Generation X-Con

Analysis and Criticism of Systems of Illegeitimate Authority, and Working to Dismantle Them.

Occupy L.A. – Return of the Radical Imagination

Abstract – Occupy L.A. – Return of the Radical Imagination

 

There is debate in mainstream media representation, academia, and within occupations themselves as to the nature of the Occupy Movement, whether it is reformist or radical. This paper makes the claim that the Occupy Movement, and Occupy L.A. in particular, is an irreducibly radical, anarchist experiment in social organization and resistance. This radicalism core can be traced to four intersecting dynamics:

  1. The General Assembly
  2. The creation of alternative social structures within the margins of existing society
  3. The refusal to provide a comprehensive list of demands to traditional power-centers
  4. The transnationality of the Occupy Movement

This paper uses activist-oriented ethnographic research tools, including participant observation and interviews with Occupiers in Los Angeles. It also explores anarchist theory including the work of Noam Chomsky, Mikhail Bakunin, and Naomi Klein in order to frame developments at Occupy L.A., so as to illuminate the radical structures undergirding occupations.

 

 

Keywords: Occupy L.A., General Assembly, Demands, Transnational

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Occupy L.A. – Return of the Radical Imagination

By Timothy Malone

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anarchist Studies: http://www.lwbooks.co.uk/journals/anarchiststudies/styleguide.html

 

 

Context for Occupation in Los Angeles

 

“If then all of a sudden, there were a bunch of jobs tomorrow: at low pay, working people’s nails back to the bone. Would people be happy again? Would they be satiated, happy with that? Are we not going for enough, here? Can we be happy with that? I don’t think that’s the right answer.”

– Gabriel, Occupy L.A., October 1st, 2011

 

I first received notice of ‘general assemblies’ being held at Pershing Square in preparation for the October 1st ‘Occupy Day’ from activist friends on Facebook, through an event invitation. I followed the link provided to a fan page for ‘Occupy Los Angeles’ that, at the time, had forty-six followers. I sent a private message to an anonymous administrator of the Facebook page:

Me: “Hello. My name is Timothy Malone, and I am a graduate student at Claremont Graduate University. I am also an anarchist/activist with an interest in documenting…the formation and development of Occupy Los Angeles. Can you, perhaps, give me some guidance about how to proceed, organizers to talk to, etc.?”

Response: “Sounds good to me. I don’t have the authority to grant you access. Why don’t you come to the general assembly tonight, and present your project to the group? I’m sure they’ll give you an open hearing” (Anonymous, Personal Communication, September 28, 2011).

That night, I left for Pershing Square in Downtown Los Angeles. The date was September 28th, three days before tents would first be pitched on the lawn of City Hall.

As of the writing of this paper, the Occupy Los Angeles Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/occupyLA) has approximately 50,000 members. At the peak of occupation in late November, 485 tents crowded Downtown Los Angeles’ City Hall, and the occupation went from a marginalized movement of activists, dismissed and ignored in mainstream representation, to a leading news story locally and nationally. On the night of eviction, the LAPD co-opted the technique of ’embedding’ reporters in the Iraq and Afghan war, restricting the potentially hundreds of media representatives from accessing Occupy L.A. in its moment of confrontation.

Over fifty eight days of participation in Occupy L.A., what became clear through participant observation, interviews of occupiers, and through planning and participation in actions was that the Occupy movement in general, and Occupy Los Angeles in particular, represent the re-emergence of a radical potential after a long period of repression and effective marginalization of leftist-radical alternatives to the two-party system. By radical, I mean solutions to a series of social/political/economic problems that begin with an engagement with the structures of neo-liberal institutions, as opposed to using the mechanisms such as the ballot box, free-market solutions, or increasing regulation which they provide. Radicalism is an institutional engagement, a struggle with the forms provided in a democratic society to exercise political agency, and a demand for new forms. It is a rethinking of what it means to be a citizen and new types of action to put political agency into practice.

Such a desire for radical engagement grows out of recent historical failures of traditional liberal and reformist institutions to address the needs and desires of those who see themselves as occupiers, combined with an effective ideological attack on radical theory and repression of organization. This history can be traced to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and is embodied in Francis Fukayama’s theorization of the ‘End of History.’ “The triumph of the West, of the Western idea, is evident first of all in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism” (Fukuyama, 1989, p. 2). Neo-Liberal capital would have no rival nor fetter to its ever-expanding market construction, barrier-penetrating process of multinational globalization, as all radical alternatives and institutional engagement were tied with the failure of the Soviet Union, thus making radical engagement/institutional alternatives seem ridiculous, impossible, and futile in mainstream representation. Radical solutions were ideologically relocated beyond the bounds of the thinkable.

Radical Movements once again emerged in the late 90’s with the anti-globalization struggle, but were soon rolled back as post-September 11th, 2001, organizers were afraid to sound anti-American or to be equated with ‘America’s enemies,’ or to seem divisive in a time of ‘national unity.’ In 2003, the radical imagination began to reawaken with an international protest movement forming to challenge the United States invasion of Iraq[i], only to be effectively sidelined and marginalized by traditional liberal organizations such as Moveon.org and labor unions channeling radical energy into the reformist (the degree of effective reform perhaps limited to an unpredictable degree, to many liberal hopefuls) liberal establishment and the election machinery of Barack Obama, and his ‘hope and change’ marketing scheme, brought to the American public by the same P.R. companies who market consumer goods.

Participants within Occupy L.A. sense a fundamental limitation in traditional American politics. In interviews, one question I asked all participants: “What brought you out to the street, to participate in this movement? Why Occupy?” “We need to stop the undue influence of corporations in politics. People can’t be represented as long as money is the most important thing in the system” (Heidi, Personal Communication, October 1, 2011).

Jessica: “I’m sick of money being the guiding hand in politics; the way power gets allocated to a select few and political freedom has been squashed. Candle light vigils, marches… that stuff doesn’t work anymore. We need to come together in solidarity and show that we can actually get things done; they need to take the people seriously, and not the money” (Jessica, Personal Communication, October 1, 2011).

Occupiers almost universally assert that democrat-republican politics are pre-emptively co-opted by concentrations of capital, rendering citizens political agency deeply constrained outside of acts of civil disobedience (protesting, occupying, etc.). Occupiers seek a radical engagement with the political, social, and economic structures animating capitalist/post-industrial society. The mechanisms by which such an engagement should take place are often disparate. Nonetheless, occupiers are engaged with the political system at a meta-level, interested in reformulating structures, as opposed to operating within them through electoral processes, campaigning, lobbying, etc.

 

What Makes Occupy Radical?

            Many commentators in the media, in academia, and within occupations themselves have questioned the nature of the Occupy Movement, is it radical or reformist? This paper attempts to reorient the question of ‘how radical is Occupy?’ from an exploration of individuals’ political identities, to an examination of Occupy institutions, and how people participate and think about them. Arguments against Neoliberalism are not primarily voiced though the individual attitudes, beliefs and political identifications of occupiers. The very existence of Occupy Movement institutions, and the values that undergird them, is the argument. The way Occupations have organized themselves, institutionally, serves as a challenge to the existing institutions of western societies such as capitalism, representative democracy, the corporation, etc. To counter Fukuyama, history is not at its end. Occupy institutions engage in a discourse through their very existence with normative institutions as a demonstrative challenge. They also engender a discourse amongst the participants of Occupy; institutions/structures operate on individual consciousness, expanding one’s idea of what it means to have agency, to be a citizen in a democratic society. It is through participation in Occupy institutions that participants develop and refine an anarchist consciousness, defined as hostility to illegitimate authority, and a perception that many political, social, and economic institutions in which occupiers spend their daily lives are unnecessarily hierarchal and illegitimate.[ii]

This irreducible radicalism at the heart of occupy can be witnessed as operating across four intersecting dynamics:

  1. The institutional structure of the General Assembly and the consensus decision-making model.
  2. The creation of alternative structures within the shell of the old system, not in theory, but in practice. The Occupy movement serves as a model, has a demonstration effect to its participants and its observers that people can manage their own affairs in a directly democratic fashion.
  3. The third principle is the way occupiers have navigated the demand for ‘demands’ from traditional power centers.
  4. The fourth radical principle at the heart of Occupy is its transnational foundation. Because Occupy is engaged with an international adversary, finance capital and multinational globalization, its focus necessarily super-cedes states, and imagines and constructs a world of alternatives in which people share an interconnected struggle.

These four dynamics form the radical engine of occupation that drive it forward, potentially protecting it from co-optation by the liberal establishment, as well as drawing ire from apologists of the status quo: the traditional left-right spectrum (from democratic ‘liberal’ to Republican ‘conservative’), and others who would seek to marginalize and co-opt the movement. Occupy is irreducibly radical; in fact, an anarchist form of social organization and resistance. It forms a challenge to the necessity and legitimacy of the neo-liberal capitalist order and the sovereignty of State power, by positing anarchist forms of social organization in its place.

 

Methodology

This project is an exploration of anarchist theory as it relates to the Occupy Movement and Occupy Los Angeles, in particular. I attempt to fuse anarchist theory with data and information gathered from activist-oriented ethnographic research I conducted while a participant of Occupy L.A. I describe this research as activist-oriented ethnography, because of my position: not just an observer, I was and continue to be an active participant in Occupy Los Angeles.

My aim is not to objectively study Occupy L.A., but hopefully to aid in its success; to answer questions that have emerged amongst occupiers in conversation of which I have been a part, or am aware of. I intend to shore up our internal understanding of who we are, what’s new about what we do, that can enable us to move confidently into the future. This project also should serve to clear up questions any misunderstanding about the nature of Occupy held by people outside the movement: are we reformist or radical? What makes Occupy ‘radical?’ What are our demands/should we have demands? What have we done successfully? My research also answers questions indirectly, such as ‘should we embrace or resist the support of traditional centers of ‘left’ power, including but not limited to the Democratic Party and labor unions?’

I have documented developments from September 28th until November 30th, the night that LAPD stormed and evicted the encampment at City Hall; 58 days and nights of occupation. One core refrain constantly heard in General Assemblies is that no one individual has the right to speak for Occupy L.A. Therefore, I speak only for myself, through the use of tools such as participant observation and anarchist theory.

The ethnographic part of my research consists of interviews I have conducted with about sixty occupiers on site at Occupy L.A, twenty of which have been expansive. My interview questions were composed of an ever-evolving set of questions that changed as conditions on the ground changed. All interviews were conducted on site, first at Pershing Square, then at City Hall (Solidarity Park), and in associated marches and actions. I have tried to pay attention to getting as representative a sample as I can across ages, racial identification, gender, and sexual orientation. I have tried to represent traditionally marginalized voices. How successful I have been is for others to decide: it was coded in my methodological attempt to document Occupy LA. I also did a lot of participant observation, for example, in trying to document how the General Assembly works. I have had dozens of conversations with activists off site, as well. Conversations on social networks and livestreams are a regular and dynamic component of what it means to be a participant of Occupy L.A. I did not camp at site due to the fact I have a 10-month old-daughter at home that requires my presence. I engaged virtually when I couldn’t be on-site.

For the sake of self-disclosure, I must state that I self-identify as an anarchist, thus am in sympathy with the structures and intentions, as I see them, of the Occupy movement. Let the reader also recognize that I’m a 36 year old, white, relatively privileged male. Though I have tried to be conscious of the privilege that carries in this work, and within Occupy Los Angeles, these are living, breathing dynamics. Questions of white privilege and patriarchy are right at the heart of current debates happening in General Assemblies, and my position precludes me from being the best judge of my success with regards to ‘checking my own privilege,’ as we say in the Occupy movement.

 

Anarchist Literature Review

Mikhail Bakunin first theorized the principle that for a political revolution to be successful, the proletariat must have practice with self-management over the future institutions of society. In addition, the very institutions and structures required to weather the transition from capitalism to socialism must be developed in immediacy, and fully operable if the social revolution wished to avoid a slide into a permanent totalitarianism. The creation of such institutions and their management by participants are both realizations of the Occupy Model.

      Noam Chomsky has modernized traditional anarchist theory to contemporary social arrangements, including an anti-authoritarian analysis of the media system and the modern corporation. His historical review of successful anarchist projects throughout history and a clear explication of the potential for an internationally federated system of autonomous units describe an alternative to the Neoliberal order, the seeds of which can be seen in the Occupy movement.

Naomi Klein’s work on the IMF and World Bank, financialization of the economy, and the multinational corporation allows for observers of the Occupy Movement to trace the context for Occupation. The “Shock Doctrine” is a theoretical framework that allows for recognition of austerity policies implemented around the globe in response to manufactured fiscal crises, thus giving coherence to an analysis which recognizes seemingly disparate social movements (Occupy and the Indignados movement in Spain, for example) as deeply interconnected.

Peter Marshall and George Woodcock’s historical treatments of Anarchism allow for the locating of the Occupy Movement within a larger historical tradition, as well as recognizing the previous success of particular institutional arrangements found at Occupy L.A. in past social movements.

 

Anarchist Principles and Values Undergirding Occupy Institutions

From observation of General Assemblies and committee meetings, and through conversations and interviews with occupiers over the course of encampment, it became clear that increasing democratic participation is a core value amongst occupiers in Los Angeles. The more democracy, individual voice and control over decision-making are expanded, the better. Because Occupy was largely formed outside of traditional hierarchical institutions, people who first began the occupations and those that subsequently arrived were relatively equal in traditionally recognized power.[iii]

This attitude and practice of extending participatory democracy emergent from a situation of relative political equality has meant that despite political identification, occupiers have formed institutions and structures that are participatory and horizontal; institutions envisioned in anarchist theorization. Through not violating the a priori norms of ‘democracy,’ and I define democracy as an attempt to achieve equality in decision-making and power, participants have created anarchist institutions and are engaged in anarchist practice. While many original planners of Occupy L.A. were trained or are familiar with anarchist theory, direct/participatory democracy or some variant thereof, many participants were not. What is of interest for this study is that these principles were desired by participants in the formation of Occupy L.A., exercised throughout the process of occupation, and are the most valued and defended elements of the Occupation to occupiers themselves, regardless of their political identification or orientation. An anarchist structural arrangement is taken for granted as the realization of ‘democracy.’

Occupy organizers have new ways of thinking about how to build our movement. We need not have redundant conversations about why liberal reformists are limited in imagination, or Ron Paul supporters are making a masked argument for unrestrained capital. We don’t need to change people’s minds. For everyone agrees that the anarchist model, this shared notion of participatory-democracy is the way Occupy L.A. should be structured. It may not be called ‘anarchist’ on the ground, at Occupy L.A. but no one seems to care. We have discovered a ‘strategic essentialism’ at the core of the Occupy movement, to borrow from Gayatri Spivak (Spivak, 1993). It may be called inclusivity, or equal voice amongst participants. We need not all agree that what Occupy is doing is fundamentally anarchist, because Occupy L.A. has successfully institutionalized anarchist principles of social organization. It is the essential ground from which structures of power emerge.  Occupiers are not willing to trade these organizational principles for short-term political victories; only to make them more responsive, more anarchistic, participatory, and effective.

As described above, these anarchist institutions and values can be witnessed as operative across four intersecting dynamics: the general assembly meeting, the formation of alternative structures within the margins of existing society, the refusal to provide a concrete list of demands to traditional centers of power, and the transnationality of the Occupy Movement. These dynamics will be addressed in detail, below.

 

First Radical Principle: General Assemblies

“What is a popular assembly? It is participatory. It is open. It is deliberative. It is decision-making. It CONSTRUCTS CONSENSUS. It is based on free association; nobody is here if they don’t want to be here. It embraces respect. And it is made up of assembled persons…. This is a general assembly.”

– Esteban, Occupy L.A. Planning for Occupy Day – General Assembly, September 30th, 2011

 

Whether or not the General Assembly at Occupy L.A. is explicitly recognized as anarchist, the model has been theorized by the anarchist tradition since the 1700’s (Marshall, 1984, p. 4). The term anarchism bares some negative connotation, largely due to popular misunderstanding, linking the term to disorder and chaos. As a political theory, the anarchist tradition has always meant, in reference to itself, a complex, ordered, systemic arrangement, with the minimal amount of illegitimate authority or unnecessary constraint on individual flourishing. The tradition also recognizes the need for community in order to allow for such individual flourishing. Anarchism is a theory in which power flows from the bottom up in all institutions, and all authority must justify itself, as serving the interests of its constituents (Chomsky, 1970). This theory is embodied in the General Assembly.

The General Assembly meeting – its processes and its committees/affinity groups – form the core structure of the Occupy movement not only in Los Angeles, but across the country and even internationally. The concept of General Assemblies has its roots in anarchist tradition, in particular the Spanish Revolution of 1936 – perhaps, the largest-scale, successful anarchist project in history (Woodcock, 2004). In more recent manifestation, the general assembly model is employed in the Indignados movement in Spain, which emerged May 15th of 2011 in response to the European fiscal crisis and lack of confidence in Spanish politics, and in the anti-austerity movement in Greece, emerging May 5th of 2011.

            Appropriately enough given this history, it was actually participants of the Spanish Indignados movement, currently residing in Los Angeles, that trained potential occupiers in the general assembly model prior to Occupation on October 1st. in Pershing Square, Downtown Los Angeles.

            The situation was similar in the original formation of Occupy Wall Street, in New York. Activists with experience in other horizontally structured movements have played a foundational role in developing the architecture of occupation. David Graeber describes a situation on August 2nd in New York City, a planning meeting for some kind of action on Wall Street in September. When he arrived, the same old ‘verticals’ were present – activist organizations with hierarchical structures – giving speeches and planning a traditional march.

“But as I paced about the Green, I noticed something. To adopt activist parlance: this wasn’t really a crowds of verticals—that is, the sort of people whose idea of political action is to march around with signs under the control of one or another top-down protest movement. They were mostly pretty obviously horizontals: people more sympathetic with anarchist principles of organization, non-hierarchical forms of direct democracy, and direct action… My Greek friend looked at me and I looked at her and we both instantly realized the other was thinking the same thing: “Why are we so complacent? Why is it that every time we see something like this happening, we just mutter things and go home?” – though I think the way we put it was more like, “You know something? Fuck this shit. They advertised a general assembly. Let’s hold one” (Bennett, 2011, pp.2-3).

                

To the chagrin of the ‘verticals,’ Graeber and his associates did indeed hold a General Assembly in another part of the park. As the meeting conducted by the verticals fell into disarray, people made their way over to the general assembly and the end, the “horizontals” had won out. Occupy Wall Street would not be led by the traditional activist organizations and hierarchy, but would instead be structured as a General Assembly, run on consensus.

These are the anarchist roots of the Occupy Movement. From the larger Occupation Sites in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Boston, the General Assembly has become the default organizational structure of all Occupations. Despite the political identification of occupiers, when they attend General Assemblies and participate in actions coordinated through them and consented upon, they are, in fact, participating in horizontal structures; doing ‘anarchy.’

 

How Does the G.A. Work?

A general assembly is a regularly held gathering of ‘all who are present and wish to participate.’ In Occupy L.A., the general assembly was held nightly at 7:30 pm. Currently, post-eviction, G.A.’s are held every other day in Pershing Square with a themed G.A. every Saturday. The General Assembly is the only body in any particular occupation that officially has the right to ratify decisions, to speak for, or to make official proposals on behalf of an occupation. The General Assembly, an anarchist structure, is the official decision-making body of Occupy L.A.

             The basic premise of the G.A. is to give all participants equal power and voice. It is a consensus model, meaning that the entire collective must agree on a proposal before it can move forward as ‘consented’ upon by Occupy L.A. In original G.A.’s, committees were proposed by participants in a general discussion of what needed to be done. Media, facilitation, social networking, finance, food, etc. committees all formed, and were ratified through full consent of GA participants. If occupiers wish to be a part of a committee, they show up and instantly are a ‘member’ of that committee. Committees proceed on the same consensus model as the General assembly.

