How To Win At Having Opinions

January 6, 2013 § Leave a comment

Whenever anything new and noteworthy happens, there is a predictable cycle of opinions about it.

First on the scene are the boosters, who sing the new thing’s praises. To have such a positive attitude about the thing before most people have even heard of it, they usually have some sort of stake in its success, whether that be traditionally economic or just the social capital of early adoption.

Next up, the reactionaries. These people are usually committed to the old thing, and so they believe the new thing is sure to ruin everything. This is true even if they had no idea the old thing was a thing prior to the arrival of the new thing. What they like about the old thing can be reduced to “authenticity”; what they (say they) hate about the new thing is its “inauthenticity.” Conscientious critics will come up with some “material” beef with the new thing, like it disadvantages some segment of the disadvantaged, or destroys the environment. But while this does make their critiques seem more “important,” it never seems to make anyone as mad as it should, for reasons that will become clear in a second.

The final stage of opinionmaking belongs to the counter-reactionaries. They typically belong to the same group of commentators as the reactionaries, their target audience. Instead of dealing with their arguments head-on, the counter-reactionaries position themselves as “over” the concerns of the reactionaries, whom they accuse of an uncritical “nostalgia for authenticity.” Calling someone nostalgic for anything automatically makes them look like an idiot. Sometimes they go a step further and claim that their nostalgia blinds the reactionaries to who is really getting disadvantaged, but that’s not strictly necessary. The point is (though it’s impolitic to just come out and say so) to make it clear that there’s no alternative to the new thing at this time, and any claim that a practical solution is possible is basically hypocritical and/or utopian and/or “transcendental.” This group always wins the contest of opinions, that is, they have the best opinions.

The counter-reactionaries win because they understand that in the marketplace of ideas the only consistent value is seeming the most modern. One can achieve a certain romantic caché for oneself by appearing not to care about trends or “what other people think,” but that’s not much of an idea, and we are of course talking about intellectuals. Conversely, boosterism can seem avant-garde, but always comes with an air of naiveté. And we are of course talking about intellectuals.

Material critique can enhance any of the above opinions, but it can’t stand on its own. In the marketplace of ideas it is imperative to know one’s audience, which consists primarily of other idea marketers. One must never mistake the public sphere for a planning committee.

All the greatest intellectuals in history were able to position themselves as counter-reactionaries. They achieved genius by how totally they were able to a) refute the reactionaries, b) simultaneously refute the boosters, c) suggest the pressing need for a solution to the problem(s) created by the new thing, and d) insist that such a solution will only be possible later, maybe. It’s best if d) is saved for a cryptic and internally contradictory “late period.”

In conclusion, the best ideas are not the most practical, or even the most accurate, but the ones that are impossible to refute.

The One Thing I Find Objectionable About Django Unchained – UPDATED

December 30, 2012 § 2 Comments

Probably no event in the recent history of film was more predictable than the offensiveness of an American slavery-themed faux-spaghetti Western by Quentin Tarantino. I’m really not sure if that’s at all significant for the criticisms themselves — to what extent does the dullness of a critique invalidate it? — but I thought I’d jot down the one thing about it I did find unsettling that I haven’t yet seen discussed.

But first, a tally. The frequent employment of the most offensive racial epithet in American history doesn’t especially bother me, and I admit I don’t fully understand the politics of its offensiveness in film. The pleasure Tarantino, a white man, evidently takes in using it in interviews notwithstanding, its function in the film is to shock, which it probably should, and to mark certain white characters as clear villains (not sure why Tarantino’s slaver character uses “black” instead other than to protect himself from criticism). It works similarly to how Nazi uniforms worked in Inglourious Basterds, to mark complicity in a social evil, rather than just responsibility for a personal one (the whole issue of collective responsibility being the biggest thematic difference between Tarantino’s “history” films and his earlier work). As far as I could tell, its significance when used by black characters to refer to each other is no more or less ambiguous than in the culture at large.

It’s also hard to care about criticism of the film’s various historical inaccuracies, or at least the fact that they exist. There were, for example, no mandingo deathmatches in the antebellum South. They refer to Mandingo (1975) and other blaxploitation movies dealing with slavery, but even these (as far as I know) hewed closer to the historical reality of slave boxing rings than Tarantino’s all-out bloodsports. The exaggeration is plainly an excuse to screen black bodies in various states of indignity and suffering while keeping the action movie genre focus, with the interesting side effect that we almost never see slaves laboring in the fields — the most spectacular scenes of violence revolve around decadent entertainments or house service. Again, as with IB, Tarantino is not interested in depicting historical atrocities but in manipulating a white audience’s reaction to their representation.

