Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Revolution in Reverse -- and Why Symbolic Acts Matter

"Revolution in Reverse" by David Graeber

“All power to the imagination.” “Be realistic, demand the impossible…” Anyone involved in radical politics has heard these expressions a thousand times. Usually they charm and excite the first time one encounters them, then eventually become so familiar as to seem hackneyed, or just disappear into the ambient background noise of radical life. Rarely if ever are they the object of serious theoretical reflection.

During the Bush Era, I often wrote about the fact that the Busheviks were engaged in Revolution while the Liberals and Progressives were -- at best -- conducting a rear-guard holding action when they weren't actively enabling the Bushevik Revolutionaries.

This idea upended the conventional wisdom of the time, of course, and the cognitive dissonance was sometimes un-pretty. But from my perspective, there had been a judicial coup in December of 2000; the government was handed over to the Busheviks -- "without objection" as they say (never mind the people in the streets and the Congressional Black Caucus) -- and the revolutionary remaking of the United States Government into an Imperial Autocracy commenced in earnest. The pace of it accelerated after 9/11.

That revolutionary remaking is being consolidated today. In other words, the Government -- and its owners and sponsors -- are not looking back.

We don't live in the same country that existed up to December 2000.

The holding action by Liberals and Progressives in Government didn't just fail, it was a disaster.

I keep running into those who believe sincerely that the current era represents the End of the American Empire, and I shake my head. No, we're at the tail end of the Republic -- something we're never going to get back, BTW, it's gone -- and we're well past the beginning of a New American Empire. We're marginally in a transition phase between one and the other, but the press of events is trending toward the continual expansion and consolidation of the NAE (New American Empire), not its retreat.

In order to fund it, the People of the United States and peoples all around the world are being plundered and looted in a kind of free-for-all of pillage that has never been seen on this scale in world history, and the pillagers are not even momentarily pausing for breath.

This Empire is not going away anytime soon. The NAE is too useful to too many interests for it to be sacrificed at this point. Popular opposition to it is still haphazard and weak. For all intents and purposes, there is no opposition in Government. Not even in the person of Ron Paul, Republican and useful foil to the Imperial aggrandizers.

So what is the rational course of action when that's the case? Is there even a point in opposition, let alone Revolution?

I'd argue that opposition -- and even Revolution -- under the circumstances is natural; what was distinctly odd was the absence of serious opposition during the Bush Era. There wasn't just an absence of active opposition, there was suppression of the very idea of "opposition" (especially after 9/11) on the premise that to seriously oppose the Bushevik Revolution that was taking place was to engage in a form of terrorism or treason.

People were cowed and effectively silenced for years.

Millions could take to the streets in a kind of pro-forma opposition to the War Industry's desire to whack Iraq only to be ignored and mocked. Protests were encaged -- literally -- and placed in Zones where no official need pay the least attention to them. Billions of dollars in bricks of $100 bills were transported to Iraq and... disappeared. The pillage of government and private financial resources by Enron and the like seemed almost quaint given what was to come.

It was as if Americans were in a trance, even those who might otherwise have been outspoken in opposition.

Elections did not change things. The Imperial Juggernaut continued unperturbed. Even the election of 2008, that was supposed to be about Change You Can Believe In, led to the further consolidation and institutionalization of the Imperial Autocracy and the permanent elevation of oligarchs and plutocrats who own and control it.

Millions of Americans are being forced into poverty every year to pay for it. Hunger and homelessness stalk the land. The Powers That Be seem to like it like that.

The Police State that is a necessary adjunct to any Autocracy is enjoying all the practice it is getting in suppressing dissent and rebellion.

If we accept that the Republic is gone and we're not getting it back, that our national Government is becoming by stages an institutional Autocracy and that it is owned and controlled by a faction of oligarchs and plutocrats who primarily see the Government as a means to enforce their will on everyone, we might gain some idea about whether and how to proceed with opposition. But if we continue to pretend that we still have a Republic or that we can wrest control of it from the oligarchs and plutocrats somehow, or that elections actually matter, any opposition that arises will be futile; it will be fighting phantoms on behalf of an impossible goal -- which of course serves the interests of the Overclass.

If we accept that the Republic is gone and we're not getting it back, think of the possibilities.

