Monday, February 6, 2012

So. What Do We Replace the Collapsed Systems With?

Oakland Commune banner on General Strike Day, November 2, 2011. Image where there is as intense a discussion of what's going on as you'll find anywhere.

While my perspective on OO's Victory in de-legitimizing the authority of Oakland's civic authorities is still the minority view, the notion that something truly amazing -- and in the United States, almost unprecedented for a very long time -- is happening there is gaining traction. I'm not sure at this point that more than a few of Oakland's activists would agree with me about the "level-one victory" I've been writing about in part because there is so much more to do and it is premature to celebrate. It's still the "beginning of the beginning." (Of course I've commented extensively about the online tendency to be "always at the beginning" of something or other, as if there is no learning curve any more. "I'm beginnning to think..." "We've only started to..." "This is starting to look like...")

That said, the necessity of formulating and having ready something else again to take the place of the collapsed systems is becoming more and more critical.

Thanks to Pathman in comments, I got to thinking about and re-considering Gene Sharp's "From Dictatorship to Democracy," (pdf) and the larger picture he lays out. I haven't looked at it for quite a while, and in light of recent events, his pioneering work seems almost simplistic now. That's probably because so much of what he was writing about has simply been internalized over the course of the many uprisings and revolutions that have shattered the complacency of dictatorships around the worlds since the end of the Soviet period. We're in a new world now, and the past seems almost naive to us pioneers and Revolutionary Sophisticates (haw!)

Some things to keep in mind: we do not live in a Classic Dictatorship, nor are Oakland's civic authorities Classic Tyrants. We don't have a totalitarian system, for example, for there is still a remarkable freedom of thought and potentially a great deal of freedom of action as well. Though the levers and wheels and gears of our rather antiquated political system are currently frozen in place by their owners and sponsors, it is at least conceivable that they could be made to move again. And as I've argued more recently, many of the attributes of Nonviolent Resistance have been adopted by the Overclass in treating with the Lesser People, particularly Nonviolent Communications, which are now used by the Overclass as weapons against the People. (Again, this is a minority viewpoint about what's really going on; many colleagues in the field are horrified that I would even broach such a topic. But that's another essay for another time...)

In other words, lots of the elements of the Color Revolution process that Gene Sharp lays out don't apply directly to our situation, nor would they necessarily work if they did. (I won't get into the debate about the nature of those Revolutions at this point, except to say that what was done in the Soviet Union between 1991 and 1993 was a criminal betrayal of the People that will live in infamy -- and it wasn't the Communists who were doing it.)

The question remains: What do we do now?

Oakland already has something of an alternative system in place. It's called the Oakland Commune. This video doesn't really tell us as much as we might want to know, and it only deals with some of the activism of the Commune up to just before J28 but it gives us an idea of the scope of alternative systems thinking in Oakland that's been there for a long time and has been crystallized by the Occupy Movement:

An informed person observing from the outside would say, "Of course, this is basic Social Democracy."

In part. Communes are much closer to the People, and in theory they can be quite autonomous as well as self-governing. You can see the outlines of the structure of the Commune in the video; if you think back to the Black Panthers and how they operated and what they actually did (I'm old enough to remember... well, sometimes!) particularly their service to the community, you can see how the pattern for alternative social and political systems has long been in place in Oakland, and I would venture to say in many other cities as well.

Not all cities can adopt the Oakland Model, nor should they, as each city has a character and social consciousness of its own which can be developed on the commune or a cooperative basis; the elements are already in place in many cities through the networks of nonprofits that have proliferated over the last few decades of declining government support for people's needs.

The problem with the commune model or the autonomous collective in a civic setting -- at this time anyway -- is that it lives on the surplus of a materialist system, in our case, the leavings of American consumerism. You see that made starkly clear in the encampments. Obviously, that can only go so far before the surplus is used up. Then what?

I'm sure many would say, "Don't try to overthink it right now. It's only the beginning...." And that's right as far as it goes, but I would suggest that the question of "then what" is going to loom large sooner rather than later, and the answer may lie in acknowledging Oakland's strict class and social divides and doing something about them.

Oakland's ruling class perches in the hills, its working class drudges along in the flats, the rejects and those the ruling class deems to be parasites are disposed of in the marshes of West Oakland.

