I have been plenty dejected by activism in the past. When the protest against the IMF in 2000 adopted pretty much the same tactics as that of 1999, but the police did not, that was disheartening. Even worse was when, after failing to shut anything down, many people “unanimously” announced that it was a resounding success, without a note of self-criticism. All of us, though, were yet to meet our dark café days, in which so many (former?) activists, after the well-attended but completely ignored flurry of protests around the Iraq war, after the immense amount of repression, after the doubling and tripling of jail sentencing of friends or maybe just people we heard about—so many of us, after this, were left overwhelmed with waiting. Many of us still live in that space.
In retrospect, it’s easy to talk about success. The character of globalization has changed, and the WTO doesn’t have nearly the same power it had in 1999. To me, however, this seems similar to the common account of the end of Vietnam following the protests of the 1960s: the Vietnam war ended, but it didn’t end in 1968, it ended in 1977 (although it was scaled back much earlier). The ethics of globalization profoundly shifted, but they didn’t shift in ’99, 2000, 2001; they shifted after our own government imposed massive steel tariffs and then defied the WTO when it ordered their removal, and after many other international reorganizations of policies and ties. Of course, it’s hard to tell what’s what, and every thread we sew enters into the fabric of collective life. I don’t want to say we have been ineffectual, but through most of the last decade what little hope has existed has been a product of the will, not a product of observation.
What we have seen, from the 2008 election of Obama to the 2011 Arab Spring, and now to the nascent Occupy the World movement is a reinscription of hope into our world; an affirmation that something is not only possible, but happening, now, even if we are not completely sure what it is yet. I’m completely overwhelmed by this hope, and simultaneously washed over with doubts that this may all turn out the same. As someone after losing their first love, after getting hurt and doubting the serendipity of the world, suspecting limits to the depth of sociality two people can reach, fearing a pain that overspills explanations, as this person demands impossible conditions, makes criticisms of all organic development, and hesitates endlessly; or as a charioteer who, wanting to keep his horses perfectly straight, lets neither left nor right rein slacken the least bit, and consequently pulls his horses to a halt:—so are many of us hesitant, doubtful, still, and silent, however hopeful we may be.
So I am watching. Maybe I’m part of this, maybe I’m not. But I think I’d like to be, even if my life ends up sweeping me over to some other front (a situation my wonderful friend Erin put much more eloquently).
With that rambling introduction, this is my list of doubts, my preemptive, maybe impossible, critique, my utopian (in the bad sense) conditions for a new social movement. Of course it is for my own catharsis, since movements develop organically anyway (whatever that means), but I hope someone somewhere finds it helpful.
1. The occupation is not a protest. A protest is a list of grievances, a protest is a petition, made by someone subordinate to their superior, for that stronger person to consider and act on. According to the logic of democratic representation, when enough people protest a superior should be required to act. However, this clearly is not true in practice. But I think that lessen has already been learned. I don’t think this is a protest. So can we stop using the language of protest? When the media asks what you’re protesting, tell them that you aren’t protesting at all; you’re beginning to build a better world, and maybe you’re not sure how to do it yet, but you’re hopeful. I think this is already realized in practice, if not in rhetoric, but it bears repeating: our work will come from our own hands, not from the hands of another.
There is a corollary to this. 1a. The occupation does not need “demands”. There is also already some understanding of this (see this), which gives me a lot of hope. This doesn’t mean that no one can have demands, but it means that I think it’s time to acknowledge that our demands go beyond what our government could fulfill without our own immanent involvement. Our demands mean nothing if we are not at the same time demanding something from ourselves.
