Nato Thompson

Culture, place and power.

Tag: OWS

The revenge of the anarchist: Written another way, the revenge on anarchists by anarchism

Anarchism is everywhere. The only people that don’t realize it are the anarchists (well, except some). There are many reasons why the current era of global action could be deemed the revenge the anarchist but certainly the tell tale signs are in the air. The organizing principles of the General Assemblies of the Occupy movement are direct results of anarchism (particularly the tendencies in Spain) with their interest in organizational methods that eschew hierarchies in favor of consensus. The underlying ethos of anti-hierarchy, the valuing of consensus, and the inherent paranoia of power from every angle (government and corporate alike) are tell-tale signs of the anarchist influence. There are so many anarchist methods in the air today that they are hard to recognize as over the course of the last fifteen years they have begun to infuse themselves in the conditions of urban living.

Friedrich Neitzche wrote that doing makes the do-er and nothing could be more valuable in the strategies put in place by lifestyle anarchists. While Marxism drifted into the halls of academia and the labor movement shifted toward a nationalist, xenophobic, get your own corruption, lifestyle anarchists were developing new ways of being in the world. Food give-aways like Food not Bombs, community gardens, critical mass bike rides, squatting and social centers, DIY punk shows, pirate radio, hacking and artisanal forms of commerce and mutualism slowly but surely made their way into the centers of what is the contemporary form of urban living. And in so doing, these forms of being in the world that attempt to gravitate power back to the local are now the obvious principles of this movement.

Over the last twenty years, the do-ing of lifestyle anarchism has gravitated out of the hands of squatter punks and entered into that peculiar thing we know as the urban hipster. Without being derogatory (as the name hipster tends to evoke gasps of revulsion and dread), one can certainly draw a parallel between these tendencies in the shaping of the urban condition. The urge to get off the grid and return trade and personal experience back to the local, and out of the hands of the large-scale corporate monopolies, has in many ways become synonymous with the qualities of urban living. It is hard to imagine the contemporary imagination of gentrification without seeing knitting, bicycling, community gardens, and artisanal everything. This entire train of thought could open up an entire discussion of the benefits and problematics of this legacy and the point of this essay is not to go into this in too much depth. The point is to demonstrate how radically many of the lifestyle attributes of anarchism slipped away from anarchists over a decade ago, and have now become the default ethos of an entire urban generation. For it isn’t just the forms of life of lifestyle anarchism that have gathered momentum, but with that, their underlying ethos of autonomy.

It is no surprise to me that many in the occupy movement do not see their political motivations as anarchist. They certainly do not read the books, quote Proudhon and Emma Goldman, dress in black, listen to punk, or squat anything. Yet, they possess a deep belief in getting off the grid, questioning authority, consensus, mutualism and political paranoia. Yes, power is in the corporations, but it is also in the hands of the military, the government, the institutions, and on and on. At the same time, many that claim they are anarchists have a tough time relating to the multitudes in the movement that share their values in this form of life, but do not self-identify as anarchist nor possess the same kind of identity and ideological affinity to the actual term. Some anarchists, lets face it, went into anarchism for the purpose of resisting everyone. It can be an inherently anti-populist movement embedded in a populist struggle. I’m sympathetic to this manner of paradoxically working. It can also be frustrating for many political anarchists to witness so many hipster activists who possess such poorly articulated critiques of power, capitalism, gender, race, process, etc. Hey, but that is movement building for you. But the humorous point of all this is that the entire movement is predominately anarchist by nature and very few people know it.

Hipsters are the strange children of the anarchists.

This is an anarchist movement; in spirit, in principles, in organization. Much to the chagrin of the supposedly more strategic left-wing organizers, this movement privileges process and consensus. But it is also an anarchist movement much to the chagrin of many self-identified anarchists. Coming to terms with the new values that have been instilled by the last twenty years of increasingly autonomous forms of living encouraged by the restructuring of urban life and capital, is part of the task of not only OWS but of movements to come.

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Space is the Place for OWS

The freedom to assemble: it is a constitutional right. And as spring rolls into existence, it is being exercised anew. Occupy Wall Street returned on its sixth month anniversary to Zucotti Park to discover that power has a very clear idea of its 2012 occupy strategy. Stop it, beat it, crush it, remove it at all costs.