Participatory-democratic in structure, the G.A./consensus model allows for even a lone voice of dissent to block a proposal. Those who feel voiceless may, at least in theory, feel their voice powerful enough to singularly block an action. It is an ultimate defense of minority rights, but also deeply susceptible to abuse. General Assemblies, for this reason require a good deal of faith and good intention to maintain functionality. Someone wishing to derail need only block everything from moving forward, thus throwing a monkey wrench into its machinery.

Affinity groups also developed – these are committees not necessarily functional, and do not require the consent of the General Assembly. They may also bring proposals to the G.A., but the key difference is that Affinity Groups do not relate to the functional necessity of the occupation. Study groups, entertainment events, and particular identity/ideological blocks formed to discuss their interests within Occupy L.A. are all examples of types of Affinity Groups at Occupy L.A.

 

G.A.’s in practice at Occupy L.A.

An interview question I asked occupiers: “How do you feel about the General Assembly? Is it an effective tool?”

 “It takes a long time to get to consensus, to get everyone’s opinion. But everyone’s voice is heard. In the end, when the decisions made, we all made that decision together…. If consensus hasn’t been reached, that issue will keep presenting itself ‘till it gets resolved….” (Grayson, Personal Communication, November 28, 2011).

 

“Consensus is really cool. It counts voices rather than votes. It takes a lot of compassion and listening to the most marginalized voice in order for the group to move forward” (Lisa, Personal Communication, November 27, 2011).

           

Though recognized as a rather cumbersome process to get to consensus, most felt it was worth the effort, that consensus was really the only way to give voice to people that are largely voiceless in the dominant political configuration.

“I mean, it’s so simple, it’s kind of genius. People feel voiceless. The answer is to give everyone a voice” (Grayson, Personal Communication, November 28, 2011).

But there were serious criticisms of the G.A. at Occupy L.A., which revolved around the inexperience of people in managing this newly empowered voice. Described as an immaturity, or lack of experience, some occupiers felt that others may abuse this situation of ‘equal voice’ through monopolization of conversation, a refusal to listen, or an unwillingness to keep an open mind. I interviewed several people who had spent time in other occupations, one of whom was A.K. He described himself as one of the original organizers of Occupy Wall Street. He made some comparisons between the Occupy L.A. General Assembly and others he had been a part of.

 “The way it is in New York, and in some other places, its very effective. The way it’s done here? Not so effective. It’s very divisive. People don’t understand that the consensus process is supposed to be an open process. You don’t come with a finite idea that you won’t budge on… the consensus process means that you not so much compromise, but move… You can come to the G.A. with red on your mind. Everybody has either red or green in their mind. When you leave the G.A., you’re all decided on blue. That’s the purpose of the G.A. They don’t even hard block anymore. They just get upset” (A.K., Personal Communication, November 28, 2011).

 

A further critique of the General Assembly at Occupy L.A. was formulated by people of color, queer, and feminist affinity groups. Employing an analysis of the intersectional dynamics of power including, but not limited to, patriarchy, white privilege and hetero-normativity, the critique asserted that once systemic mechanisms of repression are lifted as in the flattening of electoral hierarchy or economic domination of the political process, many internalized and real privileges remain to particular groups, as well as conditioned norms of interaction, beliefs and experience.

An illustrative example of the potential of intersectional forms of power and privilege to disrupt solidarity and to derail the General Assembly process can be observed through the movement’s resolution of its relationship with the L.A.P.D. and City Hall. Attitudes among occupiers on the ground that I spoke with varied on the issue of how to handle the police. Attitudes ranged between the following two poles:

 A late-20’s, white, male occupier had the following to say about relations with the L.A.P.D. “We need to remember that the police are part of the 99%… we need to encourage them and help them realize that communication is really the best way to solve things” (Anonymous, Personal Communication, October 15, 2011).

 Holding the opposing view, a hispanic male in his late 20’s asserts:

 “Official communication, dialogue with the police? I think it’s gonna be on uneven ground. The police and the city… are pretty much against what the Occupation movement is, you know, bringing to the forefront – the question of land, of self-representation, self-determination. I don’t even think it (Occupy L.A.’s relationship with the city) even really stopped the police from trying to subvert, repress the movement, so I think in the end, its just gonna hurt us more” (Anonymous, Personal Communication, October 15, 2011).

 

Attitudes swung between these two poles. There were also differing degrees of emotional investment in the issue amongst occupiers. Some thought the question terribly important, while others did not. What this meant in practice was that outspoken and motivated minorities on both sides of the issue took the lead to see their ideal realized as the proper relationship between Occupy L.A. and the city.

One particular affinity group, representative of communities of color that have experienced and organized around issues of police brutality in the face of these pressing questions, these varying attitudes, wished to conduct trainings on how to deal with police brutality, should the need arise. Other Occupiers felt that to hold such training would serve to unnecessarily antagonize the L.A.P.D. Some of the occupiers who opposed police brutality training had been part of a city liaison team, and had been developing an ongoing dialogue with city officials and the police department, with the stated goal of maintaining a peaceful, non-violent space.

This issue would come to a head early in the Occupation within the General Assembly, eventually resulting in the anti-police brutality affinity group feeling sufficiently marginalized by the General Assembly; enough so that their affinity group left Occupy L.A.:

            “During the General Assemblies on the first and second day of occupation, we witnessed fundamental breakdowns in the consensus process, resulting in undemocratic decision-making… Any discussions or proposals at the GA criticizing or objecting to collaboration with the police are immediately shouted down by the leadership… we have been prevented from making plans for strategic responses to police aggression … OccupyLA has excluded the concerns of people that have long experience with the police in their neighborhoods and also in protests…

Although the overall Occupation movement nationally aspires to use participatory democracy and the consensus process to be inclusive of the people, the efforts by the leadership to maintain informal control have prevented discussion or recognition of patriarchy, white supremacy, classism, heteronormativity, and other layers of oppression that exist in the broader society, which continue to be perpetuated within this “occupation” (Decolonize LA, 2011).

 

In this case, the G.A. seems to have failed dramatically to live up to its ideal of radical inclusivity. Its failure provides a couple of lessons. While recognizing that these events transpired very early in the occupation (Days one and two), structures of authority that developed prior to the G.A. were able to informally influence G.A. proceedings though tactics of domination, exclusion, and ‘shouting down.’ It became obvious that a power block(s) formed, based on ideology, racial identity and differing class experiences and history with the police department. Through sheer will, an informal authority exercised their will upon an outspoken minority through tactics of intimidation.

In a perfect world, committees, affinity groups and trainings would be developed to deal with the emergence of these informal forms of authority and coercion. In the case described above, the informal authority was too powerful, and overrode these dynamics, leaving particular members vulnerable, marginalized and willing to walk away from the movement; in this case, those most vulnerable to police abuse; a double victimization.

For the purposes of this project, it is important to note that while the General Assembly failed to live up to its promise of horizontalism, equal power and voice, it is still the desire of those marginalized to see it achieved. While noting the failure of the General Assembly in Occupy L.A., the anarchist structure itself is sill described, in the above critique, as desirable. The author claims a failure to live up to its potential of radical inclusivity. The question then becomes, does the G.A. have the flexibility, the fluidity inherent in its structure to deal with the emergence of ‘patriarchy, white supremacy, classism, heteronormativity, and other layers of oppression that exist in the broader society?’ Theoretically, it does. Perhaps it was so early in the Occupation that the structures were not developed in order to ensure the safety of marginalized groups within Occupy L.A., the dynamics were too personal, and too intense to be solved prior to a splitting of camp. What the example demonstrates is that to exercise domination, one had to violate the procedure of the General Assembly itself; to step outside of its official and normative rules and procedures. To prevent such occurrences in the future, it would seem to be a matter of strengthening the procedure, participation and practice of the General Assembly.

The open question is: will Occupy L.A’s G.A. evolve to meet the challenges that emerge derivative of being enmeshed in a patriarchal, hetero-normative, racist, classed society? It is an open question. Committees and affinity groups form to remediate these dynamics, but require democratic participation from those who would most benefit from attending them, which sometimes happened over the course of occupation, and sometimes did not. In the case presented above regarding the police brutality affinity group, trainings were proposed, but were denied even the right to be conducted.

For Occupy L.A. to live up to the standards of a truly anarchist social experiment, it must strengthen its capacity to keep informal authority from developing, through its institutional structure. Otherwise, the ideal of a horizontal social arrangement is only so much rhetoric masking abusive power. This failure does not signify a failure of Occupy L.A.’s anarchist experiment in its entirety, but points to tendencies that need to be addressed.

Despite criticisms, some rather devastating as in the case of Decolonize LA, the general assembly/consensus model has succeeded in liberating radical engagement and imagination of many G.A. participants. It is a new way to do ‘democracy.’ One unquestionably beneficial dynamic of the general assembly model is the degree to which the individual directly contributes to the conversation or is engaged. Whether its on a committee or consenting/ blocking an action in a G.A., this is a different type of engagement, of direct voice. It’s riddled with problems, but at the same time, has the potential to at least speak concerns absolutely marginalized in mainstream discourse.

Though there were criticisms of the General Assembly in action, everyone I spoke with agrees that the general assembly model is a desirable way to organize our efforts. That’s important, for Occupy L.A. is an open-process in flux, moving towards a goal of anarchist social organization. The degree to which occupations can remain committed to radical democratic praxis, and can continue to be self-interrogating with regards to questions of power and privilege, will determine the success of the movement.

 

Second Radical Principle: Construction of the New World in the Shell of the Old

“This movement looks a lot like the way I would like to see people administer their own workplaces and neighborhoods; democratic general assemblies, participatory democracy and absolute horizontalism. No parties, no non-sense about trying to take over the state.

It’s really about people taking care of each other, taking responsibility for their lives, their communities, their workplaces.”

Brian, Occupy L.A.

 

It has been theorized by anarchists that people come to consciousness of their own potential, and the society’s revolutionary potential, through doing. Whether or not a disaffected liberal-democrat considers himself an anarchist, or knows anarchist history and theory, when occupying they take part in anarchist social structure. The lesson learned, through doing, is that elites – whether of the capitalist manager, Democratic Party, or Marxist vanguard variety – are not necessary. People are fully capable of managing their own affairs from the bottom up in ever more complex arrangements of participatory democratic structure.

First formulated by Mikhail Bakunin, called ’emancipation through practical action’ this principle served as challenge to traditional Marxism with its material dialectic, and its stages of history; that only those societies at a certain level of industrialization can achieve liberation and equity in power (Marshall, 1984). Anarchists have asserted that we must build organizations, institutions, and develop consciousness within the existing margins of society. For if people are to someday manage their own affairs, they must have practice with self-management; in communities, in work places, in schools and in political movements challenging capital and state control.

Whereas traditional Marxists advocated a vanguard taking state power, then instituting mass scale education programs which would shift consciousness of the people (Lenin, 1920, pp. 1-2), anarchists have consistently argued people must be empowered, living in a self-directed fashion, if the ‘revolution’ is to be successful. It is in the doing of anarchism that consciousness shifts; to an anarchist, consciousness is largely epiphenomena of the institutions and social structures in which one is located.

The revolution would be not an explosion, but a slow accumulation of victories and ‘liberated spaces,’ and a reliance on an interdependent connection of self-managed institutions as the institutions of capital and the state, which functions on its behalf, become more and more burdensome, illegitimate, repressive and fall into crisis:

“One of the reasons why I’ve been involved with it (Occupy L.A.), is that… it says, ‘we have a right to be here,’ and to live and do anything we need to, as a group… not as individuals in our own separate little realities.

It’s taking the responsibility for ourselves and the people that are a part of this to deal with actual things that are relevant to us; everything that has to do with our daily lives – not having to work for someone else that’s totally alienating to us….” (Ernesto, Personal Communication, November 5, 2011).

 

On any given day during Occupy L.A.’s physical encampment, there were structures and committees in place providing a variety of services to keep the camp functional. Their was the food tent, serving meals to upwards of 500 people, including occupiers, the local homeless community, and others in need of a meal. No one was ever turned away. A makeshift library was constructed, a finance team soliciting and managing donations, a self-representing media collective was established. Their were study groups, trainings, and an Occupy L.A. Open University, dedicated to providing an education in Occupation, the theory undergirding the movement, as well as historical context; security forces, living quarters, and entertainment. Solidarity Park was a functional community existing within the margins of greater Los Angeles. What Ernesto references in the above quote is the lived experience of alternatives. Through the daily experience of Occupy L.A., not only were Occupiers physical needs met; they were validated in their imagining and desire of alternatives. Experience not only confirmed the theoretical idea that another world is possible,’ but it was lived day to day.

When asked about what he would like to see the Occupy Movement accomplish, another occupier answered:

 “It would be to liberate space… What it means to liberate is something we are still trying to figure out… we have community here. If it could proliferate we could start to see each other as our best resources. We want to infuse that in the places we are, in the spaces we create….” (Aquias, Personal Communication, November 5, 2011).

 

Ernesto adds:

“I want to see, spread out, the same consciousness that went into the creation of this space (Occupy L.A.). We are in the midst of a system that consciously denies the nature, the very existence of this space. To proliferate it, to make this tactic relevant everywhere: to schools, to workplaces, to homes…” (Ernesto, Personal Communication, November 5, 2011).

 

            This idea of spreading the model out, from homes to communities to workplaces is the anarchist principle of an accumulation of liberated spaces. Through living in, or experiencing an anarchist social experiment, the relevance of the model to other areas in one’s life became obvious to Occupiers as a preferable social arrangement to those more authoritarian.

.           Though these alternatives existed on a relatively small scale compared to the larger society, they provided occupiers an opportunity to think about how to develop and manage institutions in line with their radical imaginings of what a future society could look like. Because these alternative institutions were actually operable, experienced by participants, issues relating to their facilitation arose which may not have been predictable from purely abstract theorization. Occupiers were also able to form revolutionary attachment to such structures, to come to rely on them.

            With the eviction from physical encampment, occupiers have come to miss solidarity park. This longing is an ideological and resistant force on the institutions and structures of the larger society deemed non-representative of the interests of those who occupied. It is through the creation and managing of such institutions that the idea settles in: ‘this is possible. We can actually organize society differently, and it works.” And once it works, Occupiers are less likely to let such a vision and an actuality be destroyed by the authoritarian arm of status quo institutions.

 

Third Radical Principle: An Ambivalent Response to the Demand for Demands

“We don’t have varied agendas. We are against Neoliberal Economics. Look it up.”

– Sign held by Occupy L.A. protestor, November 22, 2011

 

The question of demands has been an issue at the heart of the Occupy movement, nationally and in Los Angeles. The question animates not only discussion in the occupations themselves, but in mainstream media representation of the movement. It is often asserted that Occupy has no demands, or that demands are so disparate as to be meaningless. The very question arises from some assumptions that need to be teased out before proceeding; the main question being, who is asking us for demands? Relatedly, is providing a list of demands to traditional centers of power (whether the political system, mainstream media, the intellectual class, etc.) the strategy occupiers should adopt?

            Occupy L.A.’s not providing a list of demands is a radical tactic. To make a demand on the political system, as one of my interviewees argues, is to grant legitimacy to those who require such demands be made:

“This thing in New York has only been happening for 12 days, and already, the media is like… what are their demands… what are their demands? And the second you’re like, well these are our demands, you’re saying that this is a legitimate political system… and it’s not….there’s no voice anymore for the common citizen… so it’s not a legitimate political system” (Alex, Personal Communication, October 1, 2011).

 

For to have demands may limit the very discourse, constrain it within a traditional liberal democrat/conservative republican binary. If you have a demand on someone, or an institution, and they answer it, your reason for being ceases. To refuse to provide demands, a refusal to grant legitimacy, is a radical gesture that ensures relevance – namely, to develop institutions that are legitimate.

As opposed to granting the traditional centers of power the right to meet demands, thus functioning in a reformist fashion, Occupy L.A. effectively asks, in response, for political representatives to attend a General Assembly. The very anarchist political formation is in fact a demand; for the political system to itself radicalize, to invest in people the right over their own person, denied in our political and economic system to the degree available in the Occupy model. The ‘demand’ is for the political and economic system to dismantle itself as an illegitimate form of authority.   

Occupiers do not have a series of demands for the political system, but have imagined together and lived a different way to do politics; to answer all of the multitude of social ills facing the current political configuration requires institutional redesign. Ask about the particular problem, and you’ll get a ‘demand.’

“What you need to understand is that what brought people together is not a ‘demand,’ but an emotion. Maybe anger. Everyone’s been affected on different terms…. So the demands are endless. It’s fucking difficult… there’s a lot of things that can be addressed. It’s a movement, not a protest…” (Steven, Personal Communication, November 27, 2011).

 

            The liberal democratic establishment cannot accommodate this reconfiguration, so why offer specific ‘demands,’ except to demonstrate occupiers’ separateness from traditional centers of power? The lack of demands, the inability of media pundits and apologists to wrap their minds around the ‘demand question,’ functions to create an irrevocable breach. It is a chasm of incommunicability between traditional centers of power and the Occupy movement where resolution becomes impossible. To surrender to the demand for demands would be a failure of Occupy, a re-integration of dissent in the folds of the state-corporate nexus. For traditional political authority to submit, necessarily means their willingness to self-eviscerate, to dismantle, which they structurally cannot, will not, do. It is a locking down in respective camps in preparation for a long-term struggle at the institutional level, not within the institutions of liberal representative democracy, but between these institutions and their radical alternative. It is the beginning of a dialectic.

Media often represents the demands they are able to perceive, extract or manufacture from Occupy as bearing no connection. In reality, they are deeply interconnected, and largely reactive to a multinational arrangement of globalized capital, its capacity to influence political systems internationally, domestically and even locally. Not a protest, but a social movement; directed towards an a-temporal, yet historically situated neoliberal system with deleterious effect in interlocking and wide public spheres. This is not the Occupy Movement’s weakness, as is often asserted, but precisely its strength. Occupy L.A.’s ‘demands’ exceed the institutional capacity of traditional centers of power to meet them. The singular demand is for a new set of institutions that can. The beginning of such institutions can be witnessed as operative within Occupations themselves. The only demand is radicalization.

 

Fourth Radical Principle: The Transnationality of the Occupy Movement

‘People of Egypt! We stand with you! From Cairo to California! In Love! And In Solidarity! We are WITH you!”

Occupy L.A. Statement of Solidarity with Egyptian Protestors, November 28, 2011

 

There is another radical foundation at the heart of the Occupy Movement: its transnationality. Dominant narrative represents the Occupy Movement as largely national in character, bound to particular cities in the United States – New York, Boston, Oakland, Chicago, and Los Angeles. On particular ‘big story days,’ such as the October 15th International Day of Action, mainstream reporting depicts riots in Rome, or protests in Greece and London. The tone and tenor of the representation limits the explicit connection that exists between these transnational sites. They are reported as disparate; only loosely connected. They are not ‘one action,’ but protests in separate places, separate times. Such a stance performs a couple of ideological functions:

            First, the movement appears smaller, less organized, and less directed than it really is. As opposed to a transnational social movement, directed at the multinational-corporate/financial system, the Occupy movement and respective encampments are represented as concerned only with domestic politics, and relatively fractioned off from one another.

Second, by not recognizing the Occupation Movement as entwined with actions in Tahrir Square in Egypt, the Indignados movement in Spain, the striking students in Chile or the anti-austerity protestors in Greece, a shared antagonist remains hidden. Though it manifests in particular places differently, effecting policies specific to particular countries and regions, the neoliberal economic order and the process of multinational globalization is the site of resistance, across actions and movements. This must remain hidden, for this neoliberal economic order is profoundly undemocratic, super-cedes states (and thus their democratic mechanisms) and invisibility is one of the primary mechanisms by which it is able to perform its work. The transnationality of Occupy, directed at international structures of finance and capital, is not recognized in mainstream discourse for to recognize this fact necessarily illuminates structures of authority that are largely effective because of their invisibility.