2. Systemic problems need systemic resistance. Our problems can’t be solved by one law, and they can’t be solved by a strike or a boycott. As one young anarchist said recently to a friend of mine, “the best boycott you can do is to kill yourself. And that won’t change anything.” I don’t want to belittle here the amazingly successful boycotts of the past (the grape boycott in California, for example), or the overwhelming successes of the union movement over the past 400-500 years. But I think we have reached a point in struggle where the goal, the abolition of the systemic greed of Wall Street (this is understood variously), is incongruous with any concessions we might get from individualized or collective action within the system. What we need is systemic resistance. We need to be a virus, toxic to injustice everywhere, on all fronts, not just a few points. In some ways, this is just repeating the old Leninist injunction against reformists, but I think, also, hopefully inverting it. It is not that we don’t need reform. We need that everywhere. We need as much reform as is possible. We need space to breathe. But we need to recognize when our “demands” are no longer about reform, and are no longer addressed to anyone but the system itself. At this point, we need to develop systemic resistance. Occupy the World has, in some ways, done this. By being permanent, in cities everywhere, not concentrated at a point but diffuse, this movement parodies and matches the systems it resists. But it hasn’t yet reached systemic resistance. This leads me to my next two points.
3. Resistance, also, has an economics. One of my fondest memories of the 2001 IMF protest was when I ended up by a Food Not Bombs setup, and was fed. We need more of that. Food Not Bombs was inspired at least in part by the San Francisco Diggers. So I think we’re already aware of an economics of resistance in a lot of ways; we already have developed some economics of resistance. But I think a big part of the success of Occupy Together, and a big part of the reason why it is happening now instead of in 2001, is the current rate of unemployment. If so many people are able to converge and camp out semi-permanently, it is because they have little to lose in getting arrested, and no job to lose in dedicating huge blocks of their life to this. If resistance is not going to take the form of a quick, spontaneous rupture (and I don’t think it will), then we’re going to have to figure out how to support it economically, to reconcile it with the necessity to have a career, not in the bourgeois sense of stable employment, but in an older sense of trade, craft, something we can be doing that produces our means of subsistence and produces us as resistance.
The last one is maybe a hint to this one’s solution, but I don’t think it’s more than a hint. 4. We need a new utopianism. Among the old cadre, this is probably the most controversial. Critique, so the story goes, is inherently anti-systemic, whereas utopianism is a projection of oneself (or one’s ideological situation), as system, on to the world. There’s a rich literature on this, and I’m not going to satisfactorily address it here, except to suggest that maybe besides systemic, holistic, predetermined, dominance-reinforcing utopia, there can be a fragmentary, in-process, plural, polysemic, even democratic utopianism. And I don’t think the towering words “anarchy” or “communism” achieve this. The concrete truth is that without specific actions that are more meaningful than boycotts, marches, and unmet demands, this movement is going to fizzle. This is precisely the moment where hope has a chance to either inscribe itself in the world, or to vanish into the ether. We are gathered together, and we see others like us, and we see that we can be heard and inspire others. But without an inspiration to something, without an action towards something, this ends up empty. Hope must be brought down and woven into the ground around us. Not only do we need utopia, we need to be doing utopia.
I think this is by far the biggest difference between the Occupy Everything movement in the US and the Arab Spring, to which it was comparing itself even before anything began. The Arab Spring had concrete demands: a government is corrupt, so the corrupt officials must step down. Of course, the situation is far more nuanced than that, but the demands were achievable, one could work towards them concretely, and people achieved them. What the Arab Spring has achieved, so far, is something in the shape of liberal democracy (I’m certainly not educated enough on the subject to be any more specific than that). I think everyone hopes that it’s something more than that, probably especially the people who live in these countries, but I don’t think it’s more than that yet. And I think in the process of eliminating that “yet“, these countries, too, must reconsider, and are already continually reconsidering, their myths, what the meaning of social action is, and how to find paradise.
What I wish is that alongside all the studiously practical committees of the occupation movement there would be a completely open-ended imagination committee: which would not reach consensus, ever; which would broadcast utopian visions of the far or near future, visions for economies of systemic resistance, visions of radically reconfigured desire; which would plan festivals of democratic jouissance in which one possible future as a species could become palpable, instead of ethereal. Hope always, I think, begins with the will. With no basis in reality, one wills hope. But in order for that hope to be sustained in any way, we must remake our environment in the concrete images of that hope itself. We have already begun. Let’s not stop now.