Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Nobody Expects the Paris Commune

A lot of the critical attention being paid to the Occupation movement has to do with its amorphousness and apparent absence of leadership. The lack of clearly articulated demands. Inability to appoint a spokesperson. And that sort of thing.


Well, yes. It's true.

Ezra (Klein) did an interview with David Graeber today for the Washington Post that sort of documents how this thing originated. It's worth a close read. Because it is posted in its entirety at dKos, I will cheerfully repost it in its entirety here.

‘You’re creating a vision of the sort of society you want to have in miniature.'

David Graeber is an anthropologist at Goldsmiths, University of London, and author of ‘Direct Action: An Ethnography’ and 'Debt: The First 5000 Years.' He was also one of the initial organizers of the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protests. And he thinks the people asking for a list of demands are missing the point of the movement quite dramatically. We spoke this morning by phone.

Ezra Klein: So when did your involvement with these protests begin?

David Graeber: July 2nd. That was the first actual meeting. What happened was AdBusters put out this call for these protests. We had heard there was supposed to be a general assembly on July 2nd. So I just showed up. But it was a rally, not an assembly. Some traditional Marxist group had set up stages and megaphones and was making speeches and were planning a march. Acting as if they were already running the whole show. So we said we don’t need to do this. We pulled a small group together and decided to have a real assembly.

So we wandered over to another part of the area and began a meeting and people kept migrating over. But we had a problem because we only had six weeks. AdBusters had already advertised the date to 80,000 people. And their date was a Saturday. You can’t really shut down Wall Street on a Saturday. So we were working under some significant constraints. We assembled 80 or 100 people and formed working groups for outreach, process, so forth and so on. And we began meeting every week.

One thing that helped a lot was a smattering of people from Spain and Greece and Tunisia who had been doing this sort of thing more recently. They explained that the model that seemed to work was to take something that seemed to be public space, reclaim it, and build up an organization headquarters around that from which you can begin doing other things.

EK: This movement is organized rather differently than most protest movements. There isn’t really a list of demands, or goals, or even much of an identifiable leadership. But if I understand you correctly, that’s sort of the point.

DG: It’s very similar to the globalization movement. You see the same criticisms in the press. It’s a bunch of kids who don’t know economics and only know what they’re against. But there’s a reason for that. it’s pre-figurative, so to speak. You’re creating a vision of the sort of society you want to have in miniature. And it’s a way of juxtaposing yourself against these powerful, undemocratic forces you’re protesting. If you make demands, you’re saying, in a way, that you’re asking the people in power and the existing institutions to do something different. And one reason people have been hesitant to do that is they see these institutions as the problem.

EK: So if you say, for instance, that you want a tax on Wall Street and then you’ll be happy, you’re implicitly saying that you’re willing to be happy with a slightly modified version of the current system.

DG: Right. The tax on Wall Street will go to people controlled by Wall Street.

EK: By which you mean government.

DG: Yes. So we are keeping it open-ended. In a way, what we want is to create spaces where people can think about questions like that. In New York, according to law, any unpermitted assembly of more than 12 people is illegal in New York. Space itself is not an openly available resource. But the one resource that isn’t scarce is smart people with ideas. So we’re trying to reframe things away from the rhetoric of demands to a questions of visons and solutions. Now how that translates into actual social change is an interesting question. One way this has been done elsewhere is you have local initiatives that come out of the local assemblies.

EK: It also seems that the tradeoff here, from an organizational standpoint, is that if you say you want, say, a tax on Wall Street, then the people who aren’t interested in a tax on Wall Street stay home. So remaining vague on demands can make the tent bigger. But it also seems that, at some point, people are going to need to be working towards concrete goals and experiencing dicrete successes in order to sustain the energy of a movement like this.

GB: As the thing grows, new organizational forms will develop. At this point, the New York occupation has 30 different working groups for everything from handling sanitation to discussing labor issues and tax policy. So we’re trying to set up ways that people with different interests can plug into the movement. There’s even a newspaper. The ‘Occupied Wall Street Journal.’ Of course, this is nothing compared to what happened in Tahrir Square, where they even had dry cleaners.