What the occupations of 2011 showed and what they begin to reveal again is the primacy of space in the function of mass movements. After a four month hibernation initiated by a massive national effort by the powers-that-be to remove OWS from every public space in America, the primacy of space can no longer be argued. Space is the battleground. It is no longer theoretical. The removal from space has revealed itself as the removal from spectacle. Without mass action to report on, the movement dwindled in the public imagination. The calls of the 99%, the confrontation with corporate control and capitalism, the disgust at the political process were rapidly swept under the rug over the winter only to be supplanted by the hijinks of the Republican primary race. The electoral process returned to its comfortable hyperbolic battle of affect between media strategists on the democrat and republican campaigns both of which eager to avoid their own inherent corruption and complicity. Without the occupation of space, the world returns to its downward spiral augmented by insipid dialogue geared toward our emotional response. But spring is here and space is the place. The mayors, the president, the CEOs, Homeland Security, every police commissioner, and all of OWS knows it as well. The battle lines have been drawn.

As the mayors dig in their heels ready to brutally punish the coordinated actions of the massive OWS movement, we prepare ourselves for a new wave of actions Each attempted occupation whether it is at Zuccotti Park or Union Square will be repelled by the police. A tent is set up. A tent is destroyed. A library goes up. A pile of books gets squashed under a policeman’s feet. A poster goes up. A poster is torn down. This is the choreography of the public space dance. And with each confrontation with power (the hybrid system of control by corporations and government enacted by force), the movement grows in the public imagination.

Space is not unrelated to spectacle. It is its muse. As we continue to broadcast our lives on-line and gather news of the world on television, much of what is broadcast as news remains various spectacular contestations in physical space. The body and its occupation in the world remains the source of much of what is considered to be ‘real’. Whether it is a celebrity leaving a night-club, a gun wielding maniac breaking into a bodega, a person navigating a flood in Topeca, a protester breaking a window, or a cop putting his boot on a protesters head, the media loves a fight in space. These things gain momentum because they make the viewer feel something. Cops beating kids or kids breaking windows, for the media, it is all the same. They eat it up, because it is the way the viewing world likes to eat (visually).

Space is the place that we make the news that we eat at home.

Strangely enough, to occupy space is to occupy the news and to occupy the news is to occupy the public imagination. In essence, the freedom to assemble is now the freedom to occupy the public imagination. And as we have discovered that little plot of psychogeography is radically policed. The entire criminalization of public space has much more to do with the gradual system of control of spectacle in shaping what we, as people/consumers not only expect out of life, but who we are. We cannot loiter because we are not consuming. We cannot erect structures because we are not permitted venders. We are arrested in space because we are poor and are locked out of the circulation of capital. We are not operating in the ethos/pathos of the consumer relationship to space and thus we are a problem. We create meaning in space. We create community in space. We create dreams in space. Because of its power as the shaper of our aspirations, over the last forty years space has gradually become the battleground for corporate and state interests invested in shaping our expectations and dreams. The barricade is not a metaphor for the contained collective imagination but instead is material reality.

Fortunately the privatization of space has its paradoxes as it butts up against some of the core values that the United States has built itself upon (at least rhetorically). What is phenomenally strategic about the battle for the right to assemble is that it cuts across the mediated false dichotomy of right-wing/left-wing values in the United States and appeals to a fundamental constitutional right. The freedom to assemble is part of a dialogue that unifies people much in the same way that adage, the 99% does. It is populist and we all know, Americans love that.

The public also loves a battle. It loves outrage. For this reason, images of the police hurting non-violent protesters is a great weapon in the movement. It makes for great Youtube videos and graphic photographs to accompany headlines. It is spectacular. And police hurting non-violent protesters as they call for the dismantling of the corporate state is even better as it attaches the article to a politics that has actual strength. The fact that mayors across the country have dug in their heels remains an asset in the spectacular battle for space. Keeping it non-violent is important for the very reason of how the media portrays the movement. Every baton on a protester’s back, the police hurt a person and put a crack in the illusion of peace. Every can of pepper spray unleashed both blinds the eyes of protesters and opens the eyes of those at home. The more the protesters look like everyday Americans, the better. Arrested priests, grandparents, teamsters, fireman, nurses, office worker and child, the more the viewer relates the oppression in space to the oppression they have in the comfort of their home.

