest against or for policy, do petition campaigns, conduct public referendums, organize town hall meetings, and so on.

But, for most, voting is enough. That's sad, too, because it's just so EASY. Democracy, by it's very nature is very un-easy. It's tough, difficult, grueling, challenging, contentious, conflictory, and very engaging. Anyone who shows you a simple solution to a complex problem like democracy or public governance of a complex society should immediately be distrusted. Whether a society's decision making process is formed through majority rule, proportional representation, utter dictatorship, or consensus, democracy is always a messy affair.

Voting often hinges upon the selection of the better of two evils-- two mediocre (or bad) candidates who are relatively indistinguishable, both rolling in tons of money and dull rhetoric. Traditionally the “good guys”, the Democrats have been aping the Republicans (traditionally the “bad guys”), and have succeeded in proving that they can be just as reactionary and draconian and Right-wing-friendly as the Republicans. They cozy upto corporate power, offer false promises to unions and working people, approve of any “free trade” deal that crosses their desks, fall obediently into line and worship the flag whenever “the President” of the time pushes the country into war.

Helen Keller once mused, “We vote, what does that mean?” In the end, probably not much. Especially on the scale of national elections, there is very little possibility of any person or even bloc influencing a presidential candidate. And, of course, since Presidents are kings that are voted for, it's probably not even desirable to influence them.

On the other hand, though, voting at local elections can really make a differences, especially with citizen-run campaigns to reform corrupt city governments or to throw reactionaries and fat-cats out of office. Also, although I cringe to think of the ramifications: voting is the easiest act of political activity and can in a small way play a role. It also can be an in-road to talking to others about more important matters.

For instance, talking about issues instead of candidates is vital. We have a serious hero worship fetish in this country, and seem to prop all our hopes upon one individual or a small group of individuals. In the process, we forget that we are empowered people! We can make a difference beyond voting for candidates. Speaking about issues is the best way to avoid personality politics. Who gives a shit whose hair is better (or more real) or who can give the best sound bite-- where do they stand on the death penalty? Better yet, where does America really stand on the death penalty? What can citizens do to remove it from the face of society?

Thus, although it's important not to fetishize voting, registering to vote can be important: it places people in jury pools. Presently, pools tend to be composed of middle- and upper-class voters, who tend to be White. Since the vast majority of people arrested for crimes in this country are NOT, it is important that poorer people and people of color are registered so they can truly be “peers” and try those arrested. Otherwise, we'll likely continue in a shameful (and classist and racist) trajectory that will resemble slave lynchings more than criminal trials.

Enfranchising non-Whites and the poor is important. But, it's equally important to re-enfranchise ex-felons who are trying to reintegrate themselves into society. They need a voice, and-- as pitiful a voice as voting offers-- it can be an affirmation for a sizable sector of the country. Also, a large voting block of cons would cause politicians to (hopefully) stop all their “law and order” grandstanding crap.

I believe in a "diversity of tactics" to challenge and change the current political system. That means the whole spectrum of easy/less-meaningful (voting) to the harder/more-meaningful (movement building) are important and should be supported. I'm not goin g to criticize anyone who does either of these things or anything in the middle. It takes all kinds of resistance to bring powerful institutions to their knees and we have to appreciate this reality.

Even though I will continue to vote in elections, I believe the whole thing to be a massive racket of distraction. I see the energy being sapped by the anti-war movement into the campaigns for Democratic “hopefuls” Howard Dean or Dennis Kucinch. Do these individuals really stand a chance of winning? Even if they were to be nominated and win the presidency, they would still face the overpowering institutions of the Pentagon, Defense Department, Armed Forces, defense contractors, and capitalism itself. They'd be lucky if they weren't assassinated within their first month in office. But, a strong anti-war movement could change the tenor of the country, force the power-elite into war-mongering retreat.

The rivers of money that flow, unseen through polling places and the halls of Washington, D.C. lead me to one sure-fire long-term goal. Direct action and non-electoral organizing. I won't discard voting, but I won't trust it as my savior-- because it isn't. Using the tactics of subversion, civil disobedience, intervention, economic action, and insurrection are more useful and fulfilling. So many opportunities to make a difference and become empowered depend on people believing that democracy is a hard game to play... and no one should play it for you. We need to divorce ourselves from the notion of easy, quick-fix solutions and realize that change has to start with ourselves.