Nov 27, 2011

Occupy Your Own Privilege

There are a lot of good, really exciting, truly revolutionary things about the Occupy movement, such as it is a movement, since it really isn't, but there is also one truth that almost no one involved wants to talk about or can talk about, which is the pervasive farce of white privilege. At some level the movement is nothing but the reactionary awakening of the white middle classes in the United States. It didn't matter enough to occupy the streets, fight against the banks, call out the millionaires, and disrupt the functioning of runaway neoliberalism when it was blacks suffering, latinos suffering, poor whites suffering, but it matters when the children of the middle classes begin drowning in debt amassed simply to attend university, or cannot find jobs, or cannot move out of their parents houses to find a home of their own.

Let's dispense with this hard truth right now: all of those complaints, legitimate as they are (for one, like myself, who believes education is a right, and therefore should be free, along with healthcare, at a minimum), are complaints from the position of obscene privilege compared to minorities in this country. No jobs, no university education, stuck living in parents homes, or worse? This is the daily life of the working poor in the United States and has been since before independence. Mass imprisonment, dramatically shorter life-expectancy, lower standards of education have been the reality for blacks in the U.S. for a long time now, just as dramatically following the civil rights movement as before it. There are systematic arguments for that, but what it really means at the most basic level is that the same white, complacent middle classes now taking to the streets to protest their loss of privilege are absolutely, even if passively, complicit and guilty of oppression imposed on minorities and the working poor.

They should start, then, with an apology, with an admission of guilt. They should start on their knees, acknowledge the farce of their position, their absolute privilege, and then maybe they will earn the respect, engagement, support, and knowledge of those communities which have been repressed in this country for as long as there has been a country. Otherwise, should Occupy be victorious in its goals, it will again, as every past "movement" has done, leave behind those same groups to be exploited, all it will accomplish is a return to the status quo in which white middle-class citizens have it good, the rich have control, and everyone else has it worse than those can imagine.

One needs to say, "We are sorry, we have ignored you, we have failed to fight for you until it was us they came for", or one needs to shut up and get to work on the streets without speaking. Those who have fought and failed, or fought and been thrown in prison, or fought and been beaten down time and time again, who know the police not as "friends" but as the force of control that they are, should have nothing but disdain to anyone that fails in this apology. I have nothing for disdain for anyone who fails in that apology, and I am one of those who needs to apologize. So I will: I am sorry. I have ignored massive injustice until it affected me. I have failed to show up for the fight during the long years there has been a war I was blind to. I am sorry.

In this country one needs to understand the "problem" is not whether people whose parents own nice houses and who will support them until a job is found have amassed a lot of debt, though that is certainly a problem. The problem is white, middle-class ignorance towards millions of people locked up for minor offenses because they are black, or latino, or simply poor. The problem is the millions who couldn't begin to afford university attendance even before tuition prices skyrocketed, while people like me got by without even having to hold down a job. The problem is millions bankrupt because of health problems. The problem is a system of exploitation in which the 1% (who exist and are worse than you imagine, find the statistics if you want) extract the wealth from all the rest of us and throw it into the multinational slipstream of commodity and resource trading trying to earn return upon return on our dollar. The problem is that everything in this country is built to support them, not to help us, including the police, the courts, and the government as a whole. The problem, really, is that 150 million people in this country know that and have known that for a long time now, but the privileged, entitled other millions were enough to keep the system afloat and in power.

Of course it is good that those millions are finally turning against power, finally failing to believe in it. But let's not delude ourselves into believing that this is some change in consciousness or essential goodness: things have been deeply unjust for a long time now, and precious few of us privileged noticed or cared, or we cared in the way we care if the wife of an acquaintance dies of cancer: "Oh, that really is too bad, honey." We care the way sitcom characters care, because sitcom characters are written to give familiar models of white society and their narratives are borrowed. We, and let me be clear I include the I in it, lack mirrors, and avoid looking into the mirrors we do have.

What I'm saying is that what we've done, in our privilege and ignorance, is already nearly unforgivable, and that we deserve to beg for that forgiveness. If we fail this time we will be truly complicit, have committed the truly unforgivable act of demanding a revolution for ourselves and again ignoring those who need it far more than we do. The streets have been occupied, the camps have been torn down, as I write this the last holdout in Occupy Los Angeles is about to get raided, so things change again. If you are one of the privileged it's time to occupy your own privilege: your shopping mall, your university, your courthouse, your favorite restaurant, your parents backyard, your police stations, your hospitals, your museums, especially the museums, and to remind them all they serve and must serve everyone, not just you.

