'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Occupy and the Urgency of Inclusion 

As noted here last month, Pham Binh posted an insightful examination of Occupy as a social movement, acknowledging its achievements while identifying potential weaknesses. For example, consider the following observation:

One of the most important elements that makes Occupy an uprising and not merely a mass movement is its alleged leaderlessness. Of course as Marxists we know that every struggle requires leadership in some form, and Occupy is no exception. The leaders of Occupy are those who put their bodies on the line at the encampments and get deeply involved in the complex, Byzantine decision-making process Occupy uses known as modified consensus. Occupy’s leaders are those who make the proposals at planning meetings, working groups, and General Assemblies (GAs) that attract enough support to determine the uprising’s course of action.

The people leading the uprising are those who are willing to make the biggest sacrifices for it.

Since Occupy is self-organizing and self-led by its most dedicated participants, attempts to make its decision-making process more accessible to those who are not willing or able to dedicate themselves to Occupy 24 hours a day, seven days a week will fall flat. All day, all week, occupy Wall Street! is not just a chant, it is a way of life for Occupy’s de facto leadership.

This reality has affected the class character of encampment participants, who tend to be either what Karl Marx called lumpenproletariat (long-term homeless, hustlers, drug addicts, and others who have fallen through the cracks of the capitalist edifice) or highly educated (white) students, ex-students, and graduate students. The former joined the encampments not just to eat and sleep in a relatively safe place but also because they hope the uprising will win real, meaningful change. The latter tend to dominate Occupy’s convoluted decision-making process and what motivates them is identical to what motivates the lumpenproletarian elements: hope that Occupy will win real, meaningful change. Many of these people are saddled with tremendous amounts of personal debt, have worked two or three part-time jobs simultaneously, or were unable to find work in their field despite their expensive, extensive educations. They were destined to be secure petty bourgeois or well-paid white-collar workers before the ongoing fallout from the 2008 crisis claimed their futures and put their backs against the wall. This is the material reality underpinning the determination of Occupy participants to keep coming back despite repeated arrests, beatings, and setbacks. Their determination is the stuff revolutions are made of.

In other words, Occupy is a social movement that purports to give expression to working class concerns in the absence of working class participation, with the limited exception of Occupy Oakland. Tiny of POOR Magazine in San Francisco describes the ambiguity of the movement for people whose lives are seemingly beyond the comprehension of those involved in Occupy:

Four sets of human arms shot out of the revolving doors of Wells Fargo Bank in downtown San Francisco, while 6 bodies hugged the sides of the building. Po’Lice officers stood at confused attention while customers and downtown workers skirted the perimeter of the Foreclose on Wall Street Rally which included over 2000 people in attendence. Wells Fargo employees stood on the other side of the glass in a collective freeze frame. Every chant by the people sitting at the mouth of the bank was matched with hundreds of echoes repeated by the huge crowd in front of them.

Co-editor of POOR Magazine, Tony Robles and me, both the children of poor workers of color, who never even had enough money to apply, qualify or think of getting a mortgage, much-less any kind of a bank loan, stood there in witness, mouths agape. My mother always joked that our indigenous family was lucky to stay in the cardboard hotels when we traveled and were so poor and herstorically landless that we would have to squat our burial place just to have somewhere to die.

And yet, the power of that moment, even if it wasn’t us or other always landless peoples they were speaking for, I know they were speaking truth to domination. Corporate, Racist, Exclusionary domination that is and has always oppressed so many poor peoples, indigenous peoples and communities of color since the beginning of the Other Occupation of all of the indigenous lands on Turtle Island that continues today.

After today, I am taking all of my money out of Wells Fargo, said Jessie, 81 an elder who stood quietly on the perimeter of the huge crowd with a sign that said simply I am the 99%.

POOR Magazine was in the march on this day, sadly with only three members, we did have four family members but several of our poor parents are houseless and jobless and so our fourth member had his phone cut off the night before and so we couldn’t find each other in the masses of people, and all of our other family members were working one of several jobs and hustles and so they didn’t even have the privilege to be there at all.

At first I was taken by the almost flawless organizing by Bay Area non-profit organizations. From the emcee to the turn-out from group after group, the whole event was wound tightly as a rope on a drum. Each act of civil disobedience, set-off at the mouths of Wells Fargo bank branches, were beautifully orchestrated stages of theatre and action. It was obvious that funded organizations with time and paid staff had organized this event down to the last balloon, slightly like a party we at POOR Magazine had never received an invitation to.

As we left the protest to get our young kids to school on time, Tony and I spoke about the power of the resistance that we had just been part of. I brought up how although I am excited and about all of the issues peoples were speaking and acting on I remain vexed by the fact that as poor peoples of color and indigenous peoples we are constantly in battle, in protest about the genocide and violence perpetrated on us and yet it is a struggle for us to get 50 people to show up for protests, so what is the difference? and what really is our role in all of these resistance occupations as poor peoples of color in struggle who are also in struggle with the occupation of our time due to no-wage and low-wage work, system abuse and ongoing criminalization and why do our resistance movements stay at the margins of what is important to show up for?