But as we saw in the last go around in the fall, the public imagination is ever hungry for sensation. Once a camp is occupied it must retain its momentum. It must stay on the move. Stagnation in space gathers a mold in the public imagination. A few months into the occupation of Zuccotti, the media hungry for its next sensational angle transformed the camp from the agora of public democracy to a drug-fueled disease haven worthy of a National Geographic special. The movement had to grow. It had to gain allies. It had to occupy more space. More is more. More large-scale marches. More acts of solidarity across numerous lines of race. From the squares the movement must move into the halls of power. Whether it means occupying Goldman Sachs, occupying the media (physically, meaning their offices), occupying the White House, OWS must continue to galvanize broad-based public support and never stay stagnant in the public mind.

And while the battle rages, the battle to undo the legal restrictions on pubic space must be waged as well. For if the control of space is the control of the collective imagination, then the legal fight to free up space is the legal fight to free the collective imagination. The laws that prevent loitering, long term occupation, homelessness and vagrancy are laws against, our dreams. Undoing that system in the courts is a critical battle front.

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that doing makes the do-er and nothing could be more emblematic of this truism than the OWS movement for public space. The movement itself is a catalyst for a new subjective becoming. It is a people maker. The camps and the fight for space not only occupy the imagination of those viewing at home, but radically transform those that take the squares. We dream collectively in space and the movement is a call to do just that. To the squares all spring, all year, for all time.

The Anti-Intellectual

I have been accused of being anti-intellectual three times this year and it is an accusation that I receive with a look in my eye the likes of which only a truly anti-intellectual personality could muster. I feel misunderstood or perhaps, people know me better than I know myself. An anti-intellectual? By being an anti-intellectual, does that mean I am against intellectuals or that I am acting in a way that has no intelligence? Supposing that I come at the question as though I embody both categories.

I have received this badge of dishonor upon the occasions that I publicly speak on the subject of the intellectual-industrial complex. I generally do so at art conferences or panels where I sense that the theoretical language has become stilted into an overly nuanced circle of inefficacy. More than communicating, the room feels reduced to a bunch of people doing push-ups to impress each other. We are all familiar with it. Somehow at some time, Marxist theory became the go-to language of academics who worry more about tenure and publishing than any touchstone on the ground. Somehow, theory revealed itself as a vehicle of the social game of power that demonstrated who was more versed in the contemporary lingo of the time (more than the production of ideas and social change). It is a common dilemma which has left everyone involved very frustrated. Thus the anti-intellectual becomes a haunting figure in movements as the exhaustion of post-modern theory and its own capacity to become a game of more-of-the-same became one of its more enduring legacies.

To not be too theoretical about it, if knowledge is both power and a commodity in the information age, then certainly knowledge deserves a degree of doubt. If name-dropping Jacque Ranciere, Bruno Latour, saying things like deterittorialization and reterritorialization, using the poetics of Deleuze and Guattari, Hardt and Negri, Judith Butler, and on and on and on, become weapons in the pursuit of personal power than any kind of community building, what is that? In an age of vast cultural production, capitalism and knowledge have become deeply intertwined. Thus knowledge emerges as a double figure. Its identity and intentionality are ever shifting and in doubt. What one says is not necessarily what one means. We know this. What to do with this is another question.

Riding alongside the information age is the invigorated phenomena known as social capital. This strange quality of importance and social standing that gains actual traction in relation to hard earned dollars cannot be underestimated as an alluring goal when one speaks. For those who think in order to obtain their bread and butter, their words are their wares. Saying theoretical ideas isn’t just an saying ideas, but also indicating a certain social strata one belongs to. It is a code of power and belonging. Often words are used (like art) for the mere purpose of putting food on the table and elevating ones social standing.

Yes, it is more complicated than that. Yes people do in fact speak with the intention to communicate. Yes, there is still a value to words and knowledge. Yes, yes, yes. It is this simple equation of knowledge = commodity that gets faculty members on their toes worried that such an all-too simplistic condensed summation of the knowledge economy could fuel their already lethargic student’s desire for any quick theory in which they could dismiss everything a teacher says. All I can say is: be afraid. Be very afraid.

I am aware that these accusations of being anti-intellectual comes from those who are, in fact, self-identified intellectuals. They worry about their shrinking authority in the classroom and their increasingly skeptical reception amongst their student body. They see all their hard work being dismissed by this all too facile analysis. They sense a trap that knows no end. Just recently, when I was posing the idea that speaking in a general language that could move more fluidly across class and race lines might be an important consideration for museums, I received the strange reaction that such a position fed too easily with the desires of capitalism to reach the most people. As though intellectualism itself wasn’t a part of the capitalist administrative machine. Perversely, some in the theoretical camp truly believe that a generalized language will in fact be in the service of capital. The intellectual reactionaries also sense a strain of romantic back-to-real-terms nostalgia that fuels the likes of the Tea Party, George ‘Dubya’ Bush, and other anti-intellectual mass movements. Anti-intellectualism has often been the bed fellow of fascist movements.