EK: We’re also beginning to see “Occupy Wall Street” link up with with more traditional activist groups. Some members of the protest were speaking via videofeed at today’s big confab of liberal groups in Washington. MoveOn.org and organized labor are planning a march in support of the occupiers for Wednesday. How does that change what is, for now, a very decentralized movement?

DG: It is organically happening but there are definite problems that occur. We found this back in the days of the globalization movement. Unions were very supportive and provided resources but they’re very different organizations. The real difficulty is how to work with people who are top-down and have a funding base, as it means there are things they can say in public and things they can’t, and groups where people can say whatever they want and the whole idea is to be decentralized. One problem I’ve already heard of is that people are coming in and changing the tenor of the general assemblies to speeches, and that’s not really what it’s supposed to be about. So you have to balance the aspect where you’re trying to show what direct democracy could be like and the effort to link up with groups that have a form of organization we’ve rejected.

EK: The name of the group is “Occupy Wall Street,” but from what I can tell by listening to interviews with the protesters and reading messages at ‘We are the 99,’ it’s not just about Wall Street, it’s about the powerful in general, which include politicians and wealthy folks who don’t make their money in finance, and beyond that, it’s really about the less-powerful. The real running theme I’m hearing is hopelessness: that we did everything right and played by the rules and went to school or got a job and now we’re buried in debt and can’t make ends meet, while these folks at the top of the economy seem to just keep prospering and prospering.

DG: Right, and Wall Street is just a beautiful illustration of that. Here we have these guys who were just greedy crooks, who crashed the global economy and did terrible things to the lives of people all over the world. None of them have paid at all. There was a debate about whether their bonuses should be lowered. On the other hand, if people point out to vigorously that this has happened, they do get arrested. And that helps to point out the essential double standard of the system.

When you think about it, as many are doing right now, this is an extraordinarily revolutionary vision and the consequence of the vision is extraordinarily revolutionary action. Which we have been seeing spreading over Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, into Asia, and of course all over the United States now. It's an amazing and wonderful thing. 132 Occupations so far planned or taking place now in the United States, over two dozen internationally not counting the predecessor actions in Greece and Spain, Tunisia and Egypt and so many other places.

It is as fully a communitarian vision in action as I've ever seen, and it is quite different than those I knew and knew of in the Old Days. Those who insist it is nothing other that Dirty Fucking Hippies acting up once more before they die off simply have no idea. Or perhaps they're just too frightened of going through that era again.

Some of the occupiers no doubt are utopian visionaries, but most seem very firmly grounded in an almost Puritanical propriety. No drugs, no alcohol, no violence. Though it is not mentioned, one assumes: No sex, either. People participating in occupations continue to work at their jobs -- if they have them; they help one another on site and in their communities if they don't (or if they do, as well). The occupations, therefore, are far more ascetic than their critics are able to understand yet. In a sense, they're almost like monasteries -- without the overlay of hierarchical religion or a strictly political motivation or a pecuniary interest. They exist to be, to live, to share, to enjoy; they don't exist to have, to steal, to destroy.

Obviously, Authority in its global majesty does not know what to do with them, nor how to. The Occupiers are their sons, their daughters, their friends, their colleagues. The Occupiers in a very real sense are them, at least those among 99% who impose authority in exchange for a regular paycheck.

This is where the DFH analogies simply fall to pieces. The movements of the 1960's were consciously based on separation from the majority. The Hippies were trying to make a better world to be sure, but they were doing it by setting themselves consciously apart from the "straights" -- which is to say, the rest of Americans, the vast and silent majority Jerry Rubin mocks so cuttingly in his interview with Phil Donohue -- going so far as to actually ghettoize themselves in the context of San Francisco's Haight Ashbury. Shortly, the Hippie movement became a commercial product of the media. Which is why, at the end of the summer of 1967, the Diggers proclaimed the Death of the Hippie. In the sense of a genuine counter culture movement, it was over, while the commercial exploitation of the movement and the exploitation of naive and impressionable young people continued unabated for some years more.

What's going on now is something else again entirely, almost impossible to exploit commercially, ultimately far more "proper."

It's not the Paris Commune, but in some ways it may be even more revolutionary. It remains to be seen. I won't predict an outcome.

But there is very definitely something happening here.

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