Naomi Klein, in her work The Shock Doctrine, describes an international order of finance and capital that maintains an effective veto power over the developments of nations and societies through loans and structural adjustment programs. Countries in financial crisis, whether that crisis be historical, as in the case of the formerly colonized countries, or a more contemporary one suffering the effects of political transition, war, natural disaster, and/or environmental devastation may appeal for a loan to the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. Money is loaned to meet the immediate needs of the country, or to benefit a voracious power elite in the case of autocratic societies, on the condition that the political leadership ‘structurally adjust’ its political system and economy: open up its markets to foreign investment, aka multinational capital. It is the imposition of a development model that has been shown to lead to massive wealth extraction, rising inequality and the construction or solidification of domestic elites linked to transnational capital, resulting in capital flight (Klein, 2007).

It is within this context that social movements, including Occupy Los Angeles, across the world began to emerge – most visibly in Egypt, Spain, and Greece. Though the ‘demands’ of these protestors, these movements, perhaps seem disparate on the surface to some lacking context, or are intentionally represented as such by those who benefit from systemic arrangements, it is easy to see their interconnection if the framework of international capital driving social and economic crises across national boundaries is understood.

By recognizing the transnational character of finance and corporate globalization as the preferred site of resistance, the Occupy Movement, along with the indignados in Spain, anti-austerity protestors in Greece, etc. radically re-imagines political engagement from domestic struggles to international ones, and reveals to its participants as well as those who comment and analyze structures heretofore invisible.

By creating structures within the shell of the old, and through developing a transnational connectivity and analysis of corporate globalization and financialization, Occupy forms a challenge to the necessity of the state itself, by developing communities of solidarity and shared sentiment outside the state system and across national boundaries.

To Occupiers in L.A., the transnational connections are universally recognized. Every single subject I interviewed when asked, “Do you feel connected to movements outside the United States; for instance, Egyptian protestors in Tahrir or the Indignados in Spain?” answered in the affirmative. That’s rather remarkable, given the scant attention paid to the transnational character of the Occupy Movement in mainstream representation.

 “It’s totally connected. If you look at the basic power structure of the world, like, take Egypt. You’ve got a U.S. supported puppet ruling Egypt, repressing Egyptians with American weapons. We all saw those pictures with the tear gas canisters: ‘made in the U.S.A.’

The police violence we see here is a soft version of the violence this country exports to places like Egypt; countries in the Middle East. People are seeing that it’s an interconnected thing. It’s not like certain problems are just found in certain countries… it’s a global movement, perspective, that’s fueling this” (Ernesto, Personal Communication, November 28, 2011).

 

Aquias adds:

“This couldn’t have happened (Occupy L.A.) if it hadn’t happened over there (Egypt). But that also points to our privilege. We don’t have to put up with the same sorts of prior repression that existed before the protest; and now, the present repression. Last night on the news, 36 people in Tahrir were killed. Killed! …by the police, by people who sympathize with the power structure. They’re still fighting” (Aquias, Personal Communication, November 28, 2011).

           

A recurrent theme running through Occupy L.A. participants’ commentary, as present in the quotes above, is the concept that we are relatively privileged in the United States; and that that privilege confers a responsibility. It is a responsibility to keep struggling, to use our relative freedom to agitate not only in our own interests, but for those in Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Greece and all of the other places with populations engaged in a struggle in which we are all deeply connected.

 “I feel very connected right now, because of the death toll; the injuries. I take personal responsibility for that… with Spain as well. I’ve been on the phone with (organizers) from Spain, who are coordinating the Spain occupation. I feel personally connected to these people. We HAVE to accomplish something. Cause those 35 people that died in Egypt, they will have literally died for nothing if we don’t do something. I was in those cloak and dagger meetings to get this thing afloat, and now…. Here we are. (A.K., Personal Correspondence, November 28, 2011).

 

            Occupy L.A.’s General Assembly structure is shared with the Indignados in Spain and the anti-austerity protestors in Greece. International activists have participated in international movements and organized occupations. Networks of communications, such as ‘Interoccupy’ conference calls have been conducted with international participation. Joint actions on October 15th, November 5th and December 1st all speak to the transnationality of Occupy. Participants imagine themselves as deeply connected with activists all over the world engaged in similar struggle, with particularized and local characteristics.

 

 

Conclusion

Through these four intersecting dynamics – the general assembly, creation of the new within the margins of the old, a refusal to provide a list of Occupy demands, and the transnationality of Occupy – Occupy L.A., in conjunction with other occupations nationally and internationally, has developed the foundations for a radical alternative to neoliberalism and capitalist-democracy.

The General Assembly eviscerated the need for representative democracy (and its lobbyists), and by calling for its adoption in multiple spheres, also illuminates the fundamentally totalitarian nature of many of our dominant institutions, including the corporation. Living the new within the shell of the old demonstrates that alternatives, even if small in scale, are possible. They shift consciousness amongst participants from an idea existing in people’s heads about a different world, to a lived experience that is worth defending and extending, as liberative. The refusal to provide a comprehensive list of demands functions as a demand in itself: for institutions that embody the principles of Occupations including horizontalism and equal voice. The transnationality of the Occupy movement recognizes the development of institutions and networks outside the bounds of the State, thus illuminating its arbitrary and repressive role across different locales. These four dynamics function as the irreducible radicalism at the Heart of Occupy L.A. Despite the attempts at co-optation by moveon.org and others[iv], the stealing of slogans without the approval of the General Assembly, and disseminating them from vertically structured, politically stagnant reformist institutions so radically undermines the intention and institutions of the Occupy Movement as to be an act of betrayal.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Slavoj Zizek spoke of the Occupy Movement, and what we can hope to accomplish. “Something will have to be done. But let’s face it – openly – the tragedy is that… I don’t know, we don’t know… what effective form can replace (the) capitalist-democratic system the way we have it now” (Zizek, 2011).

I think that Occupiers in Los Angeles would disagree. Occupiers push for increased democratization and further empowering voice; the flattening of hierarchy, across multiple spheres, social, political and economic. To counter Zizek, the “tragic” thing may be to realize that we do, in fact, have the solution to our current predicament of neoliberalism and capitalist-democracy. We know exactly what to do; extend anarchist principles of social organization throughout the social field to every institution illegitimately structured by hierarchy. There are powerful forces that will resist this drive towards greater democratization. There is no guarantee of victory. We must stare the real world in the face, and it is frightening,

It is not a matter of lacking a road map, a strategy. In this present moment, it is purely a balance of power: a matter of force. Numbers, concentrations of wealth able to control representation and messaging; police forces are what keeps ‘revolution’ from being realized in larger scale. But larger scale success is not a prerequisite for having the solution. What is ‘tragic’ is the balance of power weighted to the status quo, no guarantee of capitalist implosion, or successive stages of history. By positing that ‘we don’t have the answers,’ Zizek in fact aligns against those who are actually living solutions to presenting problems/dynamics, on the ground, through his de-legitimization of the anarchist, horizontal model.

            Which brings us to the contemporary moment. Occupy has been evicted from physical encampments. Many of the voices I spoke with at Occupy LA speculated that there was something special about maintaining physical space. It was read as an opportunity to demonstrate to ourselves and to outsiders that much of what we accept as natural, is not. Judith Butler for one asserted the importance of occupying a physical space through time, as it meant the protest never went away. Even when asleep, the protest is happening (Elliott, 2011).

Others at Occupy L.A. have spoken of the eviction as liberation, a blessing in disguise. Occupations could, like seeds scattered, form mobile and multiple occupation sites – new parks, bank lobbies, in front of foreclosed homes, blocking eviction. These hopes have largely been realized in disparate actions, though media representation is down. Occupiers have blocked foreclosures, they have marched and staged demonstrations. Though General Assemblies have seen a decline in numbers over the winter months, actions have continued. There is a general strike planned for May 1st, nationally and internationally. Core organizers have remained committed to developing and strengthening ties, networks and structures that will form a stable ground for this movement, nationally and internationally, that participants can come back to. This radical alternative has so far survived after eviction, and is growing. As the Occupy LA motto says,  “spring is coming.” And we are all anarchists, now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

List of References[v]

 

  1. Bennett, Drake. David Graeber, the Anti-Leader of Occupy Wall Street. Bloomberg Businessweek, 26-October-2011. Retreived from http://www.businessweek.com 12/1/11 http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/david-graeber-the-antileader-of-occupy-wall-street-10262011.html

 

  1. Chomsky, Noam. Concision in the Mass Media. Audio Lecture. Retrieved from Youtube. 12/1/11 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RlL2Jj-kCNU

 

  1. Chomsky, Noam. Government in the Future. Audio Lecture. Retrieved from Youtube, 12/1/11. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-kPlEJlmWuc

 

  1. Decolonize LA. (2011, October 16). Statement from Decolonize LA [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://unpermittedla.wordpress.com/2011/10/16/statement-from-decolonize-la/

 

  1. Elliott, Justine. “Judith Butler at Occupy Wall Street.” salon.com. Salon, 24 Oct. 2011. Web. 01 Dec. 2011

 

  1. Fukayama, Francis. (1989) Have We Reached the End of History? Retrieved from http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a228233.pdf

 

  1. Klein, Naomi 2007. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York, Metropolitan Books.

 

  1. Lenin, Vladimir. (1920) “Left-Wing” Communism in Germany The Leaders, the Party, the Class, the Masses. Marxists Internet Archive. Retrieved from http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/pdf/Lenin_Left_wing_Communism.pdf

 

  1. Marshall, Peter 1984. Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism. Oakland, PM Press.

 

  1. Spivak, Gayatri 1993. Outside in the Teaching Machine. New York, Routledge.

 

  1. Woodcock, George 2004. Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements. Ontario, Broadview Press.

 

  1. Zizek, Slavoj. Talk to Al Jazeera. Video Interview. Retrieved from Youtube, 03/29/12. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Qhk8az8K-Y


[i] According to the BBC, In February, between six and ten million people protested the potential for a United States military invasion of Iraq. Cities with major actions included New York, London, Barcelona, and Rome and in many other cities in which national leadership had vocalized support for the invasion. Retrieved from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/2765215.stm

[ii] Illegitimate in the sense that hierarchy does not contribute to greater efficiency or effectiveness in the case of these institutions, but simply as mechanisms for ensuring control and limiting popular influence.

[iii] These terms will be qualified later, as disparities in privilege soon emerged with a flattening of the more visible forms of economic and political power. Occupiers almost reflexively assert a demand for ever-greater democratic control in decision-making and participation.

 

[iv] The ‘99% movement’ is one such attempt of employing Occupy rhetoric, without approval from General Assemblies. http://the99spring.com

[v] The submission guidelines for Anarchist Studies provides list of references examples for books, journals, and collections. Where no examples were provided, as in the case of online newspaper articles and youtube videos, citations follow the APA format as provided in Dianne Hacker’s online citation guide: http://bcs.bedfordstmartins.com/resdoc5e/RES5e_ch09_s1-0002.html

Occupy Together: The Transnational Foundation of Occupy Wall Street

Context for Occupation

The Occupy movement has come to capture the national imagination. Since the pitching of first tents in Zucotti Park in the original Occupy Wall Street action in late September, media coverage has shifted from relatively sparse, dismissive, even ridiculing (by both conservative and “liberal” media centers) to headline making news. Many occupiers that I have spoken with at OccupyLA (I am currently conducting ethnographic research for another project, as well as producing a film) attribute the explosion of sympathetic sentiment with the emergence of video footage of police repression, the use of unnecessary violence against a non-violent, peaceful group of protestors in New York in late september and early October, the raid of the Oakland encampment, up through the pepper spray incident of students at the Occupy UC Davis action. No matter the cause, there has been a qualitative and quantitative shift in coverage of the Occupy movement over the last two and a half months.

This increase in coverage has born largely positive effects for the occupy movement. It has privileged discourses on inequality, allowed for recognition of sympathy with the aims of the movement in large swathes of the U.S. population. It has brought issues of Wall Street recklessness and corporate control of the political system into the national discussion. Despite these positive effects, there is one story that has been systemically elided in mainstream representation: the transnationality of the Occupy Movement.

The dominant narrative depicts the Occupy Movement as largely national in character, bound to particular cities in the United States – New York, Boston, Oakland, Chicago, Los Angeles, etcetera. On particular ‘big story days,’ such as the October 15th international day of action, we see stories of riots in Rome, or protests in Greece and London. The tone and tenor of the representation limits the explicit connection that exists between these transnational sites. They are reported as disparate, only loosely connected. They are not ‘one action,’ but protests in separate places, separate times. Such a stance performs a couple of ideological functions:

First, the movement appears smaller, less organized, and less directed than it really is. As opposed to a transnational social movement, directed at the multinational-corporate / financial system, the Occupy movement and respective encampments are concerned only with domestic politics, and relatively fractioned off from one another.

Second, by not recognizing the Occupation Movement as transnational, entwined with actions in Tahrir Square in Egypt, the indignados movement in Spain, the striking students in Chile, or the anti-austerity protestors in Greece, etcetera, a shared antagonist remains hidden. Though it manifests in particular places differently, effecting policies specific to particular countries and regions, the neoliberal economic order and the process of multinational globalization is the site of resistance, across actions and movements. This must remain hidden, for this neoliberal economic order is profoundly undemocratic, super-cedes states (and thus their democratic mechanisms) and invisibility is one of the primary mechanisms by which it is able to perform its work. If people knew what was happening they would more likely resist, or at least be in sympathy with those who do. You can’t recognize the movement as transnational, directed at a transnational structure of finance and capital, for that reveals that structure.

Naomi Klein, in her work “The Shock Doctrine,” describes an international order of finance and capital which maintains a veto power over the developments of nations and societies through loans and ‘structural adjustment programs.’ Countries in financial crisis, whether that crisis be historical (as in the case of the formerly colonized countries), or a more contemporary one (suffering the effects of political transition, war, natural disaster, environmental devastation) may appeal for a loan to the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Money is loaned to meet the immediate needs of the country, or to benefit a voracious power elite in the case of autocratic societies, on the condition that the political leadership ‘structurally adjust’ its political system and economy: open up its markets to foreign investment, aka multinational capital. The loan may or may not remediate immediate concerns of the country in duress in the short term. In the long term, it means a giving away of a country’s infrastructure, allowing for privatization of everything from energy to water supply. It is the imposition of a development model, theorized at the University of Chicago by Milton Friedman and his acolytes, that has been shown to lead to massive wealth extraction, rising inequality and the construction or solidification of domestic elites linked to transnational capital, resulting in capital flight. (Klein, Shock Doctrine)

The fundamental principle is that when a country is in crisis, you ‘shock it.” The population is willing to accept a disadvantageous socio/political/economic (selling off of its infrastructure) because it has no choice, facing immediate crises (Domestically, think T.A.R.P. and Wall Street bailouts). The policies prove beneficial to multinational capital, but harmful to the populations of those respective countries.

Within a globalized system of capital, it is not only the countries in the traditionally defined ‘third-world,’ which face ‘structural adjustment.’ Finance capital has an effective veto power over first world governments, as well. For if finance doesn’t like a particular policy or set of policies instituted by a national government, it may withdraw its investments, its capital. International finance may move it to another country, freely. National economies in a global system require capital to keep the engine running, so they are willing to institute policies harmful to the population, yet ideologically masked through rhetoric of ‘free-markets’ that do not too directly challenge finance. This is precisely what happened in Argentina in the 90’s, leading to a massive run on banks, riots and street protests, and a series of governmental changes – eventually resulting in the eviction of the IMF from the country.

The societies which most benefited from this multinational arrangement of globalized capital were beginning by 2008 to fall into crises, themselves. With the Wall Street collapse and subsequent economic recession, the United States government, financial sector and population all began searching for answers to stabilize the system. Certain programs are off the table, due to the role of finance’s veto power. You can’t nationalize health care, even though to do so would by itself eliminate the deficit (Baker, What we’re not being told about Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan). You can’t roll back military spending significantly because it is the keynesian mechanism by which the entire high-tech economy, (everything from biotech, semi-conductors to satellites) is subsidized. So politicians in the United States have settled on what is the equivalent of our own version of the shock doctrine. Namely, roll back all social programs that have any effect or benefit to the population. Social security, medicare/medicaid, education, governmental agencies that function to remediate the deleterious effects of capital like the EPA are all now vulnerable to either elimination or privatization. The solution to the crisis becomes to further the very policies which drove the crisis, because, those with an effective veto per over the political system are not in crisis, at all. Profits are way up, as is income inequality. In the moment of crisis, we are told we have to ram through legislation harmful to the population because there is no other option. The traditional political system, the two-party system, go along with it, for their elections are financed by these same interests.

The U.S. economic crisis was not limited to the United States. As described above, we live in an interconnected and globalized economy in which multinationals not lack respect for national boundaries and sovereignty of political systems, but have power over them. Banks all across the world bore deep exposure to the toxicity at the heart of Wall Street, through mutual investment, and through “insuring” such investments. As the Western European and Mediterranean countries began to suffer systemic infection from the U.S. crisis, they also proposed controls and mechanisms to restrain damage that was largely the expense of their populations. Politically unwilling to engage / challenge multinational finance, which held a knife to the state / political system’s throat, austerity cuts (rolling back the social safety nets), across Western Europe and Greece, were proposed as the only solution to avert economic catastrophe and systemic failure.

The structural connections between global multinationals and financial power on the one hand, and Egypt on the other (and the resultant Occupation of Tahrir Square) are quite different, but no less explicitly connected. For 30-plus years, the United States had maintained, through military action and aid, an autocratic regime headed by Hosni Mubarak. Along with Israel, Egypt has functioned as offshore military base for the United States, ensuring that the oil-producing middle east region maintained ‘stability,’ a technical term, meaning firmly under “our” control. Energy plays a vital role in maintaing the global capitalist order, an order the United States as hegemon is explicitly interested in maintaining. Oil fuels capitalist economies, and control over it also ensures an effective veto to any independent challenger to the global capitalist order, for instance a nationalist country that wished to use oil profits for the better development of its country and for the welfare of its population. Such independent nationalism cannot be tolerated in the region, for it would represent an effective challenge to the U.S., by extension the multinational/financial capital it represents. Similar in that the Egyptian state is embedded within a transnational system of global capital integration, conditions in Egypt were, and continue to be, much more repressive than in the western democracies: a qualitative difference which should not be overlooked. Nevertheless, protestors in Egypt bear a connection to the Occupiers in New York and across the United States, as they do to Greece and Spain, and everywhere else with an Occupy encampment, as they are resisting a government installed in order to function on behalf of the self-same globalized system. (Chomsky, It’s Not Radical Islam…)

It is within this context that social movements across the world began to emerge, most visibly in Egypt, Spain, and Greece. Though the ‘demands’ of these protestors, these movements, perhaps seem disparate on the surface to some lacking context, it is easy to see their interconnection if the framework of international capital driving social and economic crises is understood.

Imagining A Global Movement

“The imagination, especially when collective, can become the fuel for action. It is the imagination, in its collective forms. that creates the ideas of neighborhood and nationhood, of moral economies and unjust rule, of higher wages and foreign labor prospects. The imagination is today a staging ground for action, and not only for escape.” (Appadurai, Modernity at Large, 7)

Arjun Appadurai is referencing a ‘community of sentiment.’ What unites protestors in Tahrir Square beyond the effects suffered from an ideologically cloaked transnational world-capitalist system? How do we as activists relate to one another? How do we move from isolated cries into a collectivity, engaged in analysis of our shared situation, and action? On the ground at OccupyLA where I am performing an ethnography to document its developments through time, I have conducted multiple interviews, and with thoughts to this project have asked, “Do you feel connected to other protestors, internationally? In particular, those in Tahrir Square, the indignant in Spain and Greece?” It was the only question that I asked occupiers in my interviews that yielded a Universal answer. “Yes.”

We are connected. Why? How?