Lets see, who are anti-intellectuals? Creationists. Aynne Rand libertarians. Glenn Beck. Racists. Mormons. White power. You get the idea. The bad people! You know, the folks that mistook the lessons of postmodernism as a method for getting rid of any faith in empiricism whatsoever. Skeptics of global warming unwilling to listen to the liberal scientists. People who get their news from Fox. People that love images of military gun ships, watch NASCAR, listen to Toby Keith, quote the founding fathers and wear Jesus is Lord jewelry. They are the folks that loved the war. They are the ones that believed Bush. They are the anti-intellectual demographic. They are the ones that misunderstood the values of postermodernism. They are the ones that keep making headlines in Texas with their anti-intellectualism in the classroom campaigns. We were simply supposed to put a lower case t in the place of the capital T of truth. It was meant as a modification of the modernist project not a rejection of the entire enlightenment!  Don’t you see what you feed into when you egg on the hostility for intellectuals? You become like them! The savage right wing masses of America!

Such strange company us anti-intellectuals keep.

Those that bandy about the label of anti-intellectual sense a pernicious logic that may ultimately shut down conversations. For the guile of social capital is that it can set off a witch hunt that knows no end. A razor sharp tool with no friends, its misuse is deadly for social capital, is in fact, everywhere. For an alienated audience sick of heros and protagonists, social capital can be just the weapon of criticism to take down the biggest giant. We see it lurking throughout the Occupy Movement as the paranoia cuts through all social ties and yet keeps the community strong.

Just as dismantling the capital “T” Truth of modernity was necessary for the myriad of subjectivities coming to the table in the era of postmodernity, so too does the cry for a materialist transparency when it comes to the logic of Truth in an information age. If Truth is not only power but money, then we must be nuanced in the way we wield it. For social capital is in fact a pernicious force in an information age and its radical ubiquity produces a dense fog that is hard to see through.

For lets face it, the right wings paranoia of elite liberals has a dash of truth to it. If one can speak about progressive ideas and be part of progressive movements while simultaneously maintaining the status quo of class oppression then a certain distrust of the intellectual must come to bare. If what constitutes an art critic today is the supposedly critical perspective on a machine dominated by power without interrogating that entire structure, what use are words? If we can continue to theoretically talk about class and race but do nothing to actually build those bridges in our language and lives then what are we doing? And speaking specifically to the arts, if we continue to speak in theoretical jargon to a predominately privileged audience (and by privileged I only mean in terms of class and the bizarre culture that brings) without interrogating these problematics of power (and doing something about them), then what a truly sad state of the arts we are in.

Yes, fascism does rise up on a wave of anti-intellectualism. But perhaps one could flip that and say that fascism can rise up when intellectualism betrays the most oppressed. When the words no longer touch the realities. When the social game of power is the only point and the destitute remain alienated and broke. Of course there remains a role for the intellectual in our society, but the function of ideas and the techniques of their deployment cannot be untangled. Language is a reflection of our culture and our culture is a reflection of the power dynamics at play in our world. Not being aware of that when speaking is to be something worse than an anti-intellectual or intellectual, it is just being a bad communicator.

Legitimating Crisis: Social Networks Decenter the Dominant Narrative

(flickr.com/shankbone)

Reposting, posting, commenting and liking, have emerged as an increasingly important grammar of civic discourse. As we collectively experience the rise of social network platforms, we are slowly becoming more accustomed to the devices and possibilities of this new medium. And with it, we are witnessing a corollary rise in a social movement. The synchronicity is not by chance.

While at first I was reluctant to believe it (there was something almost nauseating about the way in which the U.S. media attributed so much of the social unrest in Egypt to Twitter and Facebook), I am now convinced that the rise of OWS cannot be explained properly without appreciating the radical power and potentiality of social network platforms. It might seem like a trite epiphany by those who don’t understand the real organizing behind social movements, but bare with me as I think the case can be made. While OWS’s growth across the country and now the world has caught most everyone by surprise, it has also provided one of those exceptional moments where one can watch the main circuits of power reeling to retain relevance. There have been the poignant hiccups showing both governments and media off-balance. Michael Bloomberg balking at cleaning up Liberty Plaza and then blaming it on the supposed calls of elected officials. The New York Times rewriting their coverage of the arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge and then having their edits revealed and circulated on scale networks. The numerous Wikileaks communiqués that provide whistleblowers and the leaks in the consolidation of power a platform to spread like wildfire. These hiccups and so many others provide a first-hand view as to a condition where those in control, perhaps, are not.