That the film fixates on the “white savior” figure, Christoph Waltz’s King Schultz, at the expense of the nominal black hero, is a little closer to what I consider to be the film’s actual obscenity. Once again, Waltz plays the libidinal center, the one who makes his appeals directly to the audience. He always has one up on everyone he meets, a seductive combination of type A fastidiousness and roguish opportunism. The normally charismatic Jamie Foxx is stuck playing the straight man. Here we have an inversion of what Robert Ray identifies as the standard two-hero structure of the Western — the law-abiding “official hero” and the more libertarian “outlaw hero” who sticks his neck out for no one, superego and ego, an opposition which traditionally resolves in a reconciliation in which the value of both “sides” is acknowledged in an unstable dialectic of social responsibility and desire, one which tends over time (especially in the revisionist Westerns of the ’60s and ’70s) to favor desire and the outlaw. As both a European and a bounty hunter, Schultz takes advantage of official legal codes and the cultural authority of “Western” liberalism to be, at one and the same time, a free agent and an enforcer of abstract “justice” against frontier (in this case Southern) customs. His fall comes when he loses his temper, in part as a result of his all-too-liberal (and mawkishly portrayed) sympathy for the plight of the slaves and in part because of his irritation at big slaveowner Calvin Candie (DiCaprio)’s ostentatious attempt to assert Southern civility over legal contract (demanding a handshake in addition to a signature). Though he is technically the mentor figure and not the protagonist, he has a character arc that combines “outlaw” and “official” in a much more interesting way than anything else in the movie is handled, and grants agency to Django, who plays the outlaw hero singlemindedly out to rescue his wife and (later) mete out revenge. In notable contrast to ’70s blaxploitation slavery films, Django expresses no interest whatsoever in liberating other slaves — in one key scene he insists (against Schultz) that a slave be eaten by dogs so as not to compromise their cover, and in a scene that mirrors his own rescue by Schultz, he only frees a small group of slaves as a side effect of freeing himself. Only in the last leg of a very long movie does conflict between white characters (Schultz and Candie) give way to one between two black characters (Django and Candie’s house slave, Stephen), a segment in which the tone shifts all the way into farce, consisting of Django effortlessly killing his enemies in cartoonishly bloody ways, over and over again.

So, not only is it the case that Schultz is the center of the film for the majority of its running time, the film can’t even keep an ironically straight face for the climax, when Django finally takes over. All of this could — maybe — be written off as so much well-meaning cluelessness, superseded by the subversive value (probably almost as effective now as in the ’70s) of a black slave hero and a German slaughtering giant swathes of white America, if that last stretch weren’t set up by Candie’s biological racist theories about the submissiveness of African slaves. With his ruthlessness and intelligence (his apparent willingness to treat other slaves as brutally as their overseers), Django proves to Candie that he is the “one in 10,000″ capable of matching whites. Though he later takes this back, and his interest in phrenology is presented as kooky/creepy, it’s as if the last part of the film exists to prove Candie’s initial point — that Django really is a black superman in relation to an essentially servile race. The only reference to slave revolts is Candie wondering why they never happen. So while Schultz is the film’s primary libidinal center, Candie is its sole interpretive center — under a veil of irony (19th century biological racism is so goofy!) he’s basically telling it like it is, or like it turns out to be, without anything else in the film to contradict it.

By pointedly refusing any sense of popular solidarity on the part of Django, and by keeping him a minor character until the all-the-way-over-the-top finale, the film works hard to undermine its own premise. Its an “anti-racist” action movie in which only the racists are allowed substantial commentary, and in which the one expression of sympathy with the enslaved that goes beyond the personal is a) given to a white man and b) leads to his pointless death. If Django is a comment on American post-racism or on the history of representations of slavery in American film, its one that is at best remedial and at worst regressive on both counts, all the while extracting maximum value from the spectacle of black suffering, with only superior irony, that of the carnival showman waiting for the right moment to raise the curtain, to reassure its audience that they stand on the right side of history.

UPDATE

On twitter immediately after seeing this, I wondered why DU is so weak in comparison to Tarantino’s other work, pretty much all of which has more than its fair share of repulsive and/or incoherent moments. It’s even more linear and narrowly focused than Jackie Brown, with the ensemble work Tarantino is rightly praised for at a minimum. Now I lean toward thinking he lost his nerve — this is the first time I’ve seen him lose control or stumble through his chosen material. The big “mistakes” can be expressed strictly in genre terms — by importing a spaghetti Western conception of heroism, where the gunfighter is independent, uninterested in political or social struggles even if sometimes drawn into them against his will, etc., into the milieu of American slavery, he undercuts any statement of racial equality or critique of white supremacy many of the individual scenes (somewhat hamfistedly) try to make. I’m not sure Tarantino has ever let a genre speak for him in quite this way. A corollary I didn’t touch on above is that the one female protagonist is a nonentity, following authentic Western tradition, but this takes on truly horrendous significance when both members of the romantic dyad are slaves: the most important female character (one of maybe four or five total) is a black slave who has virtually no dialogue and is routinely stripped, tortured, and put on display. Shortchanging female characters is really not a critique you could make of him before DU, let alone something this crudely exploitative. A revenge Western about slavery is an ingenious conceit, addressing one of America’s deepest historical traumas while sidestepping the inevitabilities of the liberal “message picture.” It’s also probably something only a director with Tarantino’s clout and experience playing around with film history could have pulled off. Too bad then that the actual result is not only the writer/director talking out of both sides of his mouth, but also his least entertaining film to date.

On Voting

November 4, 2012 § 1 Comment

Will we put ourselves through this every four years, the anguish?  Study the policies or not, watch the debates or not, the outcome is the same: you vote for the one you’re least terrified of. The rest is just to argue with your family members and other imaginary opponents, or, more likely, to justify your vote to yourself as if it were the result of an actual choice. Not to mention the question of whether to vote at all, or ‘throw away’ your vote on a third party candidate in order to ‘vote with your conscience.’ In all these (and other) ways, we are led to transmute our subjection into ethical crisis. Of course there is much more to do politically than vote (and this fact often serves as additional justification for voting decisions), but I want, however belatedly, to concentrate on the presidential vote, and what it means, or might mean, in the America of today.