For many poor and working class people, Occupy remains on the other side of a window that they can only peer through, much like the Christmas toys and displays at a Union Square department store. So, how can Occupy reach them? How can Occupy provide a place for them that recognizes their experience and empowers them to participate in the creation of a new world? Such questions imply a social enterprise beyond the spectacular successes of Occupy like the Day of Action in Manhattan and the general strike and port shutdown in Oakland. Indeed, the port shutdown on December 12th was a classic instance of the glass being either half empty or half full, depending on one's perspective. The participation of many union members was impressive, and yet, there remains a tension between those associated with the bureaucratized methods of trade unionism and the spontaneity of Occupy activists, as touched upon here and here and here and here.

I have no answers for these questions, except to say that I hope that those involved in Occupy emphasize a flexible, inclusive method of activism, as they have successfully done in many instances, over one that exalts organizational forms. As correctly noted by Pham, Occupy has evolved into a form of organization that effectively excludes many who might otherwise participate, and, even worse, may ultimately result in a predominately middle class orientation over time. One hears echoes of such an outcome from some participants in occupations that see the problem primarily in terms of the need to reimpose the restrictions of the Glass-Steagall Act upon the financial sector, reverse the Citizens United decision so as to curtail the influence of corporate political contributions and get the police under control. It is the willingness of those involved in Occupy Oakland to recognize that there is a material basis for our current distress that makes it so politically appealing, rough edges, missteps and all.

While the port shutdown exposed tensions between unions and Occupy, many of the organizers understood how to effectively overcome them:

By reaching out to and including the voices of rank-and-filers and labor activists, we collaborated with them to build the community picket line, rather than scheming in secret about how to blockade them from going to work. As a result, we were able to weather the attacks in the weeks leading up to the action--a barrage that came not only from the 1 percent and the media, but from union leaders who repeatedly tried to stifle participation in December 12.

The port action committee had a well-organized plan in place for December 12. People in the committee organized picket teams, communications and food distribution. There were teams to plan for speakers and rallies, and to make sure signs and banners were printed and brought to the gates. Organizers were also in close communication with port workers about which terminals had ships and which did not, so we knew which gates to picket.

There was also explicit outreach to talk to self-identified anti-capitalist forces who had declared a march at the same time as the port action--to ask them to agree to the tactics decided for the day.

Ultimately, the proof of these preparations lies in the success of the event itself. Hundreds of people showed up before dawn to put up community pickets before the first shift, and even larger numbers came in the evening. No ILWU members crossed picket lines. Teamsters didn't show up that day, and hundreds of non-unionized truckers stayed away. As for truckers who were at the docks, many showed their support in various ways.

None of that could have been accomplished without the support of workers at the Port of Oakland.

Beyond this, there is the problem of the 24/7 activists. As explained by Bifo in After the Future, there is only one psychological destination for them: burnout and depression. In this, the 24/7 activists of Occupy are mirroring the capitalist, corporate world that they are rebelling against. Just as those who are willing to dedicate their lives in the service of the corporation rise to the highest rungs, to positions like Chief Financial Officer and Chief Executive Officer, those willing to spend their time almost exclusively upon Occupy attain the most influence. Corporate executives are treated by psychiatrists who prescribe them psychotropic medications, while activists probably self-medicate. In both instances, there is the risk of serious impairment of judgment. Bifo asserts that the financial catastrophes of last twenty years may have been partially caused by executives addicted to inhibition reducing drugs like Prozac and Zoloft, drugs that induced them to believe that any risk could be overcome. One wonders if the combination of self-medication and depression among activists is a contributing factor towards selecting confrontation with the police as a political strategy.

Of course, none of this should be construed as a criticism of those who have committed themselves to Occupy and released its revolutionary potential. Rather, it should be considered a warning as to what might happen if the movement does not successfully engage people like Tiny, her husband and others like them who possess an intense desire to change the world in which they live even as they struggle to survive from day to day. Only through such participation can we move beyond a social model that replicates the obsessive, representational qualities of capitalism in a disguised form. Such a utopian aspiration is no easy task, but is worth recalling that capitalism itself was a utopian enterprise, albeit a perverse one, for many centuries. An intensified emphasis upon the daily suffering of people, and an insistence that it be immediately addressed, as opposed to one centered around legalistic agendas based upon the regulation of financial capital and the electoral process, strikes me as essential to such an endeavor. Along these lines, it is worth noting that participants in Occupy Oakland walked the picket line in support of American Licorice workers in Union City.

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