Both Appadurai and Benedict Anderson (Anderson, Imagined Communities) theorize that print capital, and beyond that, media, have the capacity to generate in their users/consumers a sense of “community with,” a “shared sentiment.” In the case of Occupy, and associated transnational movements, the sentiment shared seems to be, through the consumption of texts critical of the global order of capital, watching news coverage of assaults on protestors in Egypt, sympathizing with anti-austreity measure protestors in Greece and Spain due to a shared identity of what I am calling a “radical” position. It is radical not because it necessarily aligns with a Marxist or Anarchist project. It is radical in its analysis, not its prescription. The content of this analysis, for those in the Occupy movement of the United States is, generally, “We are in a shared struggle against multinational corporations and finance capital, with all its attendant structures and institutions (militarism and the support of dictatorship), with other protestors and movements across the world. For Egyptians, who know very well the support provided by the United States to Mubarak’s dictatorship, they see a movement developed within the imperial center, challenging a political and economic order which uses force within Egypt to create a ground for itself. Protestors in Greece and Spain know the international nature of finance as well.

We are natural allies against a status quo power arrangement, and it is transparent, given you have a radical analysis of global order as assumption. That assumption is formed through text, media, and subjectivity formation.

“…electronic mass mediation and transnational mobilization have broken the monopoly of autonomous nation-states over the project of modernization. The transformation of everyday subjectivities through electronic mediation and the work of the imagination is not only a cultural fact. It is deeply connected to politics, through the new ways in which individual attachments, interests, and aspirations increasingly crosscut those of the nation-state.” (Appadurai, 10)

The internet has played a function quite radical in facilitating ‘individual attachments.’ Last spring, as events ramped up in intensity in Tahrir Square, Facebook groups formed, solidarity pages, and spread amongst activist circles. A meme spread, ‘black out your profile pic in solidarity with the Egyptian Uprising.’ Activists within the United States were identifying with, imagining a connection facilitated by technology, beyond reading and sharing sentiment. Friend requests were sent. Twitter feeds followed. Communications developed between organizers. Beyond a purely imagined solidarity, networks began to establish which would come to bear organizational fruit from Egyptian protests to what would become the Occupy Movement (discussed in greater depth below).

How many media representations indicate that the original call to Occupy Wall Street came from an international culture jamming organization, Adbusters magazine based in Vancouver, inspired by what they saw happening in Tahrir Square? A full page “ad” ran, asking the question, “Are you ready for a Tahrir moment?” Activists in Canada, sympathetic with Egyptian protests, floating an idea to its American activist audience – is it possible to occupy wall street, to set up tents, to maintain a camp in the middle of the financial capitol of the world, in the same way activists encamped for days on end in Tahrir? (Kaste, Exploring Occupy Wall Street’s ‘Adbuster Origins) The very origin of the occupation was explicitly linked transnationally, through an imagined community, largely shaped by political identification or activist stance; an identification/stance fueled by traditional print text, media representation (of the critical sort), social networks, and a variety of internet based communication tools.

Connections and solidarity, though, was not just imagined. In April of 2011, organizers from Egypt’s April 6th movement (the original organizers behind the Tahrir Square actions, who had been attempting to rally Egyptians to the cause since 2008) came to New York to discuss the Egyptian Revolution taking place, in University settings. (Myerson, Occupying Wall Street and Tahrir Square)
To egyptian activist/organizer Ahmed Maher, though, lecturing at University wasn’t the most important reason for the trip; “What really matters is meeting with young American bloggers and activists.” Issues of inequality across societies was a common meeting point for activist to discuss, linked to hierarchal systems of transnational capital, blocking independent development in Egypt, and driving the United states deeper into economic catastrophe.

Maher and his comrade Waleed Rashed spoke with American activists about their experience organizing in Egypt, the uses of social media and traditional mechanisms for generating support, what they hoped to accomplish. Rashed advised the audience of activists, many in the room who would come to play a vital role in the establishment of the first Occupy encampment in New York City, “Don’t worry if the revolution doesn’t come tomorrow. It will come. It is only a matter of time. Just keep working.” Perhaps Rashed would be surprised at the speed in which ‘the revolution’ did in fact come. (Myerson, Soccer, Cabs and Revolution…)

Marisa Holmes is an activist filmmaker who helped organize the Wall street protests, as well as engaged in a filmic project to document developments in Egypt post-Mubarak. She adds a rather startlingly insight to the transnational nature of Occupation, the globalized system being resisted: “The tear gas used on protestors in Tahrir Square was manufactured by Combined Systems Inc., a US based company. The same company provided the pepper spray used in UC Davis demonstrations…This is a period of global unrest. It cannot be stopped. We will occupy everywhere.” (Myerson, Occupying Wall Street and Tahrir Square) And to add, it’s a global system being resisted.

In recent weeks, Tahrir square has been retaken as revolution is not a goal achieved with the ouster of Mubarak, but a continual process. Protestors are now aligned against a military dictatorship, and demanding greater citizen participation and democratization. Protestors have been photographed with signs expressing solidarity with the Occupy movements, from New York to Oakland, and in interviews expressed solidarity with Occupy Wall Street, and have recognized (imagined?) the global nature and interconnection of this citizens movement, called in Egypt, the battle for Tahrir square (and throughout the region, Bahrain, Syria, etc. the ‘Arab Spring’). In still others, there have been occupations. In Western Europe and the Mediterranean, we have heard of Los Indignados, or the indignant.

Transnational Activists and Transnational Models

The transnational connections of Occupation are not limited to traveling activists, shared ideas / analyses, nor to novel communication vehicles like those facilitated by the internet. A transnational component is inscribed in the very heart of occupation, in the structure: the general assembly model and their associated mechanisms of organizations.

The General Assembly model can be traced throughout anarchist history and theory as the participatory democratic model by which social movements can most effectively organize themselves so as to ensure equal voice and egalitarianism amongst its participants (Marshall, Peter. Demanding the Impossible) The General Assembly emerged most visibly in the Spanish Revolution of 1936 (perhaps the largest-scale and most successful anarchist project in history).(Woodcock, 329) In more recent manifestation, the general assembly model has been used to structure decision making and participation in the indignados movements in Spain, emerging May 15th of 2011, in response to the european fiscal crisis and lack of confidence in Spanish politics. as well as in the anti-austerity movement in Greece emerging May 5th of 2011.

The General Assembly is a leaderless, radical-democratic vehicle by which proposals are produced, discussed, and ratified. Composed of ‘assembled persons’ (whoever is there, in the square, and desires to participate), and rooted in a process of consensus, the General assembly functions horizontally. All business of the occupation is handled within it. Proposals are made to the entire General Assembly and must be ratified, through consensus, which means 100% agreement of the entire body. Consent, disagreement, hesitation to endorse are all effected through a symbology, a series of body/hand gestures. Often times, the business at Occupy grows to detailed, too specific to be handled in the G.A., so committees and affinity groups are formed, within the G.A. in order to facilitate the needs of the collective. Such committee/affinity groups use the same symbology and require consensus as the G.A. itself. Proposals are made by committees and brought back to the G.A. for ratification.

If a singular voice wishes to ‘block’ the proposal, she may. The proposal then goes back to the committee which formed it, for re-theorization or to be scrapped, depending on the committees capacity to come to resolution of the issue that drove the block. If a proposal is reformulated, it goes back to the G.A. for a consensus taking. I have documented the General Assembly in action, from formation on Los Angeles, through its development, in my ethnographic film, available here (clip begins at 6:35):

The clip demonstrates the formation of committees, affinity groups, as well as the symbology of Occupation, a set of communication tools, shared not only across Occupations, but internationally as well, in the indignados movement.

In fact, in Los Angeles, several of the activist/organizers I interviewed participated in formations not only of occupations.’s nationally (Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York), but were participants in the indignados movement in Spain. OccupyLA participants were trained in the structure of General Assembly by transnational activists, who had gotten the model from Spain.

The situation was not different in the original formation of Occupy Wall Street, in New york. David Graeber (Graeber, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology), anarchist anthropologist, played an instrumental role in the formation of the occupation, as well as in ensuring that the G.A. would become the mechanism, or radical engine, at its heart. He described a situation on August 2nd at Bowling Green, a planning meeting for some kind of action on Wall Street in September. When he arrived, the same old ‘verticals’ were present, activist organizations with hierarchical structures, giving speeches., planning a traditional ‘march.’ He was disheartened.

“But as I paced about the Green, I noticed something. To adopt activist parlance: this wasn’t really a crowds of verticals—that is, the sort of people whose idea of political action is to march around with signs under the control of one or another top-down protest movement. They were mostly pretty obviously horizontals: people more sympathetic with anarchist principles of organization, non-hierarchical forms of direct democracy, and direct action. I quickly spotted at least one Wobbly, a young Korean activist I remembered from some Food Not Bomb event, some college students wearing Zapatista paraphernalia, a Spanish couple who’d been involved with the indignados in Madrid… I found my Greek friends, an American I knew from street battles in Quebec during the Summit of the Americas in 2001, now turned labor organizer in Manhattan, a Japanese activist intellectual I’d known for years… My Greek friend looked at me and I looked at her and we both instantly realized the other was thinking the same thing: “Why are we so complacent? Why is it that every time we see something like this happening, we just mutter things and go home?” – though I think the way we put it was more like, “You know something? Fuck this shit. They advertised a general assembly. Let’s hold one.” (Graeber, “What Did We Actually Do Right?)

To the chagrin of the ‘verticals,’ Graeber and his associates did indeed hold a General Assembly, in another part of the park. As the meeting conducted by the verticals fell into disarray because of disagreement about how to proceed, people began to make their way over to the general assembly. By the end, the “horizontals” had won out. Everyone had come over. Occupy Wall Street would not be led by the traditional activist organizations / hierarchy, (ie. World Workers Party, the Answer Coalition), but would instead be structured as General Assembly, run on consensus.

The transnational element of this formation is transparent – a Korean Wobbly (an international, anarchist workers union interested in workers’ control of production), Zapatista paraphernalia (though the nationality of those donning the garb is not known, we at least have an instance of ‘imagined’ solidarity with a movement in Chiapas). We see reference to the Indignados, a movement Graeber himself indicates participation in, Greece and Canadian protests/activists as sites of influence. From its very foundation, the Occupy Movement not only imagined itself as connected in a struggle with a series of social movements in varying locations and across time, but was structured by people traveling across borders, bringing their experiences of radical-democratic engagement and participation with them, as building blocks and alternative vision.

Graeber is not the only theorist of anarchism and ‘horizontal’ structure (as opposed to vertical also known as ‘anti-authoritarianism’ in activist parlance) to participate in the active formation of Occupy G.A. mechanisms. Marina Sitrin, post-doctoral fellow at the City University of New York has been an instrumental voice not only in the formation of Occupy Wall Street, but in theorizing the ‘next step’ post-eviction from particular encampments for the Occupy Movement. Sitrin’s major work, horizontalism emerges from her experience within Latin American social movements, in particular horizontal groups in Argentina organizing around anarchist principles, living an experience of direct democracy, and constructing a vision of a new world within the shell of the old, through practice and action. It is fast becoming a canonical text amongst ‘horizontals.’ She spoke of the anarchist principles undergirding the Occupy Movement and their international connections:

The ways in which we organize in these spaces of assemblies and working groups is inextricably linked to the vision of what we are creating. We seek open, horizontal, participatory spaces where each person can truly speak and be heard. We organize structures, such as facilitation teams, agendas, and variations on the forms of the assembly, from general assemblies to spokes councils, always being open to changing them so as to create the most democratic and participatory space possible… The creation of alternative institutions and solutions has already begun in the United States. With or without encampments, the constructive phase of the Occupy movement is here, and all indications are that it will not slow down, as it has not slowed down in Spain.,,, This is the beginning of the occupation of an encampment that will never be dislodged: the world.” (Sitrin, Occupy Wall Street: Beyond Encampments)

Beyond trafficking in people across borders, or ideologies, or tactics, the very mechanism of organization and decision making is, at it’s roots, transnational. Borrowed from people and movements not bound by national lines, participants in these actions/structures have not interest in even ‘taking the state,’ to borrow a Marxist conception. There is no need for it. The general assembly, shared transnationally, theorizes in its very structure, a transcendence of national boundaries, through a series of interlinking assemblies, stretching from community and workplace, to a federated system that can theoretically reach international levels.

Transnational Connectivity

On November 28th, an Egyptian born, American activist addressed the General Assembly of Occupy Los Angeles. Protests in Egypt had re-initiated, and that very day, international news reports carried images of state violence and resistance in Tahrir Square. She proceeded to give us a ‘status update’ (to borrow Facebook parlance). Using the “people’s mic,” she announced to OccupyLA the death of 36 Egyptians and thousands injured that day, with Tahrir square becoming ‘the largest hospital in the world at this moment.’ She went on read a prepared statement, in order to express through her own voice, and the voice of our occupation, our solidarity with the Egyptian protestors:

‘People of Egypt! We stand with you! From Cairo to California! In Love! And In Solidarity! We are WITH you!”

The voices of the occupation rang off the walls of city hall, into the frigid, night air. As i put down my camorder, looked around at the assembled peoples i was occupying space with and up at the sky where an LAPD police helicopter circled, flood light ablaze, I felt connected with protestors across the world, in my own encampment, and wondered, how long until the state moves on us?

The next night, as I prepared a presentation of my ethnographic film on Occupy Los Angeles, a raid of our encampment was conducted, in which 1700 officers bussed in from Dodger Stadium in riot gear, and with threat of force, removed our localized manifestation of global solidarity, carrying several hundred off for an extended jail visit. I watched the eviction on television’s local news. I had five browsers up and active, watching OccupyLa’ers move their way about the event, recording with cell phones, broadcasting through Livestreams. I engaged in ‘chats’ on the livestreams, sending updates from what I had seen on the news about police movement. I chatted with other occupiers about what was happening. We tweet bombed, updated Facebook accounts with status updates. I went on other Occupy Wall Pages, letting them now about the eviction in progress, sharing livestream links, so other occupiers could observe in real time what was happening in LA. I linked livestreams and updates to the Occupy Together Page, Occupy Rome, Occupy London, Spain, Greece. So did others. On chats, people across the world began to appear, expressing solidarity from their respective countries, offering advice from their own experience about how to manage the unfolding event/tragedy. Many just expresses their rage, frustration, or sadness. One spanish protestor, engaged in chat, simply wrote, “Basta!”, or ‘enough, the signifier of not only the Spanish Indignados, but an expression of solidity, shared experience, sentiment.

From the formation of the Tahrir square protests, up through the spread of Occupy around the country, the internet has functioned as vital communication tool, effecting shared sentiment and notions of solidarity across the global movement. In egypt, a video was produced and uploaded to youtube by Asmaa Mahfouz, activist and organizer, which would go viral and help to catalyze popular participation in its revolution ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lLPjkFNeL7M ).

Wael Ghonim, Egyptian activist and google executive, created a Facebook page entitled, “We are al Khaled Said,” in honor of an Egyptian youth slain by Egyptian police. Said, it is claimed, was in possession of evidence of illegal activity by Egyptian police. He was apparently killed, beaten to death for it. The first version of this Facebook account was taken down, due to a violation of facebook’s ‘terms and services,” but soon thereafter, it appeared again, with an english version, apparently created to generate international attention. Ghonim is presumed to be behind the reintroduction of the account(s), and was subsequently arrested and held for twelve days. (Coker, Google Executive Emerges….)

Both Facebook pages, Mahfouz’s and Ghonim’s became sites of conversation, connection and planning. By January 24th, 85,000 people indicated they would ‘attend’ the protests the next day, according to an events page created to represent the growing movement. (Hauslohner, Is Egypt About to Have a Facebook Revolution?)

After being releases from Egyptian detainment, Ghonim asserted: “I want to meet Mark Zuckerberg one day and thank him […] I’m talking on behalf of Egypt. […] This revolution started online. This revolution started on Facebook. This revolution started […] in June 2010 when hundreds of thousands of Egyptians started collaborating content. We would post a video on Facebook that would be shared by 60,000 people on their walls within a few hours. I’ve always said that if you want to liberate a society just give them the internet.” (Smith, Egypt’s Facebook Revolution: Wael Ghonim Thanks the Social Network)

During those early days of Egyptian Revolution, I was asked to join a ‘group’ on Facebook, entitled ‘Black out your Profile in Solidarity with the Egyptian People.’ I was invited by an old high school classmate, who was now a lawyer/activist in the bay area, and had not seen, in person, in 17 years. The ‘group’ would grow from a few dozen people, to several thousand within the next few weeks, and blacked out profiles became a meme of indeterminable, but rather significant degree.

As the technology becomes more and more ubiquitous in our daily lives, it has been exciting to watch the use activists, transnationally, have put these technologies. When I first joined the ‘Occupy Los ANgeles’ Facebook page, we had 46 members. At the time of this writing, there are 48,000. Multitudes of those are from other occupation sites, domestically and internationally. They have received ‘updates’ about what’s happening on the ground, in real time, over the last two and a half months, inspiring contact, coordination, and a deepening of a shared imaginary/sentiment.

On November 28th, two days before eviction with events in Egypt up from in media representation, I asked several OccupyLa’ers their thoughts with regards to the International aspect of occupation. “Do you feel connected to other protestors internationally, in particular those protests in Egypt?” One interviewee provided some useful illumination on the context.

He described himself as ‘one of the original organizers of Occupy Wall Street,” participating in early August G.A.’s and planning meetings in New York, for the coming action. He came to LA in mid-october, because it was ‘too cold” in New york, and thought that because of the weather in LA, the occupation would have more of a chance at longevity anyway.

He spoke of the transnational nature of Occupy, from his perspective. He spoke of telephone conversations he had had with organizers in Italy and Spain, to organize the October 15th ‘International Day of Action.’ October 15th saw actions all across the world, and was largely coordinated through such informalized communication networks, with organizers and activists from previously shared struggles communicating through telephone, Facebook, twitter and other social networks. The 15th of October was chosen for the day of international action because it represented the 5 month anniversary of the Indignados movement’s actions, in Spain. I did not hear that explicitly transnational connection mentioned in a singular mainstream representation of the day’s coordinated actions. Mass media images showed massive riots in Rome, clashes with police in Spain and Greece, yet never mentioned in dominant discourse were the explicit connections, the context in which such a coordinated action developed. The scale of some of these protests were mind-blowing. Here’s an example of Spain:
http://www.youtube.com/watchv=SjUIEAZr4Yo&list=LL60iMUVScxNpbEvBH_yNaTA&index=1&feature=plpp_video

The interviewee spoke of Tahrir. “Yeah, I’m connected. A lot of people got killed today. A lot hurt. I don’t feel CONNECTED. I feel RESPONSIBLE…. you know, partly. I’m helping to organize this action here. And people over there are getting killed. A lot of people are laying their lives on the line, and all of us here aren’t suffering like that. It’s important to remember how serious this is.”

In a recent interview with Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman, novelist and activist Arunhdati Roy captured the transnational potential of the Occupy movement, and it’s relation to her home country of India, and by extension, a multitude of international sites:

“I mean, it does need a lot of thinking through, but I would say that, to me, fundamentally, you know, people have to begin to formulate some kind of a vision, you know, and that vision has to be the dismantling of this particular model, in which a few people can be allowed to have an unlimited amount of wealth, of power, both political as well as corporate. You know, that has to be dismantled. And that has to be the aim of this movement. And that has to then move down into countries like mine, where people (tend to) look at the U.S. as some great, aspirational model. And I can tell you that there is such a lot of beauty still in India. There’s such a lot of ferocity there that actually can provide a lot of political understanding, even to the protest on Wall Street. To me, the forests of central India and the protesters in Wall Street are connected by a big pipeline, and I am one of those people in that pipeline. (Goodman, Amy. Arundhati Roy: Occupy Wall Street Is “So Important Because It Is in the Heart of Empire”)

Envisioning the transnational flow of multinational capital which is always invisible, recognizing the institutional nodes which produce the flow, and reformulating one’s subjectivity (based on recognition of being enmeshed within this circuit), and reaching out to others in solidarity – this seems to be the mechanism of not only transnational imagination, but of explicit connecting of activists and networks in this movement; and it is a still unfolding process.