There have been moments in the past months where those operating in OWS have been provided that wonderful glimpse at power revealing its hand. For everyone has had a front row seat watching the growing disconnect between what the media has reported and what the facts on the ground are. With every disconnect between major media and what people experience, faith is shaken. This part is nothing new. What is different is that now people find themselves able to construct and turn to alternative forms of media that confirm an idea of the real that conforms more readily to what they have experienced. Social networks are providing a distributed form of legitimation that has radical power.

Of course it is ludicrous to ascribe the growing discontent and popular resistance to purely a Mark Zuckerburg invention such as Facebook. Such hyperbolic claims feel like an oversimplification of vast factors such as the one most apparent: massive economic inequality. However, after numerous social movements over the years, this particular movement possesses a noticeably different texture and much of that can be attributed to the extremely important role that social networks have played.

Without question, social networks provide an entirely different platform for gathering news. What only ten years ago was considered fringe media is now circulated at a much faster rate contesting the dichotomy of mainstream and fringe. Narratives that challenge the dominant capitalist-friendly style of corporate media are simply more ubiquitous and available. To be simplistic about it, even the re-introduction of the term “capitalism” has only been an option in the United States since the power of social networks have allowed it to emerge. Without a central space of control such as the major television networks, the narrative around economic and social inequity is able to quickly take on a more radical form. This is a knife of course that cuts both ways as social networks provide a great platform for all kinds of extremism and reactionary paranoid politics. As the circulation of media begins to move through a vastly de-centered distributive network, legitimation (the like button and sharing function) takes on a velocity. It is a speed. After a few months, it develops a culture. It is a becoming machine for many people to radicalize each other. With every share, like, post, and comment, we participate in the production of each other through a rapidly developing culture.

But what is additionally amazing about Occupy Wall Street is that it is a movement that takes space seriously. The radicality of social network technologies has its most power when it mobilizes toward space across time. In looking back at the first few weeks of OWS, one recalls the clear derision it was met with not only in the large media landscape but the progressive as well. If the tools were available, it would be fascinating to watch the spread of information regarding Occupy Wall Street across the nation over time. For if it were only up to the New York Times, ABC, NBC, NPR, and Fox, and many supposedly progressive magazines and websites the first two weeks the occupations would have been remembered as a fringe display by ignorant privileged kids who know how to whine but not much else. Simple visual snapshots were taken of bongo players, women with wigs, and anarchist black clad wearing kids as visual representations of lost disaffected youth. This was the dominant story and one that most of America was hearing and seeing if they heard anything at all. But the occupation kept going, and as it did more unions joined on, more activist celebrities showed up, and more writing in support of the movement appeared. This is all to say that over time the movement gained legitimacy. And legitimacy, that increasingly important function that happens in a culture of vast symbolic production, is that tool that tells our brain that this version of the story, is the one that is important to pay attention to. The occupation itself never changed its political position. It wasn’t any strategic choice that gave it legitimacy. But instead that it gathered momentum over time as more and more people rallied to its cause.

Over the course of time, the mainstream media became increasingly behind in the story.  Looking across the Atlantic at the UK Guardian, one found coverage of the protests almost immediately with numerous sympathetic journalists and theorists such as Naomi Klein and Slavoz Zizek already weighing in the protest’s importance. But here stateside, the major media outlets continued their anti-intellectual Fox News/Bill O’reilly style of reportage whose slanderous approach has been their bread and butter for the last decade. As the movement grew so too did the sympathy reach out from the net to the traditional distributors of information. The progressive outlets began to realize that the people they were resenting were actually their base. They had to rapidly adjust, apologize and get on board for fear of coming across as a media platform that didn’t target their specific target market. On October 2nd, Sally Kohn from Mother Jones blogs an apology for being critical of the occupation movement. On October 5th, Keith Olberman read a statement from Occupy Wall Street. And of course on October 6th President Obama weighed in saying he understands the protest’s frustrations. Suddenly the major media was turning toward a sympathetic approach as the radical fringe became a normal part of the center, all in the manner of three weeks. The position of derision began to seem untenable as more and more movements sprung up across the country appealing a populist base. And the one thing the media can’t stand being against is populism.