The other night I had a conversation with a group of poets. For the most part they talked about poetry and I listened, not really understanding what poets mean when they talk about poetry. When the more prosaic subject of the election came up, the focus was on language, on the seductive power of Obama’s rhetoric. As is true of all power, this is indeed fascinating. Interesting things were said about it. There probably would have been more if I hadn’t been such a buzzkill. “The trick,” I said, “is just not to watch.” Stop paying attention. Or if you must, read, don’t listen. With that out of the way, all the less interesting explanations and justifications came out: yes I know this vote doesn’t matter all that much, but; the vote matters a lot for women; the vote matters a lot for health care even though Obamacare is a Romney-inspired corporate giveaway; a Romney presidency would just be so, so awful. I didn’t get “I will vote for the lesser evil and be an activist” but I’m sure someone was thinking it — a few might even practice it. I want to affirm my sympathy for all these points of view, all of which reduce to the same, that of the mature, disenchanted voter. I agree that it is mature. I believe, too, that we are rational even as we are being seduced, and seduced even as we are being threatened.

But there are two things voting is not. It isn’t about maintaining a status quo, whether the white supremacist and misogynist Republican version or the Democrats’ rearguard conservation of the welfare state. Both are populist sops for their target audiences, nostalgic fantasies, and I think that’s true even if individual politicians truly believe their own rhetoric. They’re meant to pacify voters while both parties work together to advance the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a postnational ruling elite while immiserating and destroying most of the planet. The difference being that it’s easier to deliver on Republican promises while continuing this drive into an apocalyptic future than it is to deliver on Democratic ones, no matter how full of escape clauses they always are. This is the sense in which Republican fantasies are more realistic, despite all their frightening absurdities; the Democratic ideology is only more realistic in a politically utopian world that bears no relation to the existing balance of power.

The other thing voting is not, so long as we limit ourselves to voting for a mainstream presidential candidate, is political. If any definition of the political has to center on agency, as I think it must, in what sense could voting in a race artificially constrained to two candidates with only a few significant policy differences, in which only 5 or so swing states actually count for anything, be construed as political? A vote for Obama or Romney has vanishingly little role in determining the political orientation of the country; it might, at best, sustain our privileges in the short-term present, privileges which are won through ever-escalating American rapacity at home and abroad (the best progressive case against Obama that I’ve seen can be found here). What is tirelessly marketed to us as the most representative political act, whether we actually vote or not, is in fact an enforced exercise in lifeboat ethics. As voters on November 6th, our role as imperial functionaries is far more consequential than our vestigial identity as enfranchised citizens. The importance of our obedience, of continuing to legitimate the current radical trajectory the United States is taking, should not be underestimated.

The closest thing to a genuinely political vote for president available to us is an organized third party campaign (watch debates here). Obviously they have no chance of winning, but this would be the one official way to register our desire for a major shift in American policy. Taking this step (a tiny one, as defenders of lesser-evilism agree, but a step nonetheless), of course, involves the risk that your friends hold you responsible for the greater evil. To take what for me is one of the few truly compelling examples, if Romney wins, Planned Parenthood will probably take a funding hit, and American women of all classes will suffer. I consider it a fallacy to equate the forced choice between two professional actors with personal responsibility for their future actions, and the actual risks we run as voters to be primarily those of individual reputation and private conscience. At the same time, I don’t want to invalidate anyone’s real fears about the reactionary measures either candidate might take while in office. But in any case, if we can’t look the assholes in the eye and not blink, whether in the voting booth or on the street, then we can’t have democracy. And if we can’t start thinking realistically about our country’s future, we probably won’t have a part in it.

what does it mean to be at war

October 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

And I have to say that, wherever one goes, in whatever circle one runs, every thought of the situation is immediately understood and conjured away as a perversion. To forestall this unfortunate reaction, there is always, of course, at least one respectable way out, which is to pass the thought off as a critique. By revealing my hostility to a thing whose functions and determinisms I have grasped, I protect the very thing I want to destroy from myself, from my practice. And that — this innocuousness — is exactly what THEY expect when they urge me to declare myself a critic.” — Tiqqun

What I or anyone can offer is not truth, the path to some grand, final moment of overcoming. To move without this cannot be a program though it may be at times strategic, cannot be morally mandated though it will most certainly involve ethics. Prakash Kona writes, “the dispossessed of history are not guided by method but by madness”; what will guide us is not an abstract longing, but the maddening, material, immediate need for something as impossible and otherworldly as liberationTherein lies the truth of Dworkin’s 24 hour truce where there is no rape; not its high minded ideals, but its absolute necessity and absolute impossibility. I am unsure of how to proceed; my hope is that the disclosure of this life, its formation through contact, its movement through books and histories, offers some assistance in the lives and struggles of others.” — C.E.

The time has to come for me to reconsider my position, after a long absence, after having slipped out the back door of my life. And yet I was living the whole time, in a fantasy of separation from the work and the institutions that permit and constrain that life. Adorno writes somewhere that the cultural critic must imagine his own autonomy in order to address his society as a totality, and though this fantasy blinds him to his own assimilation to the culture industry, to the (increasingly devalued) service that he provides it as a guarantor of authenticity, a veneer over his complete submission to market imperatives, this self-deception allows critique to fully realize itself, to become a model.

I have had only one thought that went far enough beyond my own sad passions to reach that level.   It’s something that’s been endlessly confirmed by the experience of turning away, but one I can only admit by turning back: we are at war. I know, it’s disappointing; so banal, and not even clear. What we? What is the implied subject position? But I do mean everyone, friends and enemies alike, and here I simply apply to my own class what for most of the world has long been simple common sense. How is it possible anymore to believe there is an outside, any privileged space that is not just another green zone? We’ve all seen the videos.

So the luxury of silence has only shown me that there’s no critical use anymore for that alleged benefit of hermitage: nothing could be more useless than another reconceptualization of totality. No more hip little manifestoes on the metaphysics of finance or the revolution to come, no more revisions to Marxist textbooks, no more software solutions, no more grand narratives, unless they are also partial, the products of lived, interpersonal experience. The only intellectual work that retains any organic link to the war we live in is learning how to fight and how to survive — the collective self-education of the necessary knowledge and skills, all of which already exist despite being repeatedly obscured by lies and propaganda. We want conversation more than books.