Conclusion

Occupy is in a precarious position, what some are calling the second stage. Across the country (the degree of national coordination not yet understood), Occupy movements / protestors have been evicted, perhaps beaten, jailed. Occupiers disagree on the relevance of maintaining a physical space – is an actual encampment necessary to achieve our ends of envisioning an alternative structure, to living the new within the shell of the old?

Many of the voices I spoke with at Occupy LA speculated that there was something special about maintaining physical space. It was read as an opportunity to demonstrate to ourselves and to outsiders that much of what we accept as natural, is not. Judith Butler for one asserted the importance of occupying a physical space through time, as it meant the protest never went away. Even when asleep, the protest is happening. (Elliott, Judith Butler at Occupy Wall Street).

Others have spoken of the eviction as liberation, a blessing in disguise, Now occupations could like seeds scattered, form mobile and multiple occupation sites – new parks, bank lobbies, in front of foreclosed homes, blocking eviction. On December 12, Occupy the Port will be conducted from Occupy sites all over the West Coast, from Oakland to Los ANgeles, and back to Vancouver. Workers in Japan have signed on, in a transnational expression of solidarity, refusing to load ships headed for West Coast ports. The question will be, based on media’s fractured representation of the international dynamic of the Occupy Movement, will they do the same with future actions? Without an encampment will actions be reported as smaller, more disparate, disconnected than they in fact are?

Marina Sitrin argues that Spain may provide some examples for the second phase of Occupy, beyond encampments:

“In the case of Spain, this expansion began in June, when the movement decided to focus its energy more on the assemblies and the working groups than on maintaining the encampments themselves. To maintain the miniature models of a society that the movement wished to create did not necessarily contribute to the actual changes that were needed in the populations that needed them the most. Which is why the decision to move away from the encampments was nothing more than another impulse in the constructive aims of the movement: the real encampment that has to be reconstructed is the world…the viability of a movement is not only defined by its capacity to withstand pressure from the outside, but also in its ability to reach and work together with people outside the space of the plaza or square. It is this—the going beyond the parameters of the plaza—which the assemblies and the working groups have already started to put into effect.” (Sitrin and Caballud, Occupy Wall Street: Beyond Encampments)

What will become of our precarious social movement, in what some describe as a moment of crisis, others as a second stage? Though the future is unknown, we may be certain that as long as the transnational flow of capital, multinational corporate globalization process persists, it will continue to have its discontents. The state and the nation are already superseded by our adversaries. The degree to which our seemingly (at first glance) disparate movements can interconnect, strengthen flows of communication, bodies, and ideas is the degree to which we may bring about another world that we all have imagined together, as possible, beyond national boundaries.

List of References

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11. Graeber, David. Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. Retrieved from abahlali.org, 1 Dec. 2011 http://abahlali.org/files/Graeber.pdf

12. Graeber, David. ““What Did We Actually Do Right?” On the Unexpected Success and Spread of Occupy Wall Street.” alternate.org. Alternet, 19 Oct. 2011. Web 01 Dec. 2011

13. Sitrin, Marina. Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina. Oakland, Ca” AK Press, 2006. Print.

14. Sitrin, Marina and Luis Moreno-Caballud. “Occupy Wall Street, Beyond Encampments.” yesmagazine.org. Yes!: Powerful Ideas, Practical Actions, 21 Nov. 2011. Web. 01 Dec. 2011

15. Coker, Margaret.”Google Executive Emerges as Key Figure in Revolt.” wsj.com. Wall Street Journal. 07 Feb. 2011 Web. 01 Dec. 2011

16. Hauslohner, Abigail. “Is Egypt About to Have a Facebook Revolution?” time.com. Time Post, 24 Jan. 2011. Web. 01 Dec. 2011

17. Smith, Catharine. “Egypt’s Facebook Revolution: Wael Ghonim Thanks the Social Network.” huffingtonpost.com. Huffington Post, 11 Feb. 2011. Web. 01 Dec. 2011

18. Goodman, Amy. “Arundhati Roy: Occupy Wall Street Is ‘So Important Because It Is in the Heart of Empire'” truthout.org. Truthout, 15 Nov. 2011. Web. 1 Dec. 2011

19. Elliott, Justine. “Judith Butler at Occupy Wall Street.” salon.com. Salon, 24 Oct. 2011. Web. 01 Dec. 2011

Occupy LA: The Return of the Radical Imagination

Introduction

 I won’t spend a lot of time laying the context in which the Occupy Movement emerged, for I do so in my ethnographic film on Occupy Los Angeles, available here

Some words of introduction are in order, though, to explain why I selected the Occupy Los Angeles site for ethnographic research, the meaning of the title (in particular the ‘return of the radical imagination’), and my own position within Occupy Los Angeles.

It was fortuitous that at the moment I was assigned an ethnographic project for this class, word began to spread of an action in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street (NY), in Los Angeles. I first received notice of the ‘general assemblies’ being held at Pershing Square in preparation of the October 1st ‘Occupy Day’ from activist friends on Facebook, through an ‘event invitation.’ I followed the link to a fan page for ‘Occupy Los Angeles,’ that, at the time, had 46 members. Discussion between organizers, on the Occupy Los Angeles wall, circled around things to be done – where should we occupy? How do we get the word out? What type a committees do we need? I sent a private message to the anonymous administrator of the FB page.

me: Hello. My name is Timothy Malone, and I am a graduate Student at Claremont Graduate University. I am also an anarchist/activist with an interest in documenting/filming the formation and development of Occupy Los Angeles. Can you, perhaps, give me some guidance about how to proceed, organizers to talk to, etc?

response: Sounds good to me. i don’t have the authority to grant you access. Why don’t you come to the general assembly tonight, and present your project to the group? I’m sure they’ll give you an open hearing..”

I packed my camera (which I borrowed from a family member, as this was to be my first filmic project) and  a notebook, and made my way to Pershing Square. The date was September 28th, three days before we would occupy City Hall.

As of the writing of this paper, the Occupy Los Angeles Facebook page has about 47,000 members. At the peak of occupation, 485 tents lined Downtown Los Angeles’ city hall, and we went from a marginalized movement of activists to be dismissed, and ridiculed, in mainstream representation, to a leading news story. On day 7, I walked around the Occupy Los Angeles encampment to document media representation / how much media  was present. There were two vans, one from KNX 1070, a local radio station providing on the hour news updates and traffic reports, and a KABC local news van. I walked across the street to the Michael Jackson trial, situated literally on the adjacent corner. The courthouse was encircled with  30-plus news vans, reporters camera in hand with their crews and expensive lights. By the night of eviction, a media pool was formed by LAPD to restrict access to journalists, and to limit the potentially hundreds of media representatives attempting to gain access to Occupy Los Angeles in its moment of confrontation.

This ethnography attempts to document, from my subjective position, developments from September 28th until November 30th (58 days and nights of occupation), the night that LAPD stormed and evicted the encampment at City Hall. Ethnography served as an invaluable research tool for telling a story of this movement from the ground up. Not just an observer, I was (and am) an active participant in Occupy Los Angeles. I have voted in general assemblies, attended committee meetings, marched and staged acts of civil disobedience in front of banks. I won’t spend time trying to defend the ‘objectivity’ of this project. I am aligned with the goals of Occupy, and I write this ethnography in the hopes of providing not only a communication of our message to outsiders about who we are and what we do, but also as a tool by which we can be self-critical; perhaps take a look at some of our practices, ways of organizing and decision making, and ask ‘have we been effective?” What can we do to improve? How do we keep pushing forward, and actually survive the eviction from physical locations of occupation?

Why film? And why write a supplementary paper? There is something quite engaging about the visual.To evoke the cliche, a picture is worth a thousand words – with film, that many more. To see peoples faces, to hear the sounds of protest, the buzz of helicopters above seems to convey a sign that is more robust and immediate in experience than allowed for in purely textual presentation. Information seems to be communicated in real time about who is participating, ‘what’s it like down there’ at the protest/encampment, etc. Though potentially problematic, for it is much easier to mistake the visual symbol for the real (1), to borrow from Baudrillard, and to mistake my video for ‘what really happened,’ I hope to remediate naturalization of my narrative through self-reflexive film-making practice, as well as context through text, this traditional paper. The ethnographic paper also allows me to weave a co-narrative, perhaps allowing for a grounding, and a theoretical depth that purely filmic techniques do not abide, or fully explore. Why this particular shot? WHat was I thinking in selecting this material arrangement versus another? Why is this particular moment important for OccupyLA, theoretically? The text can help lay bare the structure undergirding the filmic project, as well as deepen it.

What do I mean by a ‘return of the radical imagination?’ I am arguing that the Occupy Movement in general, and Occupy Los Angeles in particular, represent the re-emergence of a radical potential after a long period of repression, and effective marginalization. The collapse of the Soviet Union led Francis Fukayama to theorize ‘the end of history,’ as neo-liberal capital would have no rival nor fetter to its ever-expanding market construction, barrier penetration, process of multinational globalization. (Fukayama, The End of History) Radicalism was ideologically and explicitly tied with the failure of the Soviet system. Radical Movement once again emerged in the late 90’s with the anti-globalization struggle (ie, ‘Battle in Seattle’), but was soon rolled back, as post-september 11th 2001, organizers were afraid to sound anti-american, or to be equated with ‘America’s enemies,’ terrorists, or divisive in a time of ‘national unity.’ In 2003, the radical imagination began to awaken again with an international protest movement forming to challenge the United States invasion of Iraq, only to be effectively sidelined and marginalized by traditional liberal organizations such as moveon.org and labor unions channeling radical energy into the reformist (the degree of effective reform perhaps limited to an unpredictable degree, to many liberal hopefuls) liberal establishment and the election machinery of Barack Obama, and his ‘hope’ and ‘change’ marketing scheme, brought to you by the same people who market us toothpaste.

Occupiers sense a fundamental limitation in traditional politics, in the two-party system. In interviews, one question I asked all participants, was ‘what brought you out to the street, to participate in this movement? Why Occupy?’ Money’s corrupting influence in politics was a near universal response, in one form or another. This is a mainstream view of occupiers, at least in LA, and i would imagine universally, across occupations in the United States (answers may vary in Greece, or Spain. I don’t now). In this system of legalized bribery, democrat-republican politics are always and already co-opted by concentrations of capital, rendering citizens/activists political agency deeply constrained, outside of acts of civil disobedience (protesting, occupying, etc.) Occupiers seek a radical engagement with the political/social/economic structures of society, and the mechanisms by which such an engagement should take place are often disparate. Nonetheless, occupiers are apparently engaged with the political system at a meta-level, interested in engaging with reformulating structure, as opposed to operating within it through electoral political campaign, lobbying, etc.

There is a more important radicalization that is occurring at the Occupy camps across the country and in L.A., in my opinion. It is in the very decision-making structures of the occupying movements themselves. The General Assembly model, which is the sin qua non, irreducible element, of the Occupy movement is a radical re-imagining of what it means to be a citizen/participant in a democratic society. The General Assembly, with its functional committees and affinity groups and its consensus decision making is putting into action Anarchist practice. We have people of a wide variety of political affiliation at Occupy Los Angeles, from disillusioned Barack Obama liberals, to Ron Paul / end-the-fed Libertarians, to anti-civilization, burning-man ‘hippies.’ No matter the political ideology espoused, one thing is shared: the political structure of Occupy. Whether or not it is explicitly calls itself anarchist, or participatory democratic, or horizontal, such a model has been theorized by the anarchist tradition since the 1700’s (Marshall, 4). The term anarchism bares some negative connotation, largely due to popular misunderstanding, linking the term to disorder, chaos. As a political theory, the anarchist tradition has always meant, in reference to itself, a complex, ordered, systemic arrangement, with the minimal amount of illegitimate authority or unnecessary constraint on individual flourishing. The tradition also recognizes the need for community in order to allow for such individual flourishing. It is a model by which power flows from the bottom up in all institutions, and all authority must justify itself. (Chomsky, Government in the Future)

This is an important move. It has been theorized by anarchists that people come to consciousness of their own potential, and the society’s revolutionary potential, through doing. Whether or not a disaffected liberal democrat considers himself an anarchist, or knows anarchist history and theory, if there is such a thing, if they occupy, they take part in anarchist social structures. The lesson learned, through doing, is that elites, whether of the capitalist manager or marxist vanguard, are not necessary. People are fully capable of managing their own affairs, from the bottom up, in ever more complex arrangements of participatory democratic structure. Who cares what you call it, theorize it, think about it. Anarchism is in the act, in the doing of anarchism. Anarchism is confident enough in itself, and its practice, that it does not care whether or not it is recognized as such.

The second radical principle, undergirding the occupation, is constructing the new world in the shell of the old. First formulated by Mikhail Bakunin (Marshall, 281), what he called ’emancipation through practical action,’ as a challenge to Marxism with its material dialectic, its stages of history that must be waited for (i.e., only a society at a certain level of industrialization can achieve liberation and equity in power), anarchists assert that we must build anarchist organizations, institutions, and develop anarchist consciousness here and now, within the margins of existing society, immediately. For if people are to someday manage their own affairs, to put it simply, they must have practice with self-management. In communities, in work places, in schools; In political movements challenging capital. Whereas traditional marxists advocated a vanguard taking state power, then instituting mass scale education programs which would shift consciousness of the people, anarchists have consistently argued people must be empowered now, living self-directed principles, if the ‘revolution’ is to be successful. Instead of an explosive taking of state power, followed by a dictatorship of the worker, anarchists have conceived revolution as happening in fits and starts, a factory at a time. In a school, or government body, no matter how small. The revolution would be not an explosion, but a slow accumulation of victories and ‘liberated spaces,’ and a reliance on an interdependent connection of self-managed institutions as the institutions of capital and the state which functions on its behalf, become more and more burdensome, illegitimate, repressive; fall into crisis. Revolution doesn’t happen in some theorized future, but right now, and is in fact all around us, all the time. To anarchist anthropologist David Graeber it has been with humanity since time immemorial. (Graeber, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology)

In summary, the radical structure of G.A., committees and consensus are an irreducible radicalism at the heart of Occupy LA and all other occupations, a shared structure. The other deeply radical principle at the heart of occupy is the creation of alternatives within the shell of the old, not in theory, but living them, in practice. The Occupy movement serves as a model, has a demonstration effect to its participants and its observers. People can manage their own affairs, democratically. These two dynamics make up the radical engine of occupation that drive it forward, potentially protecting it from co-optation by the liberal establishment, as well as drawing the most ire from elites on both sides of the traditional left right spectrum. The story is unfolding and the future is not written. What will happen to the Occupy movement, and its impact on society is still unknown. Hopefully, through careful analysis of what we are doing right, and where we need improvement, we can figure out how to keep this ship afloat – changing discourse (from the debt, to questions of inequality in mainstream discourse over recent months, for example), altering perception of possibility (and what a social movement looks like), and eventually affecting the very structures by which power is distributed, decisions are made, leading to epiphenomenal results.

Methodology

Most importantly, I participate. I am there for marches and actions. I participate in General assemblies and committees. Beyond participant observation, I participate. When I am participating, I bring my camcorder; i bring my notebook. I film sometimes those things which strike me as important, whatever conscious and unconscious mechanisms are at play in that process. I record observations and take notes. I comment while I film, often, reflections in the moment, things to think about, ideas that come fluttering. I interview people an ever-evolving set of questions that changes as conditions on the ground change, as new developments of varying import arise.

I have interviewed 60 people, to varying degree of ‘thoroughness.’ I have conducted 20 ‘in depth’ interviews, on site, at the occupation. I have tried to pay attention to getting a representative sample as I can across ages, racial identification, sex, sexual orientation (if visible, i.e. flying a LGBT banner). I have tried to represent traditionally marginalized voices. How successful I have been is for other to decide. It was coded in my methodological attempt to document Occupy LA.

I have had dozens of conversations with activists on and off site.

I also did a lot of sitting, watching, feeling. I filmed the evolution of the camp, from October 1st, through eviction, seeing the rise of tent population, charting the emergence of symbolic culture, artwork, performance. I engaged with conversation on social networks; interviewing, engaging conversation, watching and commenting on livestreams  when I couldn’t be present. I did not camp at site due to the fact I have a 10 month old-daughter at home that requires my presence. So I engage virtually when i couldn’t be on-site.

All of these engagements formed a ground, a framework of interpretation, upon which particular conclusions could be derived. In this work, I draw theoretical conclusions about what’s happening on the ground, with qualification. For I wish to privilege those interviews, those conversations and voices i hear at occupations. My contribution is to try to draw something from these, perhaps to think about responses and questions within theoretical frameworks which I have access to.  Hopefully I am successful in letting the occupiers themselves do the speaking, and my intervention, after the fact, is able to contribute to the continued development of our shared aims.

Reflexivity and Position

 Let’s be clear – It is “I” behind the camera. In my film, my voice bounds the entire project. There is only footage of days (in this project) that I was actually on site, using my borrowed camera. There were events I missed, and people I did not interview. There were selections made in my filming, and collection of field notes. Very often, I found myself wrestling with questions such as, ‘Is it appropriate for me to film this? What are the ethics involved, as I can’t know all the potential uses that such a project will be put. If a personal argument breaks out between occupiers, is it a violation of decency to keep the camera rolling? There were certain occasions where I intuited it was better to keep the camera off, whether that be my own intimidation at filming something (actually feeling like my gaze was voyeuristic, or intrusive), and there were people I didn’t approach for interviews because I wasn’t ‘comfortable, caught a bad vibe, etc. These are all very personal choices that structure my project, and need to be recognized so the viewer does not walk away thinking ‘this is THE story of OccupyLA.

I make no effort to still my voice on camera. Sometimes I am engaged in conversation with others. My hand shakes with movement. I hold no objective position; don’t really even attempt one.

Let the reader also recognize that I’m a 36 year old, white, relatively privileged male. Though I have tried to be conscious of the privilege that carries, not only within the Occupy movement, but within social movements for decades, it is not for me to decide my success in this. Questions of white privilege and patriarchy are right at the heart of current debates happening in General Assemblies, in particular on the West Coast. Many of my perspectives are going to flow from my position.

I am also an anarchist, thus in deep sympathy with the structures and intentions of the Occupy movement in general.

I am also a graduate student, bringing with me a series of lenses of interpretation, some useful, some not. Regardless, my perspective is going to be deeply informed by academic discourse, and how relevant all of it is to events on the ground is uncertain. I hope to hold my theory lightly, let it flow and adapt to changing conditions, rather than fit events into pre-determined theoretical molds. But nevertheless, I am positioned, and can’t escape that.

General Assemblies and Consensus

 As I described above, the General Assembly meeting, its processes, and its committees/affinity groups form the core structure of the Occupy movement, not only in Los Angeles, but across the country, and even internationally. The concept of General Assemblies has its roots in anarchist tradition, in particular the Spanish Revolution of 1936 (perhaps, the largest-scale, successful anarchist project in history).(Woodcock, 329) In more recent manifestation, the general assembly model is employed in the indignados movements in Spain which emerged May 15th of 2011 in response to the european fiscal crisis, and lack of confidence in Spanish politics. and in the anti-austerity movement in Greece emerging May 5th of 2011.

In my film, I devote a section to the general assembly in Los Angeles ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bsBOVVV1lu4&feature=related ; Clip begins at 6:35). A group of the original organizers of Occupy Wall Street, and Occupy LA participated in the indignados movement in Spain, and actually brought the general assembly model to the United States, and trained/developed alongside potential occupiers the practice of general assemblies and consensus prior to actual occupation.

The General Assembly was instituted in Zucotti Park, and on the first day of planning. David Graeber, Anarchist anthropologist, was instrumental in its formation.