But the fact of the matter is none of this would have been possible without Twitter and Facebook. The ability to spread a counter narrative not only served as a social device for legitimating reasonable complaints against power, but it allowed every person to participate in that form of legitimation from the isolated privacy of their home. The private was able to become public and thus political. This ability is something that television simply cannot do. By spreading the word of these protests and being introduced to counter-narratives, people in the social networking milieu were being radicalized from inside their home.

One could say that all this teaches is that social networking is an extremely powerful device (which is true). But there is also another lesson that may be instructive as well. And that lesson for those of us who have tried tirelessly to get this kind of movement off the ground for twenty to thirty years is that the major media has been a bigger problem than one could have ever imagined. For as much as social inequality and the control of government by the financial class is certainly at a relatively high point, the dismantling of the social welfare programs across this country have been occurring for a long time. Social inequities have been a large part of the American reality for a long time. The time to put a stop to it and place populist pressure against it is not specifically unique to this period. What is unique are the devices by which we communicate and organize around these frustrations and the manner in which sociality legitimates these concerns.

What does this mean politically? First, one must also admit a gap between those who have access to social media and those who do not. Those who have found a place to come together, and those whose lives are ever watched, controlled, and policed. For social networks also teaches us something that was known in social movements before: there is an analogue form of coming together and producing community. One can only rely on social networks so much and the movement clearly needs to pound the pavement to listen and open up dialogue across divides of difference. Clearly there is a race and class component to this that must also exist in consideration as a different subjectivity emerges.

But second, we need to appreciate just how powerful the technological tools of legitimation are in shaping the civic. The technologies of major media (namely television) have been a much more critical power tool than I think many have appreciated. The disruption of this technology with new distributed platforms has radically altered the vehicles that make us who we are. And lets be frank, most of the United States still relies on television for their news and entertainment. This obvious reality provides a major culture gap between the subjectivities of a nation as the aggregate forms of becoming a culture pile up over time. A generation grown on social networks is going to seem very strange and radical when confronting their television-watching parents.

What social networks provide is a communicative centrifugal device where the forms of meaning are shaped via people. This is certainly more democratic inherently but also provides an obvious tool for bringing sequestered conversations like capitalism to the forefront. When people’s complaints about their lives are legitimated by other people’s complaints about their lives, an inevitable velocity of subjectivity emerges that has radical potential. There is much to say regarding this, but it is important to note as we become aware that something has shifted. For of course, there are numerous concerns regarding social network technologies including the privatization of these networks, the capacity for surveillance, the race and class composition of such networks, the lack of accountability and due diligence in the spread of this new information for starters. That said, the power of this technology should not be underestimated. It is very real and very powerful and will be a critical device in shaping the subjectivities of the movements and politics to come.

Can a mass movement stay on message?

We have become accustomed to it. You go to a demonstration that is generally uneventful but with thousands of participants. You go home, look online to see what the news had to say, and you find a picture of some black clad anarchist smashing a window or some violent altercation between a cop and some bright eyed youth transpiring. “When did that happen?” you think to yourself. Why couldn’t the news report on the actual demonstration? Why focus on the exception and not the rule? The numbers of people. The issues. Why does it have to focus on the clearly more photogenic but besides the point actions of a few individuals? Anger turns toward these rabble-rousers. Anger turns toward the news. Is it a conspiracy? Why can’t mass movements actually be depicted as being reasonable claims on inequities of power? A new strategy must be developed. Or so one might think.

 

If it bleeds it leads is the common newspaper adage. For those involved in mass movements, the logic of this newspaper and television sensibility makes itself more evident. For whatever reasons, every protest needs an image of a bloodied protester, a burning flag, a smashed window, a hooded malcontent, a crazy dressed hippy, or a cop arresting grannies. Whatever the image, it needs to have some hyper sense of the real. It must be spectacular. Apparently, the images of regular folks peacefully protesting simply doesn’t translate well. As much as movements try to be populist, the media insists on focusing on their wacky and/or dangerous attendees. The image of mom and pops with their kids holding a reasonable protest sign in a group of thousands, isn’t exactly what the media is looking for. Are the newspapers and television media determined to turn this movement into a sideshow?