What does it mean to be at war? Or more specifically to our situation, what does it mean to be at war when the enemy has the only army? Certainly not a new problem, even on the terms of petit-bourgeois “good citizens” in the imperial core — the theories have been accumulating at least since May ’68. But there are those in my generation and (broadly) my class who have given this question some thought, and whose responses bear some resemblance to each other. Limiting myself to writing, I can name a few examples. None of them are professional academics, though undoubtedly some are students, as I am. But they are still critics, even prophets after a fashion.

There are readers of Tiqqun and the Invisible Committee, a radical collective who published in France from the late ‘90s to 2008. Like the ‘68ers, Tiqqun abandoned a politics centered on class to follow Sorel and his myth of the general strike, in which mass social action, including violence, is primarily symbolic, and in which perfectly embodying a principle is more important than achieving discrete objectives. Unlike the ‘68ers, they emphasized a praxis of clandestinity, even within their own ‘ranks,’ where no sides or strategies are identified except for the valorization of criminality. Against organization, consensus, representation, and utopian projection, for them the war is internal to capitalist society as such, a “civil war,” the goal of which is “establishing forms-of-life in their difference.” No radical subject-position, but desubjectivization through the relentless multiplication of differences. Communes are to be gathered and multiplied for some great insurrectionary conflict to come.

This sort of attitude has some adherents within the North American Occupy movement and student protests. The black blocs and others regularly challenged the politics of a larger movement that emphasized radical transparency and nonviolence. Whereas here and in the UK this ideological and tactical difference has been a fundamental threat to solidarity, it seems to be much less so in popular movements elsewhere, such as Greece or Egypt. Overall, the new movements of 2011 tended not to petition the state (no central demands, or at least no ‘realistic’ ones) but fundamentally challenged its legitimacy, to the point of fighting its agents in the streets. It seems the key differences between the mainstream and its ultraleft are secrecy and the extent to which they continue to claim legitimacy in the liberal language of popular sovereignty. Put differently, to what extent it’s a useful strategy to expose the state’s hypocrisy in order to delegitimize it in the eyes of its citizens.

Friends have passed on to me the writings of young feminists (all North American, as far as I know) eager to stage a revival of ‘70s radfem. The writings are diverse, but through the mission statements and several of the other articles and zines one can extract a sentiment that resonates with Tiqqun. Replace the biological essentialism (the theory) and lesbian separatism (the practice) with a quasi-Foucaultian constructivism in which any historical, biological, or anthropological referents for the thesis that gender simply is patriarchal oppression and phallic sex violent exploitation drop out: sex is reduced to a figure of discourse within the system of capitalist patriarchy, beyond which it is impossible to think. These writings also do not claim to issue from the perspective of the subject “woman” but (after queer theory) out of a founding exclusion from normative masculinity, the only valid subject, possessing all social power including the power of speech. They are, then, against men without being for women. Instead of separatism, some call for “gender strike,” or the general refusal of all gendering behaviors, especially sex. “We condemn even the most consensual sex for being the gendered event it is.”

I’m describing very different groups here and far too few to prove anything about a generational milieu or even a coherent sensibility, but there do seem to be some basic assumptions shared by the writers I’ve discussed so far. To start: a valorization of ‘70s radicalism over ‘60s, resistance to a universalized, abstract authority combined with a decentralized concept of power, a radical constructivist notion of history that favors radical breaks over continuity, vehement anti-humanism and anti-liberalism, a critical focus on middle-class life in the imperial core, and identification (perhaps imaginative, perhaps not, it’s difficult to say) with that class’s outcasts: criminals, fugitives, dropouts, sex workers, abuse victims, the mentally disturbed.

Slightly less obvious from a surface reading is the common assumption that the only thinkable relation between individuals is that of exchange. They’re all aware of the left critiques, particularly that exchange presupposes formally equivalent, autonomous proprietor subjects (Tiqqun’s “Bloom,” the empty consumer of late modernity, is their critique; for the neo-radfems all conceptions of the subject are created in the image of the bourgeois white man), and that between materially unequal parties securing consent is just another tool for domination. But though they occasionally gesture beyond the subject to some sort of communism, they refuse to theorize those relations in positive terms. It follows for them that, whether on the street or in the bedroom, all traces of liberalism, in thought as well as deed, have to be weeded out and destroyed to make room for a communism that only exists in oppositional struggle, en épatant les (petit) bourgeoises.

Writing as a pseudonym myself, the function of anonymity in many of these discourses makes sense when one considers that they are (most likely, given their bibliographies if nothing else) members of the class whose mores they most viciously target. The mode of critique-as-pure-negation they practice requires that they subtract themselves from it as much as possible, excepting the odd autobiographical aside to interpellate their equally petit-bourgeois readers. And of course the entire aim is to destroy the self and its support structures: parties, programs, assemblies, identities, couples, authors. All of this makes sense only if one assumes that these discursive and institutional structures organize nothing that has cognizable qualities of its own, especially nothing that resembles in any meaningful way the terms of its late capitalist enclosure. It’s telling that, as far as I know, there are no POC or (explicitly) working-class people who write like this. For all the tiqqunista and neo-radfem talk of capitalism or the globalization of immiseration, the immediate target is the bad ethics of those who are fully immersed in capitalist culture — which, contra all the stereotypes about manipulating the ignorant masses, “brainwashes” those who have the most privileged access to it, i.e. educated middle-class culture workers in the urban core. Not only historical but also spatial continuity is verboten.