“When Graeber and his friends showed up on Aug. 2, however, they found out that the event wasn’t, in fact, a general assembly, but a traditional rally, to be followed by a short meeting and a march to Wall Street to deliver a set of predetermined demands (“A massive public-private jobs program” was one, “An end to oppression and war!” was another). In anarchist argot, the event was being run by “verticals”—top-down organizations—rather than “horizontals” such as Graeber and his friends. Sagri and Graeber felt they’d been had, and they were angry.

 What happened next sounds like an anarchist parable. Along with Kohso, the two recruited several other people disgruntled with the proceedings, then walked to the south end of the park and began to hold their own GA, getting down to the business of planning the Sept. 17 occupation. The original dozen or so people gradually swelled, despite the efforts of the event’s planners to bring them back to the rally. The tug of war lasted until late in the evening, but eventually all of the 50 or so people remaining at Bowling Green had joined the insurgent general assembly.

 “The groups that were organizing the rally, they also came along,” recalls Kohso. “Then everyone stayed very, very late to organize what committees we needed.”

 While there were weeks of planning yet to go, the important battle had been won. The show would be run by horizontals, and the choices that would follow—the decision not to have leaders or even designated police liaisons, the daily GAs and myriad working-group meetings that still form the heart of the protests in Zuccotti Park—all flowed from that.” (Bennett, David Graeber, the Anti-Leader)

These are the anarchist roots of the General assembly, and the Occupy Movement, in particular. From the major sites of occupation (Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Boston) the general assembly has become the default organizational structure of all occupy sites.

A general assembly is a regularly held gathering of all who are present and wish to participate. In OccupyLA, the general assembly is held nightly, at 7:30 pm. All issues of importance to the occupation are resolved within the General Assembly, and the General Assembly is the only body in any particular occupation that has the right to ratify decisions, to speak for, or to make official proposals on behalf of an occupation.

On those first days, questions ranged from ‘who are we?’ and ‘What do we hope to do?, to tactical questions such as “what type of relationship do we wish to have with police and the city, what is our stance on violence versus non-violence? Mundane questions, ‘where will we sleep, and how will we eat?” In particular, the question of the relationship with the police was a contentious one, and has remained from those first pre-occupation GA’s until today. Should we work with the police, in a cooperative fashion, recognizing them as inherently ‘part of the 99%’ whether they know it or not? Should we adopt a position of a priori resistance, perhaps institute a training program for occupiers on police brutality and how to defend oneself? After all, at the time of these meetings, video was emerging of the excessive force on display in New york; the pepper spaying in the face of defenseless women, mass arrests, etc. Should we adopt a position that recognizes the police as the defenders of the very economic and political system we are trying to challenge, hired thugs who in their professional role, abdicate their humanity? This issue would come to challenge the solidarity of the movement, and really be quite divisive over the unfolding of occupy. But the position adopted in those first GA’s was to allow a liaison team to maintain contact and planning with the city and  police. We are a non-violent movement, and if we could avoid unnecessary confrontation, we would. In my interviews, I asked what occupiers thought about our relations with police. Responses varied quite dramatically, and often differed along racial lines (to be explored more later in this work).

Back to the structure and processes of GA’s. The basic premise is to give all participants equal power and voice. It is a consensus model, meaning that the entire collective must agree on a proposal before it can move forward as the ‘law’ of OccupyLA (agreement, disagreement, hesitation, etc is all registered through a series of communicative hand gestures, documented in the clip provided above). In original GA’s, committees were proposed by participants in a general discussion of what needed to be done. Media committees, administrative committees, social networking committees, finance, food, etc all formed, and were ratified through full consent of GA participants. If you wished to be a part of a committee, you show up, and instantly are a member of that committee. Committees proceed on the same consensus model as the General assembly.

Sometimes, the business of the day grows too burdensome to be handled by the general assembly, so the committees become necessary in order to delegate these duties. The committees then come up with proposals to submit to the general assembly. If the General Assembly grants consensus to the proposal, than it is adopted by the general assembly. If no consensus is granted, then the proposal is sent back to the committee, which works with dissenters to either reformulate or scrap the proposal. (An explanation of this process is also provided in more explicit detail in the clip above) Participatory-democratic in structure, the GA/consensus model allows for even a lone voice of dissent to block a proposal. Those who feel voiceless may, in the general assembly (at least in theory) feel their voice powerful enough to either support a proposal, or singularly block an action. It is an ultimate defense of minority (but also deeply susceptible to abuse). General Assemblies, for this reason require a good deal of faith and good intention to maintain functionality. Someone wishing to derail need only block everything from moving forward, thus throwing a major monkey-wrench into the machinery.

Night after night, general assemblies have met, committees have deliberated at varying times and formed proposals, some adopted by the General Assembly, some not. New committee groups have formed as needs arise. Affinity groups also developed – these are committees not necessarily functional, and do not require the consent of the General Assembly. If people want to form an affinity group they just get together with others, and do it. They may also bring their business to the GA, but the key difference is that Affinity Groups do not relate to the functional necessity of the occupation. Study groups, affinity groups focused on entertainment events, particular identity blocks may form to discuss OccupyLA and the needs of their respective community are examples of types of Affinity Groups.

An interview question I asked occupiers: “How do you feel about the General Assembly? Is it an effective tool?” Responses were largely affirmative. Though recognized as a rather cumbersome process to get to consensus, most felt it was worth the effort. Participants seemed to recognize that granting a voice to those who perceive themselves as voiceless, or in fact are voiceless, is a realization of one of the great hopes of Occupation.

But there were criticisms. One thing I noticed is the degree to which race, class, gender structure one’s experience of the General Assembly. In my research, if you were white and male, you were more likely to hold a rosy view of the GA/consensus model. The critique, often formulated by people of color, revolved around the reality that once systemic mechanisms of repression are lifted (as in the flattening of electoral hierarchy / representative government, institutions that have historically repressed and marginalized like the prison-industrial complex, which limits voice and participation), many internalized and real privileges remain to particular groups, as well as conditioned norms of interaction, beliefs and experience. Many of the women I spoke with voiced concern that the GA was dominated by male voices, and an effective informal male leadership was developing. Some people of color affinity groups thought their issues were being sidelined to privilege the issues and concerns of white, liberal activists. For example, there was huge contention with regards to the attitude to be taken by occupy towards police. Many occupiers representative of communities of color who have experienced and organized around issues of police brutality felt sufficiently marginalized by the General Assembly (which had become rather heated) and shouted down, that their affinity group left the occupation. They desired not to be specifically named or represented in this study, so they won’t be.

All in all, the general assembly functions, making some great progress towards the formation of actions, keeping the occupation functional, developing a voice internal and external to the movement. But problems remain, and they are those which are derivative of the fact that OccupyLA comes out of a city, and a nation, that is racially structured, built on genocide, homophobic, patriarchal. Many remnants from the society at large leak into the general assembly, whether conscious and mostly not. A recent proposal formulated by indigenous activists desired a name change, from Occupy to Decolonize. The word ‘occupy’ bears negative connotations for indigenous communities, because these activists still consider the United States ‘occupied territory.’ For these activists, it is a function of white privilege that the term ‘occupy’ would even be suggested, let alone adopted, if indigenous concerns were prevalent in the minds of organizers and activists of this movement. Many white activists (though not  only white) have argued, ‘what’s in a name? We can reference the occupation of Palestine and Iraq/Afghan wars, occupying space is actually what we are doing? People of color very often don’t know what ‘decolonize means, that’s an academic term,’ etc.

In theory, the General Assembly should be able to navigate these issues. In practice? Sometimes. And different participants of OccupyLA had differing conceptions of our effectiveness. Often race, gender, sexual orientation played a role in one’s experiencing of the general assembly with many of the privileges and internalized power arrangement of the larger social structure in which OccupyLA is set, having determinative impact. Committees and affinity groups form to remediate these problematics, but they require democratic participation from those who would most benefit from attending them, which may or may not happen. Issues arise on the fly in real time, are emotionally charged, and need be dealt with in immediacy. (Individual voices expressing multitudinous views will soon be posted alongside the other videos provided above, but due to time constraints have not been edited yet. I will present for viewing as soon as complete)

Generally speaking, despite criticisms, some rather devastating in particular circumstance, the general assembly / consensus model has functioned to liberate a radical engagement and imagination of participants. If something needs be done, you form a committee and do it. Yourself. If you disagree with something, your voice is immediately heard (barring internalized repression, like a woman’s voice not being heard due to the existence of patriarchal structure). The assembly itself is structured, objectively, democratic, in that their is no leadership (though particular voices may become dominant due to a variety of interlocking, enmeshed factors, that all need be disentangled on the ground, on the fly). The most important aspect though, to my conceptioning, is the degree to which people are engaged. Whether its on a committee, consenting or blocking an action in a general assembly, or fighting it out in a general assembly breaking process, this is a different type of engagement. It’s a radical one of direct voice. Its riddled with problems. But at the same time, joyous and liberative to participate in. And the majority of the voices on the ground i spoke with agree with me in that assessment. They all agree with it in theory, as desideratum. And that’s important, for OccupyLA is an open-process in flux, moving towards a goal of anarchist social organization.

 Demands: What does the Occupy Movement Want?

 This is an issue at the heart of the Occupy movement, nationally and in Los Angeles. The question animates not only discussion in the occupations themselves, but in mainstream media representation of the movement. It is often asserted that Occupy has no demands, or that the demands are so disparate as to be meaningless. I have argued elsewhere that the very question arises from some assumptions that need to be tested before one can proceed; the main question being, who is asking us for demands, and relatedly, is providing a list of demands to traditional centers of power (whether media, or the political system) the strategy we should adopt?

For another class (Visual Research Methods), myself and three classmates including Tamara Ramirez, engaged in a discourse around this very question through video, available here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZSBFM0ef3z4 Is it possible that refusing to provide a list of demands to those who implore us to do so, is a viable political strategy? Mass media would like to be able to discuss occupy between commercial breaks. There is a principal in media, knows as concision. You only have a couple of minutes to communicate an idea. The beauty of concision, to quote Noam Chomsky, is that it only allows one to repeat conventional wisdom. (Chomsky, Concision in the Mass Media)

Secondly, to make a demand on the political system, to quote one of my interviewees is to ‘instantly recognize the political system as legitimate (as in, able to answer demands). And it is not.”

For to have demands may limit the very discourse, constrain it within dominant institutional functioning. If you have a demand on someone, or an institution, and they answer it, your reason for being ceases.

“The ultimate weakness of demands is their temporal limitation. A demand is essentially a statement of the conditions on which one will relent, and implying that relenting is possible casts the protest as temporary. In fact, Wall Street will permanently exert pressure on the government with ever-changing demands and campaigns and projects, and that is what Occupy Wall Street will have to do. The steadfast determination, the permanence implied in that word, Occupy, is not only the movement’s only hope for change – making people power a permanent countervailing force to wealth power – but also its good light. People like that this isn’t a weekend of protest and panels, that it operates, as it likes to chant, “All day, all week.” Demands would turn that chant into “All day, all week, Occupy Wall Street, until you do the following things,” which is an unattractive rallying cry, not to mention its scansion deficiency.” (Myerson, On Demands)

The point is to bring political representatives to a general assembly, and to represent an alternative model of governance, in fact self governance. The very anarchist political formation is in fact a demand, a demand for the political system to itself liberalize, to invest in people the right over their own person (denied in our political and economic system to the degree available in the Occupy model) and to dismantle itself as an illegitimate form of authority.

I have thoroughly documented peoples actual demands, as well as their ideas about they very question of demands in my ethnographic video and related clips. As with all questions asked of so many people, responses varied. And attitudes varied within General Assemblies to this perpetual request for demands from elites and institutions of authority.

In OccupyLA’s General Assembly, we have formed a ‘demands committee,’ whose aim is to formulate an expansive list of demands for ratification in the general assembly. They work regularly with one another, and occupiers, in the hopes of developing an exhaustive list. One particular difficulty facing this working group will be that, dependent on the question asked, Occupiers probably have an answer. That is, the occupation represents a radical alternative to ‘business as usual,; so depending on what you are asking, an opinion (or a multitude of them) will flow from the mouths of occupiers about how this or that particular social ill may be remediated. There are specific proposals that have a general consensus, for instance the idea of instituting a Robin Hood tax, a tax on all financial transactions, of a few percentage points. People want to roll back corporate person-hood, reinstitute the glass-steagal act. But there are others that want to see Marijuana legalized; that’s why they are there. We in Occupy accept that position, and if brought to the committee, will be adopted. We do not have a series of demands for the political system, but have imagined together and lived a different way to do politics, and to answer all of the multitude of social ills facing the current political configuration. Ask about the particular problem, and you’ll get a ‘demand.’

I don’t mean this in a dismissive way. By analogy, what’s the demands of Marxism? A revolution in the ownership of means of production? What are the demands of the tea-party? Yes, one may flippantly say ‘make government smaller,’ but what does that mean specifically? They have demands on education, what to do (or not) about global warming, immigration. They have a world view, or a paradigm. So does Marxism, and it attempts to establish myriad, and interconnected platforms to meet topical reality. It is the same with the occupy movement.

Get money out of politics. End the drug war. Democratize the workplace. These are all demands I have heard. And many more besides. Abolish student loans, green and localize the economy and food system. Decolonize. The liberal democratic establishment cannot accommodate these demands, so why offer them, except to demonstrate our separateness from them? Media often represents the demands as bearing no connection, but they are deeply interconnected, and largely reactive to a multinational arrangement of globalized capital, its capacity to influence political systems internationally and domestically (even locally), and is rooted in a history of Eurocentrism, colonialism and imperialism. End the wars. Abolish the fed. Publicly financed elections. Dream Act. LGBT rights.

Dependent on the social ill foregrounded, the demand flows. This is not a protest, but a social movement. And it is directed towards an atemporal, yet historically situated interconnected neoliberal system with deleterious effect in interlocking and wide public spheres. This is not its weakness, but precisely its strength. A living wage. No more homelessness. Occupiers dare to dream up radical solutions. They have them. Just ask. I did. (Paper continues below three video clips)

Where do we go from here?

 On November 30th, I sat at my desk  to write this paper, with the television news on mute, and several livestream windows from the OccupyLA encampment active in my browser. Rumor had been floating around OccuoyLA all day that this very evening, our experiment in anarchism and direct democracy would be raided. AT 9pm, on Kcal 9 news, images began to be broadcast of a massive police staging at Dodger Stadium, in preparation for an action. 30 mta buses, scores of police vehicles, hundreds, then over 1000 officers (the number would be estimated as 1700 officers reengaged in the eviction of OccupyLA). I, along with many others, jumped on livestreams, communicating to our friends, family, co-occupiers, what we could see going down in real time. See it on the TV. Report it on the livestream chat room, twitter developments with #occupyla hashtags, inform the other occupations through posts to their Facebook occupation pages.

I continued to write my academic paper, reflecting that this was the perfect metaphor for ivory tower academia, what is wrong with the separation between critical academic programs and activism on the street. I had a presentation the next day, that I couldn’t miss. While OccupyLA was being raided, I was writing a paper about OccupyLA. Instead of standing with my brothers and sisters in ideology and action, I was a layer removed, insulated. It felt vampiric. It is vampiric. For in my academic pursuit, my research which will be occupy and movement focused, this dichotomy will continuously arise. It can be mediated to varying degrees of success, but I think it important to recognize what was made transparent to me that day. It is in anarchist theorizing – radical politics is in the doing. Your theory is marginalized, if not lived in action.

Leading up to the raid, many of the people I talked to had the future on their mind. First off, what to do if the raid comes? WIll you resist, and be arrested? Will you leave? Answers varied with the majority positing their uncertainty, waiting to feel it out in the moment. Some were absolutely committed to let the state incarcerate them as a political act, to draw attention to the cause, and the dedication and belief of participants. Many talked of space – how important is a physical site to occupy? Some voices, including the homeless, were explicit in their desire to maintain a physical occupation. For the homeless, the reasons are transparent; OccupyLA had become a safer place, a more accommodating one than the streets of Downtown LA. It was taken up in conversation I was privy to among occupiers, what about our homeless population? They weren’t necessarily ‘occupying’ in the same sense activists were. They brought potential for problems; drug and alcohol abuse, crime, etc. But as a movement, how could be we ethical if we were to turn away, police a population so severely decimated by current structural arrangements? They were accommodated.

Many activists maintained a tie to the idea for physical space because, as they expressed it, it gave us a room to practice. The insight of Bakunin, and anarchist theory in general, of building the new within the shell of the old. Everyday Life developed in the encampment. A community, an economy of gift/exchange. Neighborly relations, cooperative and antagonistic. A method for maintaining security. For these occupiers, the encampment, controlling the space, was and is the occupation, a necessary and vital component of what we are doing. It was a novel, and new way, to live a social movement.

Others felt that an actual tie to physical space was not imperative for the success of OccupyLA, and the Occupy movement in general. The refrain is “you can’t evict an idea.” Occupiers I have spoken to have talked of still holding GA’s on city Hall steps, still planning actions (for example, the December 12th west coast port shutdown, in solidarity with Occupy Oakland, who first called for it), perhaps an evolution of tactics. Today, Occupy LA occupied evicted homes. Different occupations across the country have discussed occupying shuttered factories, and reopening them for community needs, health facilities, schools, etc. The idea is with the disbursement of the camp at city hall, seeds from the home base will be spread throughout Los Angeles, in the lobbies of banks, outside of homes about to be foreclosed on, in facilities shuttered not because people don’t need their services/products, nor because their aren’t people to work in them, but because it doesn’t enhance the profitability of those who own the means of production.

By default, the ball is in the court of the latter argument. We were evicted. Actions continue, almost daily, general assemblies are being held. As of right now, it is too early to tell which side of the argument will prove to be correct,,,,,,,

List of References

1. Fukayama, Francis. The End of History. http://www.kropfpolisci.com/exceptionalism.fukuyama.pdf

2. Marshall, Peter. Demanding the Impossible. PM Press. Oakland, Ca. 1984

3. Chomsky, Noam. Government in the Future. Audio Lecture. Retreived from Youtube, 12/1/11. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-kPlEJlmWuc

4. Graeber, David. Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. Retreived from abahlali.org, 12/1/11 http://abahlali.org/files/Graeber.pdf

5. Woodcock, George, Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements. p. 329 Broadview Press, Ontario Canada. 2004

6. Bennett, Drake. David Graeber, the Anti-Leader of Occupy Wall Street. Bloomberg Businessweek, 26-October-2011. Retreived from http://www.businessweek.com 12/1/11 http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/david-graeber-the-antileader-of-occupy-wall-street-10262011.html

7. Chomsky, Noam. Concision in the Mass Media. Audio Lecture. Retrieved from Youtube. 12/1/11 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RlL2Jj-kCNU

8. Myerson, J.A. On Demands, Once and for All. retrieved from jameyerson.com 12/1/11 http://jamyerson.com/2011/11/29/on-demands-once-and-for-all/

Digital Storytelling a Trojan Horse for Social Movements?

Introduction

I was inspired to engage with the question of the relevance of digital storytelling to the Occupy Los Angeles movement after attending an OccupyLA media team committee meeting. Occupy La has had a series of successes with regards to its capacity to represent itself through youtube videos, outreach to independent media such as KPFK and indymedia.org, and through its occupyla.org website. From the beginning, organizers and activists within the movement have been cognizant of the need to have a robust media presence, for we could not trust ‘mainstream media’ to adequately represent us, for we held a worldview and i nitrated a practice which would challenge many of the unquestioned assumptions from which dominant media proceed. But it has been a rather difficult and bumpy road for the media team.

At this particular meeting, On November 7th, the discussion was on how to reconfigure our media platform from the ground up. Due to intersectional division, lack of resources, and differing visions, the Occupy Team had come to a point of crisis. We would start over, from the ground up. Problems included lots of people shooting independently, but not enough attention on storyboarding and editing. Participants disagreed on whether to adopt studiooccupy.org, a youtube like site for accumulation of videos, shared across occupations as the site within which the media team should focus its collaborative efforts. One of the participants spoke upu.