 

The Occupy Wall Street movement knows this well. It is the reason for the current hemming and hawing regarding the actions of the Black Bloc and various other black clad discontents who apparently steal the spotlight as the news cameras can’t help but follow them in their property damaging hijinks.  There is a very valid concern that the actions of these individuals across the United States is making an easily dismissed circus of this movement as their actions so readily fall prey to a pernicious media determined to use their actions for their own gain. In addition, the actions of the more militant elements of OWS provide a window of opportunity for undercover provocateurs determined to incite violence in order to delegitimize OWS. They provide an alibi for more brutal police repression and lose public sympathy in the process. This is the current mood in OWS as the chill of winter begins to thaw.

 

Certainly it is a frustrating situation for everyone involved. For those who are more militant, they would easily argue that the Black Bloc is a tactic not a group. It is a strategy of direct action. For as much as the movement will complain that the photographs of anarchists breaking windows is damaging for the movement, they will not complain when the videos of pepper sprayed innocent protesters goes viral on YouTube. The movement gained widespread attention as a result of direct action. They would argue that property damage isn’t physical damage and its cost is absolutely incomparable to the routine cost of capitals disenfranchisement of millions across the globe. And, as much as people complain about them covering their faces, they would say, “If you are going to participate in direct action in this surveillance culture, you better protect your identity somehow.” Direct action has been the modus operandi of the movement and it isn’t possible without a certain level of physical confrontation with power. The entire initial actions of this movement, the taking of Zucotti Park, was a physical taking of a space.

 

So there is a frustrating sort of impasse being reached and perhaps it is best to take a step back and consider the landscape of power and spectacle that OWS is working across. As OWS gathered momentum across the country it found itself both taking advantage of and being taken advantage of the spectacular nature of the contemporary mediasphere. It is a bizarre world we live in where the affective outcomes of actions are choreagraphed for viral circulation worldwide and everyone conscious of this, are forced to be somewhat manipulative and strategic in its consideration. Conveniently cropped photographs and edited videos are the materials of a media war for all involved. It isn’t just the media promoting an agenda. The movement has to carefully produce mediated images as well. Everyone is making advertisements for the movement. It is a war. It is a war of images.

 

The movement is a sort of reality television show. It is happening in space, but it is also self-consciously constructing itself for mediation. Since all the world is a stage everyone must learn the skills of theater.

 

But this war isn’t new. And it might be amazing to note, that it isn’t as against progressives as one might think. OWS could learn a thing or two from the brutal UFC-style assault the Tea Party experienced not that long ago. They were embraced then vilified by these very same mechanisms. It is difficult to comprehend, but bare with this a little. Yes, of course it is hard to imagine that the “enemy” are falling prey to the same mechanisms, but the tables aren’t balanced the way one might think. The rule of power isn’t left and right (as the lame political discourse of this country has devolved into), it is power wins over all. That is an equation that supercedes ideological territories in this contemporary landscape.

 

Images that affirm our affective reactions to various issues are easily circulated in an economy of affect. It is an economy of emotional response undergirded by capitalism that drives news and social media. We want people to feel something. Left or right that feeling needs to flow. It needs to draw viewership. It needs to feed the paradigm of fear/attraction/alienation Following in the trailblazing steps of the advertising industry, the news agencies have learned that news is just a vehicle for emotional response. Images are the kicker. For the Tea Party, as much as the excitement of the emerging of a conservative people’s movement was an initial novelty, it became kitsch and then pathetic. It was a cycle of emotional response. Tropes played out over time until finally on Facebook one could find slideshows of misspelled redneck protest signs that affirm a progressive position that these people are just a bunch of idiots. For progressives, it didn’t take long to latch onto this notion and circulate it. And the major media helped in turn. Same is true for the right wings perspective of the left. Right wing radio gets its hands on it and its communists, drugs, no god and various other sub-categories of the paradigm of right wing conspiracy theory.

 

Now the tables are turned and OWS is feeling itself the victim of a similar logic. While its initial appearance gathered media energy and interest, as winter dawned, the gothic tales of horror from the drug fueled unsanitary hovels of Zucotti Park emerged. In a matter of three months, the park went from a symbol of the emergence of the American democratic tradition to the worst nightmare of a drug fueled Lollapalooza let loose in the city equipped with homelessness, violence and sexual abuse. For whatever reason, while the camps occupied civic space across time and space their symbolic position vacillated from the utopian to the catastrophic. Somehow Occupy Wall Street turned into a gripping horror story for National Geographic Channel. The emotion of interest and curiosity gave way to revulsion, paranoia and finally, antipathy. And ultimately, as the protesters in Oakland began an attempt to reclaim Frank Ogawa Plaza, some of their more militant tactics fell prey to an already unsympathetic mass media and provided fuel for a major public relations blows as images of black clad anarchists with shields and helmets circulated widely across the media. If OWS wanted to appeal to everyday Americans as a mass movement, this action had only made the gulf much much wider.