The Oakland Commune has stepped in to serve the people at the margins of this deeply divided class system, and that has caused more than a little heartburn among those who rule the roost. It's caused something of a meltdown among the city's officials, much nervousness among its long suffering working class, and what looks like stark panic among the High and the Mighty; yet the Commune includes participants from all those sectors. Support for OO activism appears to be much broader than the media wants you to believe.

The dissension over "violence" in the Occupy Movement, particularly as it applies to Occupy Oakland, really looks to me more like a class division, not an ideological one at all. The Oakland Commune is militant to be sure -- as it must be -- but that militance should not be conflated with a Violent Resistance Campaign because it is nothing like that at all. Note: OO activists are not openly armed, they do not demonstrate bearing arms, they do not threaten or use arms in their actions, they are not involved in nor do they advocate any sort of armed insurrection, nor does anyone involved Occupy Movement or Occupy Oakland advocate or engage in the use of deadly force to achieve their objectives.

Yet they are constantly beset by internal accusations of using or advocating or supporting "violence" and there are constant threats to withdraw support and participation if "violence" is not renounced forthwith and "violent" participants are not immediately expelled.

Yes, well...

I say this is more an matter of a class division than an ideological one because the constant cat-calling and hot-headed accusations are coming primarily from people who are socialized to be the teachers and monitors of Nonviolence in order, I argue, to control the masses and their use of Nonviolence. In this class based version of Nonviolent Resistance, Nonviolence is fine, Resistance is not. In fact, actual Resistance of any kind is defined as "violence," and occasional acts of vandalism, mischief, and provocative acts like "throwing things" are considered so "violent" that they either must be harshly suppressed and those who commit these acts must be strictly disciplined or expelled or support will be withdrawn.

There are people who insist that self-defense against police assault is "violence." Or that even confrontation with authority is "violence." Some of these people may be sincere in their beliefs based on the faith they have in the merits of Gandhian Satyagraha, and when that is the case, I have a good deal of respect for believers and practitioners. But given what I have experienced and have seen happen to others when that faith is challenged or alternatives to it are proposed, I sincerely doubt that most people insisting on others' adherence to "Gandhi and King" are true believers themselves. The violence of their rhetoric against any challenge gives them away.

These accusations, demands of strict adherence, and threats to withdraw support are consistently being used as weapons to control the activism of the masses and as attempts to ensure the masses do not develop effective tactics against the present ruling class.

There is Class War within the Occupy Movement. Surprise!

In Oakland, it's quite obvious.

Many observers and participants call the whole thing a distraction, and they have a point. It has become something like a typical Twit-War with mutual anathemas and denunciations flying, but with no particular object -- apart from virtual "control" of The Other.

It's nearly to the point of becoming a "meme," and thus a joke.

Meanwhile, I'm hoping to see many more demonstrations of that Better World That's Possible. The Oakland Commune is on the path of creating it -- on behalf of all of us.


  1. Thanks for the elaboration on Gene's work. I think the current government is essentially a soft form of tyranny. We have a federal government working for the benefit of less than a million people at the expense of hundreds of millions. That's not something that can continue indefinitely as much as the oligarchs would like it to.
    As for the idea of communes, I think it's great in theory. The problem over time is people don't want to continue to share equally. I don't have a solution either but these are my thoughts.

  2. Oh lord, that's only the beginning of the Problem of the Commune(!) Yikes, what a task. The advantage for Oakland is that there is a long history of communitarianism that is very deeply ingrained. In some ways, they're getting back to the ways the People let go of some time ago.

    But it's fairly unique to Oakland; the rest of the Bay Area isn't like that and the model isn't adaptable everywhere. People are too unaccustomed to it, and too cantankerous. There are other models.

    Some people have suggested -- with a kind of horror -- that it's something like the Paris Commune. The horror isn't based so much on what the Paris Commune was, it's what happened to it.

    From appearances, it really seems that Sharp's insights and suggestions have been internalized within the Movement. How far people go with it, I don't know. I don't sense a strong urge to overthrow the system, not yet anyway. That may change over the summer depending on events, especially in Chicago. But I don't see it now. Oakland is something of an outlier in that regard because the People there are working on systemic change.

    Time will tell...