“I think we should focus on individual stories. Mainstream media has been able to make us look like dirty hippies…. and disorganized. They are making us look like freaks. If people actually could hear our voices, they’s see we had good things to say…. that we’re like them….”

Response was generally positive. People did feel that the grand narrative of who was at OccupyLA was not representative of who we were. We were often spoken of as an anonymous mass, ‘occupiers, ‘ but the individual experiences, what brought people to Occupy was elided. If people could only hear our voices.

I was instantly uncomfortable with the proposition. We were in the midst of discussion of digital storytelling for this class, and my analysis of the form led me to some pretty deep reservations of its ‘revolutionary potential.’ Its focus on individual experience seemed to structure digital storytelling perhaps operates at the expense of a collective representation of experience, which would be more suited to conveying structural aspects of experience. Collective representations speaks a language of institutions, systems.

Also, the very notion of ‘the individual’ for me is one steeped in ideology. With the creation of the public relations industry, consumerism, and the consuming self, we have seen develop a particular notion of individuality. Atomized, satisfying manufactured needs through consumer goods, enmeshed within a circuit of competitiveness and spectacle, the ‘individual’ voice is the ideological fiction in the age of Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Phil, self-help books, and psychotropic medication. Not only is the most fulfilling life one in which jouissance is unleashed, but the very meaning of life in consumer society is the individual’s experience.

Such a notion of the individual, rooted in Cartesian duality and enlightenment thinking, is not very good at thinking of the self in relation to the other, has a tendency to reduce social problems into individual pathology, and is not able to form bonds across shared experience of atomization.

My Experience Filming Individuals at Occupy Los Angeles

Confidence in my rather skeptical analysis of the lack of potential for digital storytelling to aid social movements was rather shaken, though, in my experience of editing my own Occupy LA footage. I conducted a few dozen interviews at OccupyLA, and one question I asked, in a rather open-ended way, was “What brought you out to Occupy? WHy are you here?”

Very often, respondents gave me some type of systemic analysis of the political or economic system. “I am here to protest the corrupting influence of money in politics.” “I am here because I want to see Wall Street held accountable for fraudulent behavior.” “I am here for the revolution.” Occasionally though, and I would say a definite minority of the time, the question would prompt some very personal, individual stories of experience. I remember thinking, as I filmed, ‘well ok, thats not really what i’m going for here,’ but i wasn’t going to stop and redirect the interview. I would let them talk, in an open ended fashion, usually remaining silent. “I am the first person from my family that has the opportunity to go to college. But with tuition hikes, I can’t afford it anymore. ALl I want is the same opportunities as someone else.” The story was told with such emotion, almost a panicked tone, that i felt viscerally impacted. A young woman I interviewed spoke of how she works all the time, has to take care of her family as her father has been unemployed for some time, but she is sick. She didn’t go into the details of her ailment, but described that she couldn’t afford healthcare. She spoke with such honesty and clarity of vision that I was taken aback, and with cameras in hand, felt I had violated some unwritten ethical rule of privacy.

The stories people told me were powerful. I met a sweet old man, that told me he was there to engage OccupyLA with the question of how to end the drug war. I thought, ok – thats an important issue, ties into the prison industrial complex, racist social structure, etc. Definitely a voice I would like to include in my project. Without prompting from me, he went on to narrate his personal story. He had been growing marijuana, and was raided by police after an informant gave him up for a lesser sentence. He was just out of federal prison, this sweet, frail old man. Sensing my confusion of why he was telling me all these details (it felt like he had a need to talk about his experience to someone who potentially had the power to shift opinion; i did have a camera after all, who knows how large my audience?), he wrapped up by including that ‘he was also there to support an amendment to abolish corporate personhood. “I’ll believe a corporation is a person when texas executes one!” I appreciated the gesture, but it rang somewhat hollow in comparison to the heart-rending story he had just divulged in front of my camera, and myself.

As mentioned above, I filed away these personal stories both mentally and on my desktop. They were the ones that drew the largest emotional response for me, but how useful were they in a project attempting to make a structural argument on behalf of the occupation – what are our demands, how do we do things, what’s our vision for the future? After Michael Moore films and those similar in style related to political issues, I was very wary of the potential for emotional manipulation as engaged by many film makers. When I see such manipulation, which is usually quite transparent even to people who haven’t taken graduate level film theory/visual methods classes, i mentally revolt. After being beaten over the head with it for so long, its like a conditioned response, visceral reaction against. I didn’t want to engage in such practice in my own film.

Some digital storytelling I have seen feels emotionally manipulative. Not all the time, but enough to make me wary. What is the difference? Many people at Occupy are there for very personal reasons, not just because they hold a difficult theoretical conception of the way society should be organized. Am I to exclude their voices simply because I have a sympathetic emotional reaction? I don’t think so.

But the problem remained. A digital storytelling project, if that’s all it is, a series of individual stories, often with emotional appeal, following a pretty particular trope and structure may lack the capacity to engage truly structural analysis. If the individual being interviewed does analyze a particular system as opposed to relating individual experience, it may seem rather academic and emotionally dry, lacking that very mechanism by which the viewer comes to empathize with the experience of the historically disenfranchised. Whats the proper balance?

WHile thinking about this question, I came across this article in truthout,org, by Rose Aguilar, a radio host with shows in San Francisco and Santa Cruz. The article is entitled “Media Coverage Fails to Tell the Personal Stories of Occupy Protesters,” and in it, she argues that the answer to media misrepresentation of the Occupy Movement is to let the individuals involved tell their own stories.

“it’s all too rare to hear the voices of the people taking part, even in local media outlets….Tim Darby, a demonstrator with Occupy Monterey, says media coverage has been “very poor.” He says most of the coverage he’s read and seen – and he’s been watching closely – fails to include personal stories. “Our problem is that the two local [television] stations are KION, a Fox affiliate and KSBW, a Hearst owned company. Neither are going to want to represent us fairly,” he said. “We are trying to develop a good relationship with the rest of the local community, with initiatives to support local independent businesses and other local campaigns such as the workers at La Playa Hotel who just got laid off. Also, we have someone from In-Home Support Services coming to the next General Assembly to ask for our support. I think this will be the best way to engage others in our local community, rather than hoping that we can get some fair, representative coverage on the local media.” (Aguilar, Occupy Movement)

Aguilar initiated a project of documenting the ‘personal stories’ of occupiers she met at a few encampments, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and Monterrey. Youtube clips of 8 such personal stories are inserted below. She met a broad swathe of people, many ready to talk to her. On first inspection, the interviewees seem to be not very racially diverse; I don’t know if that’s a function of the occupy sites themselves, or inherent to her selection of subjects. Listening to their ‘stories though, yielded some general conclusions that I think may help resolve this question of the public and private, the individual versus the systemic. Perhaps her project can for me elucidate the potential of the digital story to further the goals of social movements.

Observation

1. Context is important. Aguilar is approaching individuals that are already a part of a social movement, thus more likely to think in structural terms. In asking her respondents ‘their story,’ they very often did so, but only by framing it within the socio/political/historical context from which their story emerged. Their ‘personal stories’ might have differed quite radically if interviewed in their homes, or at a university, in a digital story lab. The occupation itself grounded that which is personal, and respondents, consciously or unconsciously advanced from this position.

This is not the traditional digital storytelling format, and perhaps that is good, for we may juxtapose this model, the interview on site of movement, from the more polished sequestered traditional storytelling style. In traditional digital storytelling, without the ground of occupy influencing what is ‘personal,’ would personal stories have been so explicitly political? Which leads to the second conclusion.

2. There is no such thing as a ‘personal story.’ In an apolitical environment, the personal story is more likely to be apolitical, or at least read that way. To impose the digital storytelling format on this particular situation, for instance relating pure personal experience, (not referencing for instance a union’s inability to strike as necessarily ‘personal in this context) may crush the politics out of it. In fact, depending on context (at Occupation or at home) and form (free flowed, unedited discussion, music or no music, etc) entirely different stories may emerge, with all of them being true and personal. What is personal is in deep conversation and interaction with all that is not. If someone asks for a personal story, its always a political question; in particular the way they ask, the ground from which you both are situated, as well as how you are allowed to answer. AN apolitical presentation of the question is perhaps the most politically dangerous of all.

3. “I think this will be the best way to engage others in our local community, rather than hoping that we can get some fair, representative coverage on the local media.” This needs to be thought through, not only for occupy but for digital storytelling as a practice. More hopeful theorists of its political potential assert the medium as giving voice to the voiceless and marginalized. What about distribution? We have talked about this in class, but i’ll repeat the argument for clarity. The quote provided references the occupiers to engage with the local community through personal stories to challenge mainstream representation. How is this to be effective? How does that local community come to see their personal stories, if not already avid fans of local digital storytelling? How is the shift effected between gaining perception of occupy from the mainstream media? By having someone walk over to the local shops and direct them to a website? Why not just walk over to the local businesses as occupiers, as a community outreach, and tell them yourself, face to face, your plans to support their business? I think the problem scales up. Because the voices are recorded in some digital archive somewhere does not guarantee viewing, nor sympathetic response.

Analysis (Conclusions for the Role of OccupyLA Digital Storytelling)

Digital storytelling, as least as it is conducted to further the aim of social movements, need be embedded within a network of activism. For OccupyLA, digital stories should be accessed through OccupyLA webpages, social networks, twitter accounts. This ensures that the digital stories are bundled along with other self-representative content, and available to those searching OccupyLA, not just ‘digital stories.’ They should exist alongside, and part and parcel of media products in their entirety, so as to be anchored within a signifying chain, grounded by structural analysis.

When performed, digital storytelling should occur on site as much as possible, or in some other way grounded to the movement. The personal and the political deeply overlap, and shift along a spectrum of representation, with the notion of ‘personal’ or ‘individual not absolutely, but to a high degree, fluid and determined beyond an individual self-reflecting. What is ‘primed is derivative of context.

A Moment for Self-Reflexivity
What struck me quite vociferously as I thought about my own work, my own selections for what would be included in my final cut was a notion that I had heard repeated a few times by Professor Juhasz in Visual Research Methods class. The female has been linked with the home, the personal the individual (paraphrased). The masculine has been the public sphere, the workplace, the society.” Up until this project, I had theorized from my male, white, and privileged position was to liberalize the public sphere so that women may enter, to ‘hold the door open, ‘ so to speak. That’s quite a condescending position, for it leaves in place the binary in which the ‘public,’ the ‘systemic’ is superior to the personal, the home, the individual experience. With good intention, i had necessarily denigrated the position to which the female, women are often still intimately intertwined, perhaps by patriarchy and interlocking oppressions, but also perhaps through political choice and agency. The question is not to eviscerate the private, individualized position, so that all may share the public, but to challenge the binary. Im not sure if that’s correct or not. But I did realize my own role in selecting, acting on behalf of, being a representative for. I was acting from a position of male privilege.

http://www.truth-out.org/media-coverage-fails-tell-personal-stories-occupy-protesters/1321296763

Individual Response to Structural Problems in Dgital Storytelling

When considering Alex’s post, in particular  the passage”as small scale stories that give a voice to ordinary people through self-representation using digital technology; as multi-modal transformations that remix culture to challenge institutions through personal narratives and a performance of authenticity…”, I began to reflect on the potential of the medium to effect institutional analysis, its value to social movements.

Is it possible that the very medium of digital storytelling: a singular voice, relating a personal story, precludes an analysis of collective or institutional forms, injustice? A singular story may relate an experience within a system of injustice, but it cannot analyze the system unless a move is made from the personal to the collective. May digital storytelling, if adopted as a mechanism though which the voiceless are given a voice, lead to greater atomization, through only allowing experiences of social injustice to be expressed as cries of individualized anguish, thus making their institutional roots and shared experience? Is it possible to break the “I” voice and speak with and on behalf of community in the form?

This is not to challenge the notion that individual stories of injustice can move a viewers sympathies, political alliances, etc, but is there something in the form which precludes getting at the very causes of suffering, in the same way that in the therapists office, social problems are ascribed to individual pathology?

VRM Documentary Group Project

Our intent with the film was to juxtapose a series of discourses emergent in mainstream media representation about occupy wall street, with regards to ‘demands,’ and put them in conversation with a conception of the necessity of ‘need for demands’ derivative of protestors and sympathizers with the occupy movement.

This was achieved through a combination of television news clips, reference to articles, on site interviews, and lectures at OWS, and relevant media clips.

The fundamental thesis is that, although media and centers of power either dismiss Occupy as ‘demandless,’ or ask ‘what are their demands,’ the very question presupposes that making demands of the system is an appropriate tactic. Voices within the movement are not always so sure. The argument is that to give in to the requestng of demands necessarily delimits the voice of occupy, by crunching its energy down into easily replicated soundbites, or demands that can be answered within current configurations of power.

We sough to demonstate that a vibrant question emergent at occupy is precisely, if we had demands, could power really meet them, or could mass media represent them? Are our demands not to reconfigure these very systems to allow not only for democratic accountablity, but also democratic access….  that is, it is occupy itself that demands when and where demands will be voiced, to whom, and how they will be represented.

Occupy, in its most optimistic, is not about coming to power with a list, but a re-imagination and new practice of power (in the foucauldian sense, as not only oppressive, but positive/constructive).

  • Subject Matter: Focus on Occupy Wall Street and LA
    • Questions:
      • What are your demands?
        • May be a function of ideology because it may not be possible to narrow it down to a single demand
        • The very question may be a function of power
        • Cannot be made in a sound bite
        • Engagement upon multiple spheres
      • What are some criticisms of this movement from the media?

The movement has no specific single demand, but it carries a multiplicity of demands.

  • Authenticity
    • Film interviewer interviewing
    • Self-identify and Insider perspective
  • Evidence
    • Personal Footage
    • Interviews
    • Research on blogs and YouTube
  • Authority
    • Participatory democratic structure
    • Following progress of movement
    • Commitment to look at the big picture
  • Responsibility
    • Paying attention to the individuals of the movement unlike the mass media
  • Work Plan:
    • Dates:
      • Week of Oct. 13-20: Discuss interview questions over Sakai and gathering raw footage and evidence
      • Sat, Oct. 15: Shoot footage on site and do online research
      • Thurs, Oct. 20: Meet and create storyboard after class
      • Oct. 21-Oct. 31: Edit film
    • Duties
      • Tim and Tamara: go on site this Sat to City Hall in LA
      • Amanda and Katie: research on discussions on from news, blogs and YouTube clips  (raw footage and news clips)

Occupywallst.org: Occupy Wall Street is a people-powered movement that began on September 17, 2011 in Liberty Square in Manhattan’s Financial District, and has spread to over 100 cities in the United States and actions in over 1,500 cities globally. #OWS is fighting back against the corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process, and the role of Wall Street in creating an economic collapse that has caused the greatest recession in generations. The movement is inspired by popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, and aims to expose how the richest 1% of people are writing the rules of an unfair global economy that is foreclosing on our future.

 

Steve Jobs is Dead; Long Live Occupy Wall Street

Every once in a while, the universe strings together two seemingly disparate events packed with so much interconnected meaning, that one must pause in wonder and ask if there is, perhaps, a greater intelligence at work behind the world of appearances.

The news cycle on wednesday October 5th has been dominated by two events/stories: on the one hand, the death of the iconic Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple inc., and on the other, the explosive momentum of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement.

As Jobs drew his last breath wednesday afternoon, the streets of New york City exploded in protest with 20,000-plus everyday people – workers, activists from a variety of causes with a plethora of demands, labor unions, the unemployed, students with overbearing debt burdens, anti-civilization hippies, and the generally anxious/bored. Although the demands are disparate, many of them can be unified in a critical analysis of the power of corporations over the democratic process, the increasing levels of inequality which are approaching truly obscene levels (and deeply racially structured), and a recognition of the power of Wall Street and financial power to influence/structure state policy for the benefit of a fraction of the population, the 1% who owns somewhere in excess of 30% of the nation’s total wealth.

All news reports I have seen about Jobs’ death have functioned as virtual memorial, tributes to the life of Steve Jobs: his individual genius, entrepreneurial drive, and creativity. They imply we  have lost not only a giant of industry but an incredible human being, excellence personified, a charitable and decent person. I have no doubt about the individual character of Steve Jobs. I am sure he was, as the reports say, brilliant, kind, compassionate, inspired/inspiring. My sympathies extend to those who love him, and those he loved.

As we all know, Steve Jobs was also the CEO of Apple, Inc. – the second highest valued company in the world behind Exxon-Mobil, and at one point this summer, held more cash than the U.S. treasury.

I am left with a feeling of unease as I watch the perpetual stream of images, tributes, remembrances to Steve Jobs stream across the collective American consciousness in the form of mass media representation. I am left with the nagging suspicion that there is something missing from the analysis. To put it summarily, what is lacking is any node of criticality. What is missing is the recognition that “Steve Jobs” was, and is, an enemy to the project of human liberation. If Multinational Capitalism is a project which is antagonistic to human development and progress, then “Steve Jobs” may perhaps be the greatest threat to liberation on the planet. A controversial claim to be sure, and this article is an attempt to back up that exceptional claim.

First, some clarification on terms, and why I put “Steve Jobs” in quotes: Steve Jobs was not just a man, but I claim he is an ideology. In fact, “Steve Jobs” is the very ideology by which capitalism in its current form justifies itself. The overriding, hegemonic/mainstream understanding of Steve Jobs, and by extension Apple Inc., is as ‘good apple’ (as opposed to bad – Wall Street banks, Big Oil – including Exxon Mobil, privatized paramilitaries like the former Blackwater, now xe, etcetera). I am arguing that it is this very notion  – that capitalism can produce “good” and “bad apples,” is a great impediment to the notion of popular democracy held by the protestors in the occupy together movement. For it privileges a case by case analysis over a more systemic criticism. My argument is that Capitalism must be viewed systemically, and in doing so, one recognizes the interconnection between the good Apple, Inc and the bad apples on Wall Street. You cannot have a good Apple, Inc., with out Wall Street, and Wall street/capitalism uses the image of good Apple, Inc. in order to assert that more radical engagements with the structures of capital are not necessary. If capitalism can produce Apple, Inc., perhaps capitalism isn’ all that bad. So says the Ideology of Jobs.

It would be trivial to say that the connection between the two stories is simply that the CEO of the world’s secondly highest valued company unfortunately passed at the very moment that the Occupy Wall Street movement crescendos. That’s metaphorically interesting, but this is not an ‘evil capitalist’ analysis. To make that case would  be quite insensitive to jobs and his family, as well as a flawed (individualist/case by case/ good and bad apples) analysis.

The point is more subtle. There need be a separation between Steve Jobs the man, the individual with a family, a career, brilliant and innovative on the one hand –  and the way that the symbol, the metaphor of “Steve Jobs,” is exchanged, traded and communicated in the culture.

This is  a critique of the ideological apparatus in which the image of ‘Steve Jobs’ is enmeshed, used and exchanged within the contemporary moment of capitalism. My argument is that the narrative of Steve Jobs is the story which justifies the contemporary status quo. By extension, Apple, Inc. stands in as the representation for THE American corporation, par excellence.  This status quo, ideologically justified by the narrative of ‘Steve Jobs,’ is  precisely what the Occupy Wall Street protestors are challenging. If we demand an authentic structural engagement with the systemic features of American capitalism which privilege a small percentage of the population (1% may be too generous, more like 1/10th of 1%), it is the ‘Ideology of Steve Jobs’ which will prove our greatest resistance. It is easy to criticize greed and avarice on Wall Street when they are cashing in multi-million dollar bonuses, while the rest of the country is in economic free-fall. It is easy to see the damage done to the global commons when big oil spills in the Gulf, destroying the ecosystem, and refusing to accept responsibility.  It is not as easy to criticize the genius Jobs, and the miraculous technologies he has graced us with.This ideology of Jobs (IOJ) is, I assert, the dominant mechanism by which  a brutal and inegalitarian system is able to reproduce itself, and to maintain dominance. IOJ comes to stand in for American capitalism itself. Yet we cannot have capitalism without the excesses of Wall Street, the nanny-state, and rampant inequality. Apple, Inc. goes hand in hand with the most rapacious of American corporations, are in fact two heads of hydra-like contemporary capitalism.