One of the consequences of doing away with programs and directed goals is that the labor of organization toward achieving external objectives — growing the movement, getting a law passed, defense against the police — is folded into reproductive labor, or maintaining the movement’s internal solidarity. Everything then becomes an ethical issue; every personal interaction becomes charged with risk. Schmittianism all the way down. It’s not surprising that this worldview appeals to the younger members of a class that has entered free-fall, or that it invokes outsider fantasies of criminality, sexual violence, mental illness, and post-apocalypse. We mistake the constant, brutally competitive struggle we have to endure to maintain our dwindling privileges as oppression: we’re “forced” to consume media and publish our opinions about it, “forced” to enjoy consensual sex, “forced” to conform to arbitrary professional standards, “forced” to perform normative gender identities, “forced” to live in gentrifying neighborhoods in global cities, “forced” to give our personal information to Facebook. I don’t mean to belittle anyone’s suffering. But unlike (say) violent expropriation or sweatshop labor, it’s the resources we have access to, the effects of generations of organized activism, and the politics of ownership that determine these things as pleasures or impositions, not the things themselves. Otherwise no one would try to defend them, and no one would desire them. Most of the writers I’m discussing recognize this, that the pain we feel won’t be resolved until patriarchal, white supremacist capitalism is fully abolished. But a drive toward existential authenticity among mostly white petit-bourgeois dissidents (no more so than liberal political correctness) has no magical power to overcome a system of domination maintained by concentrated wealth, not individual minds.

So what does it mean to be at war? As a first step, I think it means not letting ourselves be deluded about the sources of power. It also means being able to recognize the ways we and others treat and have treated each other that don’t actively reproduce capitalist relations, which demands careful, promiscuous attention to anthropology, history, culture, and personal experience. This isn’t possible without first letting go of the assumption that because capitalism (or any related form of power) is totalizing and hegemonic it’s a phenomenological a priori, equally present everywhere, in every kiss and handshake, on every square inch of our bodies, in every corner of our thoughts. Most terrifyingly, it means taking very, very seriously how likely we are to lose. But that will be because our enemies are better organized, have more resources, and have beaten, intimidated, or (decreasingly) paid off most of the planet into submission, not because any of us are incapable of democracy, or of communism.

Principles

November 11, 2011 § 3 Comments

A couple days ago I asked David Graeber a question about how far the difference between representative democracy and formal consensus process really goes in practice. In his answer he mentioned his (I think mild) regret that during the initial planning for Occupy Wall Street at Bowling Green, they never arrived at any founding principles. Consensus, he said, as a distinct process from democratic consensus (100% of a vote), works the way it’s supposed to when everyone has the same fundamental goals and principles. The answer surprised me a little bit coming from him, but I’m over it; the question of principles tends to get swallowed up by the controversy over demands, despite being different things, and everyone basically has to assume that they exist. Unfortunately, since there aren’t any, they sometimes conflict.

Even in more mundane activity, the “block” in formal consensus is supposed to mean principles are being violated. In their absence, blocks get overused, people get frustrated and leave, and this can easily overwhelm a GA’s ability to do much of anything beyond self-maintenance.

Given where the movement is now, it’s hard to imagine principles being any easier to agree on than unifying demands, except maybe for nonviolence. In this situation it seems to me the only way out is through: to address the problems with GA legitimacy/illegitimacy I’ve been discussing here, diversify as much as possible. Anything I can suggest is probably redundant or unnecessary for an occupation like Wall Street or Oakland, which are large and successful enough that their every action seems to force the state’s hand and initiates a self-sustaining dynamic (which includes productive internal criticism and adjustment). But for tiny occupations like mine that can stall out at the slightest disagreement and that are not constantly defending themselves from police, generate and maintain autonomously run working groups, workshops, discussion circles, actions. If there are enough people, start new GAs in different parts of the city. What we do will show us who we are.

What does a General Assembly do?

November 7, 2011 § 10 Comments

Lots of conversations lately about General Assemblies, especially following the big actions in Oakland. One (the port shutdown) had GA support, mass attendance, and a peaceful conclusion generally deemed successful; the other (the building takeover) did not consult the GA, was much less attended (though ~500 is nothing to sneer at), ended with a police battle, and was generally deemed a failure. One couldn’t ask for a more dramatic dichotomy of ideology or tactics.

Of course this isn’t just about Oakland — the conflict between those who feel the GA is the rightful center of democratic decision making and those who prioritize autonomous actions seems common to every Occupation. Is the GA, run using some variant of consensus process, the defining political form of this movement? Is it the sole arbiter of legitimacy? Or is the GA merely a tool for its component (and autonomous) affinity groups, working groups, magnets, committees, etc. (is it a mere coordinating body)? These are not complimentary positions — one must appear as a betrayal of principle to the other.

The Coming Insurrection was a very hip item in anarchist bookstores when it was translated from French in 2008. I don’t see many discussing it now. Whatever its overall applicability to the Occupy movement, it contains what is still my favorite critique of assemblies:

Sabotage every representative authority. Spread the palaver. Abolish general assemblies.

The first obstacle every social movement faces, long before the police proper, are the unions and the entire micro-bureaucracy whose job it is to control the struggle. Communes, collectives and gangs are naturally distrustful of these structures. That’s why the parabureaucrats have for the past twenty years been inventing coordination committees and spokes councils that seem more innocent because they lack an established label, but are in fact the ideal terrain for their maneuvers. When a stray collective makes an attempt at autonomy, they won’t be satisfied until they’ve drained the attempt of all content by preventing any real question from being addressed. They get fierce and worked up not out of passion for debate but out of a passion for shutting it down. And when their dogged defense of apathy finally does the collective in, they explain its failure by citing a lack of political consciousness. It must be noted that in France the militant youth are well versed in the art of political manipulation, thanks largely to the frenzied activity of various trotskyist factions. They could not be expected to learn the lesson of the conflagration of November 2005: that coordinations are unnecessary where coordination exists, organizations aren’t needed when people organize themselves.