To quote Graeber:

  • Our customary conception of revolution is insurrectionary: the idea is to brush aside existing realities of violence by overthrowing the state, then, to unleash the powers of popular imagination and creativity to overcome the structures that create alienation. Over the twentieth century it eventually became apparent that the real problem was how to institutionalize such creativity without creating new, often even more violent and alienating structures. As a result, the insurrectionary model no longer seems completely viable, but it’s not clear what will replace it.

  • One response has been the revival of the tradition of direct action. In practice, mass actions reverse the ordinary insurrectionary sequence. Rather than a dramatic confrontation with state power leading first to an outpouring of popular festivity, the creation of new democratic institutions, and eventually the reinvention of everyday life, in organizing mass mobilizations, activists drawn principally from subcultural groups create new, directly democratic institutions to organize “festivals of resistance” that ultimately lead to confrontations with the state. This is just one aspect of a more general movement of reformulation that seems to me to be inspired in part by the influence of anarchism, but in even larger part, by feminism—a movement that ultimately aims recreate the effects of those insurrectionary moments on an ongoing basis.
  • In essence, Graeber is describing the form of Revolution adopted by the Occupy Movement. It does not look like Revolutions of the more distant past because it isn't like them. Instead, it is more like the feminist movement, the Zapatistas, and the anti-globalist movement.

    Insurrection may seem to be everywhere, but it is in the form of "festivals of resistance," which is what the initial occupations were and what the current Occupy actions typically tend to be. Rather than having the insurrection first, then the "festival" of alternatives, the alternatives are built first, then comes the insurrection, which is in this movement in the form of nonviolent resistance to the imposition of arbitrary authority -- not in the form of armed insurgency.

    Thus the state is flummoxed. No matter what they do, it ultimately turns out wrong. Bit by bit, the authority of the state over these "festivals of resistance" diminishes and in due time vanishes except, perhaps, as an empty shell. The appearance of authority without the capability of its imposition.

    This situation was made quite explicit during one of the nightly "Eviction Theater" episodes at Union Square in New York last week. The Occupy presence there is festive -- as it was at Zuccotti/Liberty Plaza near Wall Street. There are fewer elements of an alternative system in place at Union Square, but there are some (for example, the library, direct democracy, feeding stations and so on); there is also constant discussion and debate of serious matters and enjoyment of frivolous ones, often by hundreds or even thousands of people at a time.

    The police presence at Union Square has sometimes been enormous, in some cases far outnumbering the public. And of course their sole mission is to protect the park from the public by closing access to it promptly at midnight. So one day last week, this performance got underway, and a chant I'd never heard before went up: "You have no authority!" Over and over.

    In the context of pushing and shoving the public out of the park, of course, the police are exercising arbitrary authority -- which is the point of the exercise. They want to show that they can do whatever they want and the public is powerless to prevent it. But most of us already know that, we're already well aware that police habitually behave arbitrarily and all too frequently lawlessly. The display in Union Square serves to highlight how ridiculous the show tends to be. Arbitrary authority is not legitimate authority at all. Consequently, the chant of "You have no authority!" points out the obvious.

    As more and more of these arbitrary impositions are demonstrated and pointed out, the authority of the police is diminished.

    In a discussion about Occupy versus the police yesterday, I pointed out that in many ways the behavior of the police resemble the behavior of the big-bellied Southern sheriffs and their treatment of civil rights demonstrators. They would use arbitrary imposition of grossly disproportionate power against the protesters on their certain knowledge that doing so would be shown on the nightly news, and that it would discourage and dissuade others from joining or supporting the civil rights movement. This is the standard strategy for disrupting and ultimately destroying movements.

    It didn't work in the case of the civil rights movement, in fact, it backfired badly, though initially that wasn't clear at all.

    For the brutality unleashed against the civil rights activists seemed to work just fine in keeping turn out for demonstrations in the South relatively small, and in keeping some people too frightened of what might happen to join or support the movement.

    The more the brutality of the Southern law enforcement officers was seen, however, even people who were not particularly inclined to favor integration were convinced that what the police were doing was simply wrong. It didn't just look bad, it was bad. And the more the Southern sheriffs behaved so brutally, the more their authority diminished until it was essentially gone.