Oct 10, 2011

Occupation, Space, Community

"Sleeping on that pavement was not only a way to lay claim to the public, to contest the legitimacy of the state, but also quite clearly, a way to put the body on the line in its insistence, obduracy and precarity, overcoming the distinction between public and private for the time of revolution. In other words, it was only when those needs that are supposed to remain private came out into the day and night of the square, formed into image and discourse for the media, did it finally become possible to extend the space and time of the event with such tenacity to bring the regime down. After all, the cameras never stopped, bodies were there and here, they never stopped speaking, not even in sleep, and so could not be silenced, sequestered or denied – revolution happened because everyone refused to go home, cleaving to the pavement, acting in concert." Judith Butler 

I have an embedded nervousness at crossing the thresholds of doorways. Embedded doesn't sound right, but it sounds the closest thing to right. Gates, fences, doorways. Lorca had this too, but I think this was consciousness of the threshold as something profound rather than an implicit learned training of what space may be entered and what space may not. Anyway he was afraid of doorways, I've been afraid of what is past a doorway, and I think both are because continuity fails at the barrier. At a coffee shop one night I sat outside on the patio and watched a homeless man stumblestop at the invisible line between a low wall of wooden planters that demarcated the area of the coffee shop. He did not cross it. Maybe he couldn't cross it. Maybe he'd been banned for staying too long without buying, or maybe he knew he wasn't welcome, or maybe he knew THAT place was not HIS place. A line I cross without thinking about it is a barrier for someone else, and a very real one. I walk through the front doors, past the secretaries, through the very clean hallways of the John Molson School of Business and downstairs to the (not that clean) bathrooms and know I don't look TOO out of place, despite not having a suit or jacket on. Despite not quite belonging, belonging enough.

What is the difference, if there is any true important difference, between a nomadic tribe on the North American plains, or crossing the Sahara, and a group of people occupying the wasteland of Wall St? The experiment gets more profound when thought of that way, for me, because it is an actual revolution...that is an actual starting over. It's not just about overcoming the distinction between public and private anymore, but LOSING the distinction all together. There is no private space anymore, there is no public space anymore, precisely because all space has become public space in any sense of ownership or entitlement. You have YOUR space, yes, but that space is not fixed in the world, is not owned, and does not need to be. Butler talks about systems of alliances in this article and how they don't need to be tied to a space, that is the lesson of revolutions in the Middle-East lately. The alliances continue even when you change place. Nomadic tribes. Burning man tribes. Art collectives. Revolutionary Collectives, but really, ideally, just collectives for everything. We already do it. It's not that hard, and it feels really good. You develop the ability to manifest and occupy and exist in AnySpace, in Space, whether public or private. This kind of organization is what no one, because of deeply learned ignorance, gets about communism, which I always think of less on the level of massive state organization, and far more on the level of what really is more like tribal organization and responsibility.

But what I really thought of before starting to write this is when the doors don't matter anymore. When they are all open, and what is past the threshold isn't threatening or uninviting. This sounds like what happened in Egypt: the whole city became part of the revolution. This is the difference between thinking of public space as temporary use only and public space as occupied space. The distinction, the barrier, between public and private is erased because you drag lines of bodies, speech, materials and knowledge between the two spaces. By occupying the public you drag the private into the public, and vice versa. Permanence ceases to be the realm (which is an illusion anyway) of the private only. The false idea of permanence in the home, aristocratic and totally unattainable to almost everyone, is what gets people in trouble...slaves to the money required for that illusion. Space isn't permanence. Nothing is, but community, ritual, tradition, are far closer than space is. Anyone who thinks you couldn't do Burning Man almost anywhere doesn't get it. Anyone who thinks you can't occupy a suburb doesn't get it. Anyone protesting at Wall Street who thinks the goal is enough money to own a house, which I've got a feeling is almost everyone, doesn't actually get it, and they need to.

The things you own end up owning you. As a mantra. Over and over again. Ownership is aristocratic. The very idea comes from the people that have always done the most to fuck up the world. It always ties you down to place and obliges you to defend it, obliges you to think that place has inherent value and meaning. "Anything can happen, the tallest towers / be overturned" says Seamus Heaney, which is a reminder of how pointless it is to build very tall towers when you could be building community, culture, ritual, and things that actually CAN endure, despite almost anything.

Sep 24, 2011

Notes from the Wall Street Occupation

Max Hodes, another member of the Sacred Dice Collective, spent days protesting, nights in the cold, endured arrest and went back for more during the ongoing occupation of Wall Street organized this past week.  These are his words about what's going on there.