Another reflex is to call a general assembly at the slightest sign of movement, and vote. This is a mistake. The business of voting and deciding a winner, is enough to turn the assembly into a nightmare, into a theater where all the various little pretenders to power confront each other. Here we suffer from the bad example of bourgeois parliaments. An assembly is not a place for decisions but for palaver, for free speech exercised without a goal.

The need to assemble is as constant among humans as the necessity of making decisions is rare. Assembling corresponds to the joy of feeling a common power. Decisions are vital only in emergency situations, where the exercise of democracy is already compromised. The rest of the time, “the democratic character of decision making” is only a problem for the fanatics of process. It’s not a matter of critiquing assemblies or abandoning them, but of liberating the speech, gestures, and interplay of beings that take place within them. We just have to see that each person comes to an assembly not only with a point of view or a motion, but with desires, attachments, capacities, forces, sadnesses and a certain disposition toward others, an openness. If we manage to set aside the fantasy of the General Assembly and replace it with an assembly of presences, if we manage to foil the constantly renewed temptation of hegemony, if we stop making the decision our final aim, then there is a chance for a kind of massification, one of those moments of collective crystallization where a decision suddenly takes hold of beings, completely or only in part.

The same goes for deciding on actions. By starting from the principle that “the action in question should govern the assembly’s agenda” we make both vigorous debate and effective action impossible. A large assembly made up of people who don’t know each other is obliged to call on action specialists, that is, to abandon action for the sake of its control. On the one hand, people with mandates are by definition hindered in their actions, on the other hand, nothing hinders them from deceiving everyone.

There’s no ideal form of action. What’s essential is that action assume a certain form, that it give rise to a form instead of having one imposed on it. This presupposes a shared political and geographical position – like the sections of the Paris Commune during the French Revolution – as well as the circulation of a shared knowledge. As for deciding on actions, the principle could be as follows: each person should do their own reconnaissance, the information would then be put together, and the decision will occur to us rather than being made by us. The circulation of knowledge cancels hierarchy; it equalizes by raising up. Proliferating horizontal communication is also the best form of coordination among different communes, the best way to put an end to hegemony.

The purely horizontal non-structure implied here reflects a completely different understanding of collective action than liberal or even Marxist-Leninist notions of democratic organization, including direct democracy. Conventional judgment calls it ‘ultra-leftist.’

The principle objection is that autonomous action at a scale or intensity that appears to contradict or undermine GA decisions is vanguardist with zero accountability, and thus divisive, irresponsible, and antidemocratic. This assumes that all visible action is representative of the Occupy movement, so if a group acts in spite of the GA, they are branded as hijackers (or hackers), those who claim the right of representation without going through any official democratic process.

Zunguzungu’s argument against the building occupation seems a little different. It doesn’t necessarily assume GA sovereignty, but instead concentrates on the unannounced action’s secrecy. For him the action wasn’t wrong on merits and it wasn’t wrong because it didn’t go through proper channels, it was wrong because it refused to make itself a topic of discussion. It refused to try to persuade the group as a whole to adopt its position, and as a result wasn’t large enough, needlessly endangering everyone involved and alienating potential supporters.

However, I don’t actually think there’s any real difference between these two. Zunguzungu is simply aware that no GA has claimed central authority for itself, and by embracing “diversity of tactics” they are tacitly condoning the actions of affinity groups. He thinks that an effective, disciplined democratic institution is necessary to protect the principle of inclusion. As the discussion here illustrates, a perhaps surprising consequence of inclusion is that there should be a distinction between Occupy, whose actions are centrally and democratically determined, and other groups who are not involved in the deliberations. As the commenters point out, this sets Occupy off from “the 99%” while still claiming to represent it. In the same way, even if they did operate under strict consensus process (and most do rely on a majority vote), GAs often don’t include many of the participants in the action being decided upon, much less “the 99%.” I tweeted a few days ago that the reality of the Occupy GA deconstructs any theoretical opposition between representative and direct democracy — it doesn’t seem that a democratic institution can ever truly become equivalent to its constituents. As Socialisme ou barbarie theorist Cornelius Castoriadis writes in The Imaginary Institution of Society (1975) there is a minimal degree of alienation involved in any political form:

“The social-historical dimension, as a dimension of the collective and the anonymous, initiates for each and every one of us a simultaneous relation of interiority and exteriority, of participation and exclusion, which can in no way be abolished or even ‘controlled’, in any definite sense of this term. The social is what is everyone and what is no one, what is never absent and almost never present as such, a non-being that is more real than any being, that in which we are wholly immersed yet which we can never apprehend ‘in person’…It is something that can be presented only in and through the institution but which is always infinitely more than the institution, what is formed by it, what continually overdetermines its functioning, and what in the final analysis founds it: creates it, maintains it in existence, alters it, destroys it.There is the social as instituted, but this always presupposes the social as instituting. ‘In ordinary times’ the social is manifested in the institution, but this manifestation is at once true and, in a sense, fallacious — as in those moments in which the social as instituting bursts onto the stage and pulls up its sleeves to get to work, the moments of revolution. But this work aims at an immediate result, which is to provide itself once again with an institution in order to exist in a visible manner — and once this institution is set in place the social as instituting slips away, puts itself at a distance, is already somewhere else.” (111-112)