    Much the same pattern is being repeated with Occupy -- as it has been with many previous movements -- and while it may not be immediately apparent that Occupy is "winning," every instance of police brutality and outrageous conduct diminishes the authority of the police. Ultimately it will be gone.

    It doesn't even have to be outrageous, just... arbitrary. Especially when force is used against symbolic actions.

    For example, the Wall Street Bull was desecrated liberated the night of March 21, in a very symbolic but spontaneous action described in a previous post. The activists tore down the barricades and mounted the bull in a highly festive, almost ritualized manner. When the police arrived, the crowd melted away, but not before one of the miscreants who had got on top of the statue was briefly held and then escaped from the clutches of the police. For their part, the police were far more concerned with re-erecting the barricades around the Bull, which seemed a bit anti-climactic and futile under the circumstances. What were they protecting the Bull from? Wall Street was empty except for the police frantically trying to re-assemble and re-erect their barricades.

    Returning to Zuccotti/Liberty Plaza on March 17 was a symbolic act; the police wildly overreacted. In doing so, they diminished their authority. The illuminated tents on poles that appear in New York are brilliant symbols of the endurance and creativity of Occupy in the face of repression, as are the innumerable projections on buildings promoting the Occupy idea.

    These symbolic acts have a cumulative effect, as do the overreactions of the police.

    And the Festival of Resistance continues.


    1. If I understand this correctly . . . this is about establishing alternative communities first. Establishing communitarian scenes of resistance first, away from authority (to the degree possible), independent of authority. Proving their viability first.

      I like it.

      And not only are they there to prove independence from authority, they do so with the spirit of love, joy, laughter and mutual aid in full force. Vigorous, vibrant, defiantly happy, even in the midst of a vastly degraded Samsara. In fact, because this is the only world we know.

      By creating a massive contrast between these festivals of light and our thuggish police state, the latter is delegitimized.

      Mocked. Shamed.

      Create the stark contrasts first, then engage. Is that basically it?

      . . . .

      Going back to your point about the Bush coup and its consolidation under Obama. There is another extremely important element to consider:

      This isn't really about nations, ultimately. Capital is wildly portable, agile, mobile. Capital does not need to plant a flag and remain loyal forever. Its capitol is everywhere and nowhere, so it never has to be loyal to any "people".

      Which means any fight we have here, in America, must be connected internationally, with a thousand other Occupys and millions of the like-minded. Festivals of resistance must be networked as never before, because capital already is.

      American plutocrats couldn't care less, really, where they reside, and their aim isn't to dominate just one nation. It's to continue the dominance over the entire global economic system.

      Of course, there is some logic behind going after the biggest bully on the block, and that bully is here. But without thinking globally, and acting internationally, the old "power loves a vacuum" thing will rear its ugly head.

      Whack a mole writ large, etc.

      Festivals of loving, laughing resistance must be interconnected, globalized. The powers that be have a head start on us going back generations. It's time to join hands across the water.

    2. If I understand this correctly . . . this is about establishing alternative communities first. Establishing communitarian scenes of resistance first, away from authority (to the degree possible), independent of authority. Proving their viability first.

      That's it. Absolutely. And it is the toughest thing imaginable to do.

      And yet, it is happening. Last October, I was talking to a fellow who's spent the last 20 years or so helping to establish intentional communities. We were talking about how the Occupy Movement is at root all about that, establishing all these intentional communities linked together but autonomous, and those communities basically are The Revolution. Ultimately, you're not fighting, you're doing.

      He was astonished at how quickly the Occupy communities had come together and how well they worked -- despite all the problems... ;-). He kept saying, "It takes years to get to this point normally. This is amazing."

      It isn't perfect by any means, and participation has fallen since the loss of the encampments, but the movement has gotten stronger through all the difficulties.

      Locally, there is now an OccuFarm, some distance out of town, where the nucleus of a self-sustaining community is being established; last I heard about a dozen people were living there full time and the fields were planted. Others are visiting all the time. And so far the sheriff has been kept at bay (the place is in foreclosure, long story that I don't completely understand...)

      The international connections are most definitely there. I think they could be stronger and more extensive, but what has already been established is remarkable. It's very much like Kropotkin's "mesh" as visualized in "The Coming Revolution." It's well beyond any nationality.

      It's commonality and community.