The General Assembly

The NYT confuses this with an organized group. It is not. It is the name for a gathering of participants who need not be named or declare any affiliation or ever have been here or anywhere else before. It uses a consensus-building model to make discuss and make decisions democratically. Nearly everyone who is at the site seems inexperienced using this model. There are frequent arguments over abuse of process. These conflicts diminish with passing days. New committees and working groups are formed every day to deal with whatever issues have recently arrived. For example, when we arrived there was already a media team. They took it upon themselves to create a 24-hour broadcast on the internet, in addition to shooting and compiling footage with multiple cameras, also on a 24-hour schedule. It was later determined by the GA that there should be a separate Media Outreach committee, dealing with inventing PR tactics and training participants in same. There is a comfort committee, dealing with blankets, cardboard supply, soft things, to increase longevity. There is a medical team. There is a sanitation committee. All volunteers who notice problems and fix them as they see them. Anyone who has an idea is basically free to enact it unless someone in the GA has some principled concern about it. Each participant is given full license to use their time however they see fit. Volunteers are called for where needed, and usually appear in droves. There is a committee of facilitators who might, to the untrained eye, appear to be leaders of the outfit. While facilitating, they do not participate in discussion in the offering of opinions.

As far as larger organizational structures go, this is as good a model as any, but it does have limits which become evident as the group grows.. There simply isn't time for everyone to offer themselves to a discussion and those that feel more inclined to lead than follow seem to end up facilitating. However, that level of participation is still more democratic than a simple yes or no vote. Individuals determine the level of participation they want to see from themselves. Gaps in leadership are filled as soon as someone wants problems solved, because they need to do the solving themselves. The GA seems to create a less inert population because people with the inclination against slow decision making are free to speak up and seem rarely shouted down.

I think that on a large scale, the consensus model could be used in well-trained groups of up to 500. Smaller groups, being more agile, might serve larger communities better by volunteering representatives, training them, and sending them to larger consensus-bodies. In such a way I can even imagine an alternate societal organization to our current one. Over the course of 100 years with sufficient participatory training, unilateral action on the part of a large body of people might be entirely eliminated because the process has the feeling of fusing individual and group identities. Maybe that's wishful thinking. I'm well trained already in the process, and this one was excessively frustrating. When I disagree with the group at large, I don't want to participate at all. And my lack of contribution goes entirely unnoticed. This has it's advantages and disadvantages, but I ultimately like it more because of the choice one is forced to make moment to moment. In the film The Matrix the Architect describes the same choice to Neo: act, or do not act, choose. Without this choice, no process is democratic. Compulsory participation is fascism plain and simple. It's one of the million things we're protesting against.

Why are we protesting

No one knows. Everybody is enraged and everyone has a unique focus. We have not decided on a single demand, and I don't want to. I would like this to turn into a Burning Man-esque event. An ongoing party of the political, artistic and spiritual avant-garde, that becomes an ever-updated cultural institution; a continual protest against the status quo with real political consequences. For that to happen, we will need to find ways of becoming genuinely disruptive. That means we will more than likely be struck down, unless we can somehow strike a perfect balance of necessity and aggravation. If the world demands we stay because we are stirring up right conflict, then we've got a chance at perpetuation. More likely, the cold will get us before too long. The blue-shirt cops seem to like us. The city cut their overtime hours, possibly as a way to get at their pensions, and this is the best chance they've got to log hours before retirement. It's the police lieutenants who are doing the dicking around.

Still we keep getting asked, what we are doing there. And still no one knows. We are occupying because the world is outrageous, we blame greed, and those who feel entitled to their greed. Wall Street is the center of greed. It's that simple. We didn't keep Troy Davis alive. We haven't fed anybody who was hungry, we haven't stopped the monster or done more than create a slightly spectacular nuisance. No one has thrown themselves into the gears of the machine. Maybe what we're protesting is that we can't even see the gears. The machine is a phantom beyond any measure of control except perhaps this one. We are actually trying to alter culture by pushing and shoving it with phantom hands, which turn out to be the only tool available, since the culture is itself composed of phantoms, ideas, fleeting moments, rather than anything concrete and destructible.  There is not, for example, any factory to strike against and shut down.  The machine will continue with or without our participation.   

My arrest on Monday morning was the first that I know of.  It was carried out, as reported by the Wall Street Journal and The Colbert Report, under an obscure law from 1848 against the wearing of masks at public gatherings.  The arrest, like many at protests, was possibly illegal, but of course legality is not the point of these arrests while disruption and intimidation absolutely are. It snowballed in many more, each more brutal than the last. This got people down there. That and the free pizza. Now the slog war begins. Get bodies in there every day and every night, marching, singing, laughing, being. Not too loud or they'll shut us down, but loud enough and long enough and we'll be undeniable, and then we can become unstoppable. Unless we issue a demand, which I'm pretty sure would get ignored. This is perhaps the point which is missed by the GA: why issue a single demand? Why not continue at this noise making, this occupation, with no singular demand and thus no end in sight?  Why not confound the whole model of protest with an absurd action?