Nowhere is the elusiveness of the truly democratic decision more apparent than in the vexed question of demands. Most occupations now have some sort of demands working group, through which demands, along with principles or statements of intent, are to be routed before presentation at the GA. The problem here is that the real power to represent the will of the 99% is the mandate of a group that operates autonomously from the GA, leaving the majority with the choice of whether or not to authorize a list it did not author. If any set of proposals manages to pass, as did happen with my home occupation, Occupy Austin, their inadequacy makes obvious the extent to which the GA, despite all talk of direct democracy, pure democracy, or consensus, is a representative body not fundamentally different from a parliament (it is deprofessionalized and procedurally much more responsible, but I still don’t think the revision is any more radical than, say, the Internet’s effect on music criticism). It’s no wonder there have had to be official statements dissociating the movement from these working groups or any other group, such as media or police liaison, that claims to give the movement an ideological ground that its diversity and rapid, ‘chaotic’ development constantly undercuts. They are all potential hijackers (for a necessary critique of the entire subject of demands, see this here).

Finally, the root of many of these concerns about the role of the GA is the fear that autonomous action risks ‘violence,’ a word I put in scare quotes because it’s hard to say these days what anyone means when they use it.

Nonviolence is a tactic, as its would-be debunkers always claim. More precisely it’s a media tactic. But for the very reason that the effectiveness of a nonviolent action is determined in the realm of appearance, of spectacle, it can’t be reduced to a mere appearance; nonviolence is also an ideology. It would be ineffective if practitioners weren’t committed to it in principle. Just as capitalists can’t stand outside capitalism and use it in a purely instrumental manner, just as they can’t mystify society without mystifying themselves (albeit in a class-specific manner), protest movements can’t use nonviolence without striving to be nonviolent. A nonviolent action in which someone throws a molotov at a cop effectively loses its nonviolent status. And that means any violent action — or anything that, like breaking windows, might be construed by someone with the power to decide these things as ‘violent’ — has to be repressed, or at the very least, dissociated from the ‘mainstream,’ ‘official’ movement.

Effective nonviolence, then, requires a strong GA, to propagate the idea of what nonviolence today is (counterintuitive to many people), to regulate the action and to define other actions as unauthorized. Conceived as a decision-making, governing body, the GA is the primary means by which the movement disciplines itself in the war to represent public opinion.

To repeat, in different language, the question I asked at the beginning: is the GA the culmination/restoration of democracy at the core of Occupy, a minimally repressive form of governance that tries to discipline without enforcement, that upholds the impossible ideal of pure consensus as a regulatory principle? Or is it not even primarily a deliberative body, but simply the medium through which the movement makes itself visible? Could there be a GA that makes announcements, debate, “palaver,” instead of decisions? An occupation that makes no attempt to institutionalize itself (which is not to say it fails to generate institutions)?

At any rate, it is my opinion that strategy, whether elite or collective, is weakened if it accepts taboos that restrict solidarity. If less than everything can be discussed and potentially executed outside of clandestine, after-hours meetings, then we’re still talking about moralism, not strategy.

The First Weekend of Occupy Austin

October 10, 2011 § 11 Comments

From its official beginning on Thursday through this weekend, Occupy Austin has gone through major changes very, very quickly. It’s ‘franchise’ operations like these that will determine the future of the Occupy movement; that is, if it really is a movement and not just a long protest against Wall Street or a short-lived Internet fad. From my experience here, I can say that the Austin branch got off on a much less radical foot than some of its cousins in Boston, D.C., Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, etc., but also that these difficulties expose some of the fault lines endemic to the movement and to the state of American populism more broadly.

The biggest issue has been with the initial assumptions of the people who started it, and their tenacity in hanging on to those assumptions. I imagine that’s the case everywhere, to some extent. But the Austin ‘occupation’ was started by some neo-hippies whose unorthodox notion of horizontalidad involves establishing close communication with the police and city government, and whose equally unorthodox notion of nonviolent civil disobedience involves working entirely within the law. This was made clear to everyone from the beginning. I stuck with it in the hope that leadership would broaden. And it has, but not without effort.

The first day set the tone — it was, essentially, a block party on City Hall, albeit an explicitly politicized one. The atmosphere was carnivalesque in just the customary Austin way: bizarre forms of personal expression, anti-authoritarian populism, weird conspiracy theories, inked-up hipsters, peace, love, and drum circles. Somewhere around 1,000 or more people showed up for the General Assembly. Ron Paulites gave a strong showing, but the only conspicuously absent groups were advocates for mainstream candidates — I think it was the second day I saw one lonely soul wearing an Obama 2012 T-shirt and carrying a clipboard. What finally won me over about that day was the ease of political discussion, even with ideological opponents, without an immediate breakdown. I ran a workshop on the 2008 debt crisis that even got the libertarian to take a Marxist analysis seriously (the really interesting thing here for me was that all 10 or so of the twenty-something white kids agreed on my Brennerian interpretation of what happened and why — the sticking point was the definition of capitalism).

Since the ‘occupation’ zone is a public space, it’s a perfectly legal spot on which to assemble. The catch is that Austin city ordinance does not permit sleeping overnight or camping on city property. The underlying social consequence is of course that (like is typical in the U.S.) it’s illegal to be homeless. Coinciding with the first day of Occupy Austin was an attempted illegal ‘tent city’ across the river, organized by homeless activists and advocates. Their declaration of solidarity seemed to take the Occupy organizers off guard, and who eventually offered a limp non-response on the Facebook community wall. While we were partying that afternoon, the tent city was blocked by police. Some anarchists put up a tent in front of City Hall as an act of solidarity. It was almost torn down that night, but the crowd insisted otherwise and the police relented, letting the symbol stand as long as we didn’t put up any more. After much debate, this prompted another limp official statement at the next day’s General Assembly (which I did not attend), posted online as “We don’t necessarily want to break the law, but we respect the tent city’s right to civil disobedience and stand in solidarity with them.” I believe this was modified (without being edited in the online minutes) to “We support Tent City’s right to Civil Disobedience, we stand in solidarity with them, but the members of Occupy Austin do not necessarily want to break the law, and therefore wish to remain separate from that movement.” Both versions manage only to cancel out their own attempts at content.