What are the contents of this ideology, this justification of the status quo, that the ‘Occupy together’ movement resists?

1. Necessity of Hierarchy / ‘Great Man’ theory. The top-down tyrannical model, the corporate form is justified by the great-man’s superior creativity and vision.

2. ‘Free-Markets’ are the drivers of growth and technological creativity.

3. Capitalism with a human face: Jobs’ products and work, and by extension capitalism itself, has a heart.

4. Apple, Inc. is the new face of American capitalism, THE American company, and stands in as a representation of what we can do as a nation. 

This is the ideology of “Jobs.” And today, “Jobs” died.

Hierarchy and the Great Man Theory

So says the IOJ:

There are ‘great-men,’ who through their exceptional talents, rise above the fray. Through sheer will power and independent genius, these great men guide us mere mortals (workers) to novel plateaus of possibility.

The corporate form (a tyrannical form of social organization, if the word has any meaning) is justified, because it puts Steve Jobs / great men at the top of the hierarchy. It is not only effective and efficient, but moral, that all power should flow from the top down. For Apple is his creation, vision, realization; “Jobs” is greater than us, greater meaning in the contemporary moment, more creative, inspired, inspirational.

So we say:

Not just political, but economic institutions require democratization, or the word democracy is nothing but an empty shell. We spend the majority of our waking lives on the job, or increasingly, out of one. We ask, can we be said to live in a democracy if we spend the majority of our capable lives and energy within an authoritarian institution, taking orders from above?

The economic institutions of society deeply influence, in fact control our politics. To support tyranny in the economy, and democracy in the political sphere, sounds to our ears, contradictory and hypocritical. Either democracy is the best way to organize institutions, or it is not. Workers and employees are intelligent enough to handle their own affairs, and to elect a leadership which emerges from and is accountable to their own ranks. Despite the Gifts of Jobs, such gifts do not justify totalizing/authoritarian institutions.

Though it is transparent and common sense, it bears repeating: in a corporation, all power flows from the owners through their board of directors, to the CEO, to his VP’s, then below to the mid-level managers, all they way down to the employees. The average worker has as much power as the level above him grants. Companies hire workers to make money off of them, or they don’t hire. Marx termed this ‘extraction of surplus value.’ Corporations are wealth extraction machines.

Such a structuration of our economic institutions has been with us for so long, and receives such ideological support from education, media and popular culture that it appears natural. Ideology justifies hierarchy as more efficient in  allocating resources, people and decision making. People become CEO’s because they are the most qualified, talented intelligent, creative, etc. People become CEO’s because they are Steve Jobs, and Steve Jobs comes to stand in for CEO’s everywhere. And Steve Jobs is to have power over the rest.

Those of us on the ground of the occupy movements have quite a different conception of the way the our economic institutions should be structured. You can see it our General Assemblies (GA’s). As opposed to the top-down model of power, justified by individual genius, we believe in a bottom-up approach to power. We democratically vote on everything we can, including those who will be delegated power and authority for the sake of efficiency. We do not proceed without consensus. Power flows from the level below, always. If someone in a position of assigned authority is not functioning in a way beneficial to the group and its aims, a vote is taken, and she/he may be recalled.

Notice that if there is someone of exceptional creativity and genius, a ‘Jobs’ type in the collective, he would be democratically elected into a leadership position, for it would serve the interests of the group. There is nothing that precludes  a Steve Jobs from being in a position of influence, nor would his ‘creative gifts’ be denied channels of expression.

In the modern corporation, the situation is precisely the opposite. For it is not the workers/participants in the organization that hold power. Absolute power does not even belong to Jobs (hence, why he was fired before being rehired in Apple Inc’s current manifestation). It belongs to the owners, the board of directors. These owners need not necessarily, and most likely do not, have any relationship to Apple, Inc. except owning it. They squeeze profit from the labor of the workers of Apple, Inc. like Apple Juice. Absolute power is vested in the profit motive by law. In fact, if Steve Jobs wanted to do something not in the interest of short-term profitability, like maintaining a domestic production workforce for his products, by law he should be fired. That is the status quo economic structure. It is profoundly undemocratic. Yet that very lack of democracy is justified by the IOJ, which asserts that Jobs’ genius alone that  brought us to new technological heights. Jobs’ ran Apple as an authoritarian institution, but such an arrangement is justified by Job’s exceptional qualities.

So says IOJ.

We in the Occupy movements disagree.

Free-Markets are the laboratories in which creativity, technology, and economic growth emerge

So says the IOJ:

Steve Jobs is the contemporary Leonardo Da Vinci. He is our Thomas Edison. Nonsense.

Steve Jobs didn’t invent anything. He re-packaged things made in government funded labs funded by the taxpayer, then branded them effectively.

The narrative goes something like this – in their garage, some young technological savants, including Steve Jobs, built the first apple computer. In 1984, Jobs publicly reveals the first Macintosh, describing it as ‘insanely great,’ as an adoring crowd ooh’s and ahh’s at the anthropomorhic power of the graphic representation of human handwriting and speech. The apple2 computer, hits the market then the apple3. Jobs is fired illegitimately. He leaves, and goes on to form Pixar. Eventually Jobs’ is recruited batik to Apple, and under his leadership, the company develops technologies and applications from their intellectual hotbed in Cupertino, California, and the rest is history – the ipod, Ipad, Macbook, Itunes, etc.

One thing is left out of the story, and it’s pretty important. Namely, that the entire technological platform upon which Apple, Inc. was built – the very technologies of the computer – microchips, processors, semi-conductors, the internet, were all developed and subsidized by the taxpayer/state. The entire high-technology economy is supported through tax-payer subsidy under the guise of Military spending. The pentagon is a mask by which the state (run by corporations) transfers wealth from the taxpayer to their wealth extraction machines (corporations, private tyrannies)

It is cost-prohibitive, the research and development process too time-intensive and high-risk for high technology companies to assume the burden of technological development. The internet and the technology of the personal computer took decades to develop, with no immediate short-term profit on the horizon.. The state, by way of the taxpayer, funded that research.

If anything comes out of  state funded research (as in the case of pc’s and the internet), the technology is handed over to private companies, for free, with no remittance to tax payers. This is the birth of Silicon Valley.

While Jobs and Apple, Inc. have combined technologies in some novel ways, packaged them well, perhaps made them more efficient and streamlined, it is the state which created and developed them, using your and my money. And we have received nothing for it, except for the opportunity to buy back stuff we paid for. The Da Vinci work was done by the state and paid for by us.

And this summer Apple, Inc. had more money than the US treasury.

Apple, Inc. thus functions ideologically to mask the reality that the free-market does not, in any sense, exist in the United States. It never has. The situation is more aptly described as a state-corporate nexus, in which the public pays the costs and takes the risk, and profit is privatized.

Imagine a situation in which to employ the technology developed by taxpayer funded labs (semi-conductors, the internet, computer chips, etc) Apple, Inc. had to pay a licensing fee into the U.S. treasury; seems like that might cut into the national debt. The people paid for those technologies, and the people should profit from their investment in the form of monies for public infrastructure. But to do so would be to effectively challenge private powers’ right to profit, despite their inability to create the very technologies which allow their profitability. So the situation goes unmentioned in dominant discourse. The great man ideology, combined with free-market rhetoric (despite free-markets lack of existence) leads to a situation of pure fantasy, which disciplines the population with narratives of individual greatness, american ingenuity, and freedom.

This ideology of free-market creativity is then used to attack the state as repressing capitalism’s inherent growth and productivity. The economic collapse is articulated as an outcome of government that is too large. This despite the fact that government funds the entire dynamic sectors of the so-called private economy.

Those who attack “big government,’ near universally want to maintain Pentagon spending, the mechanism by which the state subsidizes the high tech economy. So-called ‘defense’ is  one of the only legitimate functions of government in radical-right theorizing. Their looting of the treasury is well hidden within rhetoric about the need to defend ourselves from terror. The government functions that will be attacked by free-market ideologues are not the nanny-state which empowers and supports them, but the functions that protect the population from the ravages of this system. Healthcare, education, environmental protection. Every program which benefits the population, not profitability for private tyranny.

The IOJ, through masking its own investment with this system, helps mask it across the board, through the narrative of the independently creative firm, on its own, spinning out revolutionary technologies – and with creativity and hard work, you can too.

So says IOJ.

We in the Occupy movements disagree.

Capitalism with a Human Face

Slavoj Zizek asserts that when you buy a cup of coffee from Starbucks, you are not just buying a cup of coffee. You are buying ‘good coffee karma.’ That is, with the very price of purchase, you are purchasing an alleviation of the guilt of consumer/consumptive practices, because some certain percentage of your purchase is going to some global cause somewhere. Political activism reduced to the consumptive act, as a politics of liberal humanism, reintegrated within capitalism, generosity and the desire to help commodified. (1)

Ideology of Jobs goes even further. Is there not an image of Apple, and Steve Jobs, as essentially philanthropic? This despite the fact that he is not on the record as a philanthropist. How? They very products he created and sold were in fact charities in themselves. They made the world a better place. There is no need to remediate the ravages of the world capitalist system with philanthropy any more (as if it could, but thats another story. See Zizek)Products will save the world. We have all heard the refrains – the internet as democratizing, the personal computer giving people the capacity to make their own media, etc.

Here is Dan Pallota, making the point quite explicitly in a blog in the Harvard Business Review:

“What a loss to humanity it would have been if Jobs had dedicated the last 25 years of his life to figuring out how to give his billions away, instead of doing what he does best….We’d still be waiting for a cell phone on which we could actually read e-mail and surf the web. “We” includes students, doctors, nurses, aid workers, charity leaders, social workers…It helps physicians improve their performance and surgeons improve their practice. It even helps charities raise money…We’d be a decade or more away from the iPad, which has ushered in an era of reading electronically that promises to save a Sherwood Forest worth of trees and all of the energy associated with trucking them around….And you can’t say someone else would have developed these things. No one until Jobs did, and the competitive devices that have come since have taken the entirety of their inspiration from his creation….Without Steve Jobs we’d be years away from a user-friendly mechanism for getting digital music without stealing it, which means we’d still be producing hundreds of millions of CDs with plastic cases…We would be without the 34,000 full-time jobs Apple has created, just within Apple, not to mention all of the manufacturing jobs it has created for those who would otherwise live in poverty…We would be without the wealth it has created for millions of Americans who have invested in the company….We would be without a whole new way of thinking. About computers. Leadership. Business. Our very potential. (2)

Lets go point by point.

Why did Jobs have billions in the first place? We already know that the core technologies of the Apple Computer were not created by Jobs, but in government labs at taxpayer expense. Why wasn’t a substantial portion of that money in the treasury, supporting the public infrastructure and reducing the debt in the first place? Why did Jobs make so much more money than Chinese workers (about $100 a month))? Was his packaging and marketing, his labor, that much more intrinsically valuable to the creation of the Ipad, or is it just valued that way by shareholders?

The emailing web surfing phone helps doctors, nurses, charity leaders, social workers, etc. And corporations, and police and dictators and prisons, and every other center of power that requires communication.

Deforestation is increasing in pace and scale.

Who says these devices wouldn’t be invented by someone else? The technologies underlying them certainly were. What technologies have not been created, because they weren’t in the interests of short-term profitability? Is there really a big enough difference between iphone 3 and 4, to justify the exuberant, over the top, Jobs-led, public release parties, broadcasting Jobs magnified image all over the world as a revolutionizer of potential?

Why is digital music ‘owned’ in the first place? Are independent musicians benefitted by such an arrangement? Did jobs just find a way to effectively maintain corporate monopoly over music within a medium the internet) that naturally occludes corporate control?

The jobs (as in employment) comment is just disgraceful. Corporate globalization is not a process of increasing American labor and raising living standards around the world, but is in fact a process of extending multinational control over the globe having precisely the opposite effect: hallowing out American industry in order to escape environmental regulation and fair labor practices. At the Chinese Foxconn factory, where Apple products such as the ipod are manufactured, there have been 18 suicide attempts, with 14 deaths due to the misery and perceived meaningless of life for those employed there. To remedy the situation, Foxconn has instituted a policy by which workers are forced to sign ‘no-suicide’ pledges if they desire to work. They have also installed nets to catch those who throw themselves from windows, which they, in a an Orwellian fashion, have dubbed ‘nets of loving hearts.’  “In reality, these ‘loving hearts’ are 10ft high wire fences on the roofs and 15ft wide nets at the base of all buildings. The human traps are to prevent people jumping to their deaths and smashing themselves on the pavements below.”  When Jobs visited the factory, he described it as “pretty nice.” The conditions described in the factory are shocking, long hours with prison-like warehousing of workers for low pay. (3)

The entire report by Daily Mail is available here http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1285980/Revealed-Inside-Chinese-suicide-sweatshop-workers-toil-34-hour-shifts-make-iPod.html. Yet these labor practices are masked by the IOJ, by the popular narrative of all that Apple, Inc. does for consumers – increased democratization, making every consumer a producer of media, etc.

And my personal favorite (note sarcasm, please):

“We would be without a whole new way of thinking. About computers. Leadership. Business. Our very potential.”

We ARE without a whole new way of thinking. The culture has been deeply impacted by the existence of totalitarian institutions (corporations) as our dominant economic form. We are more passive, more willing to accept illegitimate authority, more willing to be competitive, to accept a model of imposed scarcity, more willing to turn our back on the needs of other people. We in the Occupy Movement sense our whole new way of thinking, our whole new potential. We can feel the emergence of what we have long repressed in ourselves. Hope. Love. Solidarity. Doing things together – being responsible for ourselves, and for one another. No one dominated, but all equally empowered, through structure. Powerful. When i have conversations with other activists i may or may not know, in other occupy movements (Boston, Riverside, san francisco), demanding greater decentralization within their own movements, greater transparency, people policing themselves and their own movements, acting collectively and responsibly, it taps into a deep joy at the possibilities long denied, and an anger for the fact that opportunity has been repressed for so long. We feel the tragedy, a deep and profound melancholy at all the time, lives, energy wasted.

Yet this is a moment of potential. and we will manage these conflicting emotions, In solidarity, with joy and revolutionary love. Don’t talk to me about being without whole new ways of thinking. The IOJ is just a slick re-packaging of the same old thing, much like the products themselves – which leads into the fourth component of IOJ.

Apple. Inc is the new face of American Capitalism, the iconic company of the ‘post-industrial’ globalized moment

So says the IOJ.

The collapse and export of the manufacturing base, and the financialization of the economy has yielded greater and greater control to a fraction of 1% of the population, namely bankers, hedge fund managers, and corporate ceo’s. For the last 30 years, real wages for working people have stagnated, or collapsed. Our military fights battles on multiple fronts in the vague and indeterminate war on terror, with no end-goals or plans for withdrawal. There is a ramping up in incarceration for the population superfluous to the creation of capital (composed mostly of the historically disenfranchised/marginalized black and brown peoples), aggravated social ills like unemployment, collapsing public education systems, and an attack/rolling back of the social safety net. Increasing instability, political divisiveness, and misplaced anger float through the society and in mainstream representation which describes our contemporary condition.

This is what has brought the occupiers to the financial district to stage their symbolic protest. Where is our hope? Why so much domestic chaos? Where lies the future of the American economy?

Capitalism answers: the ideology of Jobs. It is the the Ipad. It is in the Macbook Air. It is in the Iphone. New American products for the new American century; sleek, elegant, and well-designed. Compact. Technologically sophisticated. No one in the world makes a sexier consumer product. Apple, Inc. represents the best of American ingenuity. Apple is THE American company. We made this. American entrepreneurship and  creativity is still alive.

So says the IOJ.

If we look a little closer, peel back the narrative, the real story of the American economy rests right below the surface of this sleek imagery of Apple, Inc. and its products.

I-pods, pads, and phones are not made here. Apple, Inc. exported its manufacturing base, even though they could still maintain a substantial profit by employing a domestic work force.

Apple, Inc. repackaged existing technologies and streamlined them to make them more user friendly, a program of popularization tracing back to the very founding of Apple, Inc and the public presentations by Jobs which have become so popular. The new face of American capitalism as public relations exercise; there was no real ingenuity at work, in the sense of creating something new. Steve Jobs didn’t hammer out the Ipod in his garage, but he suggested the general principles of ‘smaller, simple colors, easy to use, etc” in a meeting room, and whole TEAMS  of people were tasked with engineering Apple products in a way to conform with the PR design laid out by “Jobs.”

In fact, what Apple, Inc. in fact reveals, if we dig a little below the surface, is the move from a substantial, production oriented economy to one based on image management, public relations, and sleek marketing. Apple, Inc. represents an ephemeralization, a virtualization of production, a trading of imagery signifying creativity, ingenuity and production, but lacking any substantive base. Jobs and his ‘coming out’ ceremonies of new Apple consumer products have taken on near religious importance in some circles. They represent the most novel of creations, the best we can collectively imagine, and do.

Imagery as opposed to substance. Dream as opposed to reality. There is no room for the American worker in the actual business model of Apple, Inc. There is no greater control, no increase in democratization in the Ipad that can escape the bounds set by corporate domination of the state-economic system. Apple, Inc. and its resultant products are the mask the process of deindustrialization, stratification and wealth inequality wears in order to  hide the  deleterious effects of contemporary globalized capital.

If this is the new American company, woe to the middle class, the unemployed, the 99 percent.

Conclusion

What’s happening on the streets of the ‘big apple,’ is diametrically opposed to that which is happening in media representation of Apple, Inc. Within Occupy Wall Street, and in the solidarity Occupy Movements across the country the conversation is about how to hold unaccountable, private power to account. It is a conversation about flattening hierarchies, liberating human creativity and engagement from outdated and authoritative forms. It is a conversation about deploying the full resources of the domestic and international economy for actual people’s benefit, and increasing popular participation in democracy.

The mass media view Apple, Inc. as the bigger Apple. At the very moment that the greatest challenge to the state-corporate system in decades reaches an apex of energy, the story is interrupted in order to announce the death of Steve Jobs. Tribute after tribute flows, functioning ideologically to undergird the revolutionary potential of capitalism to make people’s lives better, more just, more creatively fulfilled. We are asked to marvel at his ingenuity instead of our own. The more radial elements of the Occupy movement seem that more irrational/extreme in the light of the brilliance and achievement of “Jobs.” They don’t want a revolution, do they? But what about all that Steve Jobs has done? Doesn’t capital have the ability to be just? A systemic criticism which views Apple, Inc. and Goldman Sachs as intimately linked, collapses into an argument about good and bad apples. That’s the ideology we will confront. That’s the challenge. Wanna go on ichat to discuss it further?

List of References

(1) Zizek, S. Slavoj Zizek: First as Tragedy, Then as Farce. [Video file]. Retrieved from http://comment.rsablogs.org.uk/2010/07/29/rsa-animate-tragedy-farce/

(2) Pallota, D. (2011, Sept. 2). Steve Jobs, World’s Greatest Philanthropist [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://blogs.hbr.org/pallotta/2011/09/steve-jobs-worlds-greatest-phi.html

(3) Malone, A. and Jones, R. (2010, June 11). Revealed: Inside the Chinese suicide sweatshop where workers toil in 34-hour shifts to make your iPod. The Daily Mail. Retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1285980/Revealed-Inside-Chinese-suicide-sweatshop-workers-toil-34-hour-shifts-make-iPod.html

Tim Malone is a participant of Occupy Los Angeles, an independent film-maker, and a graduate student at Claremont Graduate University. His research focuses on Anarchist Theory, Social Movements, the Prison-Industrial Complex, and Ideology. He can be reached at tzagawd@yahoo.com