So we press on, activating ourselves ever more despite all the forces that tell us to stop.. That's what we're protesting. The middle of the road with it's long yellow line. That's what we're protesting. A million little hurts and ten-thousand big ones. That's what we're protesting. That we're not allowed to protest aloud. That's what we're protesting.  That public space, the space where thousands of tiny, healthy, necessary, revolutions can take place, has been stolen from us and remade as controlled space, sanitized space.  That’s what we’re protesting.  That the police, and by extension the state, do not protect us, the majority of the people, but the tiny greedy minority which conducts its business on Wall Street.  That’s what we’re protesting.

Aug 20, 2011

From Deep in the Noise

      It’s time to leave all the old ideologies behind, which means it is time to stop having ideologies.  Perhaps it is time to stop having ideas at all, since there are so many swarming around that it impossible to classify them, a swarm of ideas like millions of butterflies each with a different wing pattern and shape, and a few of us running around in a panic trying to identify each.  Someone will ask, “Are you on the left or the right?” and we will answer, “I don’t know what that means”.  They will ask, “Are you communists or something?”, and we will answer, “No, I don’t believe in systems.”  They will ask, “Are you anarchists, then?” and we’ll have to answer, “Stop playing in labels, they only exist to make you feel better.”
     There is no one on the left and no one on the right.  There was never anyone on either side, just a lot of noise being thrown about aimlessly, sometimes bullets and sometimes other brutality, sometimes torture and sometimes exile, but really it was just a lot of noise that didn’t accomplish very much.  All the same old machines kept on turning, oblivious to all of the noise.  They didn’t miss a beat, or they watched the game from the sidelines, drinking beer and eating hotdogs, not from the executive suites windowed off from the crowd, but right down in the midst of it all, innocuous as anyone.
     Communism and capitalism, socialism and anarchism, these are ideas, fragments of static in the noise.  They are representations, which is the same as saying they are fictions.  They are absurd reductions with the pretension of explanation.  Someone says, “Capitalism is failing”, but what does that really mean?  There is more joblessness, more poverty, more wealth in the hands of the very rich and less in the hands of the very poor, less production?  To begin with, if capitalism is representative of anything, it would seem in that case to be doing very well for itself.  Our mistake is thinking it would ever do well for us.    
     That, of course, is the problem.  The idea, as always, ends up serving the idea, and everything else fades in importance.  We, as always, end up servants of the idea, working fervently to maintain the idea despite all good moral judgement and despite visions of horror.  The idea, as always, wants to maintain itself.  All systems, as always, want to maintain themselves.  
      When it has been “communism” the mode of maintaining itself has often been similar to all others: oppression, imprisonment, totalitarianism, reactionary modes to a world largely arrayed against it, natural, as it were, responses of a system born and living constantly under threat.   
     When it has been “capitalism” we have been spared, some of us even prospering, so long as capitalism does well for itself.  Now it comes under some sort of threat, now the cracks begin (but again, since as Marx pointed out, everything occurs twice: first as tragedy and then as farce, with the Great Depression and subsequent second world war as the tragedy, and the postwar period as a drawn out farce growing more absurd, more hilarious, more decadent and depraved, by the moment), now we feel it coming down on us.  
     We’ve all seen “The Matrix” at this point.  Systems want to replicate themselves and maintain themselves.  This is why Nietzsche, in the “Twilight of the Idols”, called it philosophizing with a hammer; the systems must be broken for anything new to be made. Almost every time, it seems, we merely attempt to replace one system with another system, which is more beloved of us because it is our own, or we lay claim to it, and at which point we are all hapless Trotskys watching in abject sorrow as the idea runs away and turns into a carnival of horror.
      There isn’t the left and there isn’t the right.  We aren’t interested in being another part of the noise, another feature in the desolate sideshow.  Someone will want to say that is apolitical, and maybe they are right, since this seems somehow beyond, underneath, or at a different wavelength all together from what is called politics, which is, above all, a game that maintains a consistent level of noise.  
      This is the resistance.  That’s it.  This is the arranging of oneself against systems because those systems have arranged themselves against us.  It has nothing to do at the beginning with capitalism  or communism, with left or right, though it has quite a bit to do with love and quite a bit to do with resilience, quite a bit to do with serving ourselves rather than replacements for dead gods.  
     Make something new that doesn't depend on subservience to anything.  Cooperate.  Construct.  Learn from rhizomatic forms.  Reject hierarchy.  Sing, dance and act loudly.  Don't think about what it is supposed to look like.  Throw out the masterplan.  Listen.  Begin.