The next day, I happened to be sitting near the same group of young anarchists, discussing the tent city with the emerging celebrity anthropologist and Occupy Wall Street organizer David Graeber, when they started putting up another one next to the first. Being already disgusted with the GA’s non-stance and not thinking any of this was especially radical, I helped them do it. Almost immediately, we had people come up to “peacefully remind” us that what we were doing was illegal (in violation of a park ordinance, not even a misdemeanor) and that we were “violating consensus.” A crowd was forming around us, getting angrier and angrier as we incompetently struggled to erect the tent against the heavy wind that kept blowing it over. A GA was going on at the same time, and quickly divided over the tent. Some were permitted to commandeer the mic and incite the crowd against us. A group started chanting things like “WE WANT TO BE SAFE” and “TAKE DOWN THE TENT.” Meanwhile groups of police placidly strolled around and through the space, with no acknowledgement of the principled stand being taken by their staunch defenders. A middle-aged woman, who earlier had been confiscating signs with curse words on them, loudly demanded we take the tent down. When we didn’t she went off to get the police and it took several people to talk her down. While someone who actually knew how to assemble tents helped us, another boomer in a cowboy hat started taking it down. When we rushed to stop him he muscled through us, saying, “I’m a combat veteran and this tent is coming down.” Again, a group of peacekeepers were forced to corral him.

With the tent finally up, we had a heated debate with one of the original moderators — let’s call him M — and some of his supporters. They reiterated the importance of working through legal channels, the dangers of risking “the entire movement” and “other people’s personal safety” for “one stupid tent.” David tried to explain to them that presuming and creating hierarchies within oppositional movements by appearing to grant them legitimacy was a police tactic to force an elite to feel ‘responsible’ for everyone else, and that the only personal safety threatened was our own, by the other occupiers. They said we had jeopardized their decision to petition city council for a special permit to let us camp overnight. They threw out fantastic scenarios involving riot cops dispersing the entire group, of heroic occupiers, acting out of solidarity alone, throwing themselves before police nightsticks to protect a tent they didn’t even support. They defended the police, or as they referred to them, “peace officers”: “they’re the 99% too,” “they facilitated our march to Bank of America.” We asked M about his political convictions and if he thought the Occupy Austin GA had the authority to quash dissent. “I have radical thoughts,” he assured us, “but we have to respect the consensus process. And anyway, we’re really only disagreeing on timing. Which is sort of arbitrary, isn’t it?” I asked him if he was not permitting dissent in theory but not in practice, and insisted on the importance of nonviolent civil disobedience. His reply stunned me into silence. “What was MLK fighting against?” he asked me. “A lot of the same things we are, but let’s say primarily racial oppression,” I said. “And that’s still here, isn’t it?” he said. “That’s why we have to take the fight to the next level!”

At that point David ran off to do an interview with Al Jazeera and what was left of the conversation died back down. That night, the second tent was taken down by a bipartisan team of police and occupiers.

By the third day, it was clear the ‘occupation’ was off balance. After another discussion circle (probably the best organized thing so far) I brought up the tent city debacle and how people felt about civil disobedience in general at that night’s GA. We had just come off a successful bid to incorporate a solidarity statement with indigenous people’s struggles thanks to the participation of what seemed like our first ‘real’ activists, and emotions were already high. Though most seemed to agree with nonviolent direct action and a diversity of tactics within those bounds, the whole thing degenerated due to the moderator staff’s inexperience and overaggressive bid for control of the debate.

I dwell on this incident at such length because, unfortunately, it was the most significant event to occur over the weekend aside from the heavily managed Bank of America march. That and several non-starter attempts to establish basic principles, demands, etc. While I’m sure I made clear my fundamental ideological disagreement with Occupy Austin’s self-appointed ‘steering committee,’ I don’t think it would have mattered as much had we been a little more like Occupy L.A. That operation seems just as in love with the police as ours (oddly enough), receiving official support from the mayor and City Council. The only arrests attributed to Occupy L.A. were quickly disclaimed. However, they also seem to be much more effective organizers, making alliances with major unions (AFL-CIO) and progressive orgs. If we were visibly moving toward those goals, we probably wouldn’t have as much time to dwell on institutional compromises, nor the sense that they’re being engineered by a cadre of neoliberal hippies behind our backs (does anyone know if other Occupy groups require that all core value proposals be funneled through a Mission Committee?).

The absurdity of the whole thing highlights an important difference of opinion across the Occupy movement: is it an institution unto itself, with its own distinct goals and the right to exclude those which aren’t deemed ‘universal’ or ‘inclusive’ enough? Or is it a resource, a clearinghouse of sorts, through which differently privileged, differently oppressed groups of people can provide mutual aid? Is it a proto-state, or an open call for help? The former would be a response to media and institutional pressure to be ‘on message.’ Pressure from above. The latter would be a response to pressure from below.

Yesterday, the same community activists who pushed for indigenous solidarity successfully helped organized an Indigenous People’s Day March for this afternoon, against the worries of the usual crew of white middle class End the Fed types that the movement is getting “hijacked” by “personal interests.” As a concession, we’re stopping at JP Morgan Chase and Bank of America on the way. There weren’t as many people last night as I would have liked, but I think amidst the chaos and abjection some people are changing their minds.

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