Friday, September 28, 2012

It's Failure To Sell Week: Pre-figurative Politics and Occupy

This week, I've failed to sell a bunch of articles! While that may help keep food off of my family, what it does mean is that this one, a piece about S17 and the possibilities of pre-figurative protest, is old enough to be unsellable. So what? So here it is, in its entirety, for you jerks.
It is impossibly clear that the state will bring all available force to bear against the reestablishment of an Occupy encampment. A camp will not happen again in America, at least not for years. We probably just wont have one. Is that why we insist on nostaligizing them, on making them seem as though they were the most ‘positive’ part of Occupy? Now that they are gone (thanks to a federally coordinated sweep of the camps by post-9/11 super-militarized municipal police forces, not some tactical failing of Occupy), it’s important to seriously evaulate the power of the camps, and to criticize some spurious claims made about them, in order to be free of the worst parts of their legacy.

When discussing Occupy, there is an almost automatic distinction made (among radical, liberal, and reactionary commentators alike) between the ‘prefigurative’ aspects of the movement, the parts of the movement which foreshadow the post-revolutionary world, and the critical or negationary aspects: the protests, actions and marches that try to fight the powers that exist. The prefigurative parts of the movement are always understood as the camps, the GAs, and the structures of organization built to maintain them. As David Graeber put it, in an interview with Platypus, Occupy was “trying to create prefigurative spaces in which we can experiment and create the kind of institutional structures that would exist in a society that’s free of the state and capitalism.” [emphasis mine]

There were incredible things about the camp: the feeding and housing of anyone and everyone who came was a tremendous achievement, and giving a place for radicals and protesters to gather, launch actions, meet each other and fight together was deeply valuable. The power of mutual aid, and public spaces where strangers could meet and come together to work on common goals, or where people could be sure to find friends, was truly disruptive, and these things are exactly what we’d hope to see in a world without state or capital. They are also forms of action that require a centralized location, a camp: without one, they will have to be (and are already being, all over the country) re-thought and achieved in different ways, through social centers or more localized neighborhood or workplace associations.

But the GA? It all too quickly became another form of state-craft, an inefficient and ineffective decision making body which lacked the coercion of the state, union or party to actually hold sway over those it claimed to make rulings for. That was still better than if it had had that power, but, in quick order, it became irrelevant and immensely time-consuming. The use of the human-mic at GAs made it basically impossible to have an interesting or serious conversation, turning every comment into a particular form of vulgar speechifying and declaiming, not to mention making everything take four times longer than it had to. The establishment of a permanent facilitation working group meant that the same group of people ended up managing every conversation: while many of them worked hard to remain impartial, most became less and less ‘objective’ and ‘unbiased’, better and better at automatically manipulating the process. Simultaneously, the other working groups, which were suddenly flooded with cash (at one point there was $500,000 in the OWS kitty), proliferated, and did what all groups of people do when arbitrarily given power over resources to dole out to others: they became bureaucracies, intricate, irritating bureaucracies. The introduction of spokescouncil, a formal, managerial fix to a fundamentally ideological and political error, did little to improve the situation.

The institutional and governing structures built in the camp were not pre-figurative at all. In fact, they ended up reproducing statist and capitalist structures of power on a micro-scale. Last summer, we basically copied and pasted General Assemblies from Spain, Greece, and Latin America, where many of us had encountered them. But those places have a longer history of direct democracy, a better understanding of the dynamics of consensus. When I sat in on GAs in Barcelona, no one in the meeting hesitated to speak up if someone was going off topic, to keep things focused: here, we relied altogether too much on facilitators to do that. Of course, no one is born with that knowledge, everyone has to learn how to interact in these situations somewhere, and with practice we could have gotten right, if not for a crucial error: a general assembly is meant mostly as a system for report-backs, to let working groups know what other groups are up to; in Occupy it became a deliberative body through which proposals had to pass. The possibility of basically everyone agreeing on basically everything (a cartoonish understanding of consensus) is a fetish not of anarchists but of the American liberal: we should remember that ‘bipartisan consensus’ has been the Democratic Party’s magic invocation since Reagan.

To see how this played out, we only have to look at S17, last week’s protests celebrating Occupy’s one year anniversary. The morning’s actions were rarely militant, but they were weird, dispersed, and often exciting, spreading out across all of downtown in a way that reoriented the space into a swarming field of struggle. The sensation that every corner held another snake march, sit-in or piece of street theater, coming upon pink graffiti, red confetti and pink balloons wherever you went, the roving groups of protesters and friends, the chop-chop-chop of the helicopters overhead, all contributed to that surreal remaking of an otherwise calcified zone of urban control that has marked many of OWS’ actions.

A GA was called for 6-8PM in Zuccotti, with a march officially planned for 8. Zuccotti had two levels of barricades around it, with only two entrances, staffed by security guards. The park was surrounded by hundreds of police, who put up floodlights as they had during eviction night. The GA continued to argue well past 8 (until 9:30, in fact) about whether or not there should even be a march, despite it being ‘officially’ scheduled. The facilitators, hardly unbiased, clearly did not want the march to happen, and kept extending the GA, reopening procedural questions, inserting themselves into the discussion. By the end of the evening, there was a nasty racial dynamic as well, with people of color again and again calling to march and white facilitators shutting them down. As the futile argument dragged on, most stood in the West end of the park, far away from the GA, smoking cigarettes and being bored. People filed steadily out of Zuccotti, and by the time enough were fed up with the argument, and finally just marched out of the park, consensus unachieved, it was only 150 of the thousand or so left in Zuccotti, frustrated, impatient, and hardly still in the mood to march.

The only part of the day that pre-figured a better world was the morning’s marches. At their best, the wild, chaotic, decentralized actions in the street create a city built around real freedom: one of chance encounters, outbursts of public creativity and joy, with friends around every corner, each block bubbling with life. S17 wasn’t that, of course—there was plenty of silly, boring, and repetitive action, lots of angry loitering and aimless wandering around. But it prefigured that city of possibilities. Opening the city to new forms of creativity, action, sociality and movement is one of the things Occupy has been best at, but also the thing most consistently mis-analyzed. This reorganizing of urban psychogeography is pre-figurative, much more so than GAs, spokescouncils or working groups.

While S17 wasn’t a resounding success (what would that have looked like, anyway?) it put paid to the idea that Occupy is dead and gone. It would be a fool’s errand to predict what the next months will hold, but what they wont have is occupy encampments. Without camps, its twice as foolish to hold GAs, and they have to stop. But we also have to stop describing the camps as the only prefigurative part of the movement and start understanding that transforming the world doesn’t merely happen through governing bodies, formal methods of organization, bureaucracies or even holistic ‘movements’. We’ve lost the camps, but we’ve also lost certain authoritarian forms of psuedo-governance, and that is greatly to our benefit. We don’t need tents to make another world. The city we want to build is right there waiting in the streets. We just have to take it.

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