 

The question that should be posed before asking whether or not to embrace certain tactics of direct action should be, is a mass movement even capable of navigating the complexities of spectacular culture? When I hear people complain that direct action tactics of breaking windows is not effective, I feel this inner pain that this person pretends that somehow this is a movement that can be massaged so easily. As though, the entire multitude involved is going to somehow stay on message.

 

Whether or not everyone in the movement “behaves” is sort of beside the point. The cameras will continue to focus on the mediated images of buffoonery and irrational violence that confirms the alienated emotions of a broad based mediated public. Even if a movement behaves, undercovers can easily break a window or incite violence. A mass movement is vulnerable to these techniques no matter what it does. And ultimately, the major media is going to tell the story it wants to. It wasn’t breaking windows that had the media reporting on what a slum Zucotti had become. It wasn’t the Black Bloc that had the New York Times ignoring the story just a mile or so from their building.

 

Direct action is one critical strategy among many in getting media attention on a movement. Playing that game is a necessity but it is a fickle creature that will constantly turn on you. That is its very nature. But the occupying of space is of the utmost importance and continuing to assert basic demands in that pursuit is critical. Much has been said regarding the pros and cons of direct action, but the direct action of the police across the country in removing the movement from the squares is the ultimate set back. It is egregious. The movement was not unified by ideas as much as it was by space. By removing the spatial component of the equation, the powers that be have produced a landscape for in-fighting and second guessing. How to get the movement operating in space is the most critical question and it seems to be one that will be answered via direct action. It will require some media savvy-ness, but it will also require bodies in space. I sympathize with any of the occupations in their attempts to do so. It isn’t easy and it isn’t pretty. But it is a necessity.

 

As much as the spectacular life is a constant flow of emotions for consumption, it is undergirded by a contradiction of capitalism. Inequity is its modus operandi. By continuing to demand justice and economic equality, the movement will at least be unified in a subject that touches every person watching dismally from behind closed doors. Without forcing the issue in spatial terms, the movement will ever fall victim to the whims of a psychotic mediasphere determined to exaggerate, make fun of, or dismiss the basic demands that should seems so obvious. Catering to them may be a part of this movement as long as we all know that the media will betray us at every turn. They are a desperate for viewership and fueled by paranoiac consumption. The betrayal by major media should not be confused as losing the sympathy of the public. For the betrayal by major media is a foregone conclusion. We must act accordingly.

Learning from Chris Hedges

Learning from Chris Hedges

Much has been written regarding Chris Hedges article: The Cancer in the Occupy Movement. The article caught on like wildfire as it exacerbated the ever-nascent tensions between people in a movement who find the tactics of direct action abhorrent on multiple levels and those who are more militant. It suffices to say that if it was Hedges intention was to produce a measured discussion of the underlying concerns with provocateurs and the strategic efficacy of various forms of direct action and militancy, this article certainly failed in that regard. But instead of focusing on the issues this article claims to have raised, I am interested in how the existence of the article has provided a social litmus test for the movement as well. For within the article and the numerous debates on social networks, one realizes what a vast lacuna exists for many in the movement (not just Hedges) regarding what the actual social composition of protest culture is today. In addition, Hedges poorly written hatchet job on not only the Black Bloc but perhaps anarchism in general, demonstrated the problematics of letting recognizable left progressives speak on behalf of the movement.

I find the question of non-violence versus direct action beside the point. Obviously, it is a question worth asking in any movement. If Chris Hedges could have removed himself from the conspiracy of the Black Bloc for a second, he could have more articulately assessed what forms of direct action are useful in a broad based decentralized movement. It isn’t about rock throwing and window breaking but more about how to not let the major media use snapshots of violence to turn public opinion against the movement. This question is important and needs to be wrestled with (and it isn’t new).

But this discussion is happening. What became all the more apparent from the articles reception on social networks was how little was known about Black Bloc tactics. As I sifted through the comment sections of numerous arguments on the subject, I realized that his misunderstandings were more endemic to OWS itself. Many people in the OWS movement are clearly approaching the question of militancy and direct action for the first time. Hedges’s myopia frankly had company.

He has been phenomenal in excoriating the financial speculators on Wall Street and articulating how unregulated capital has decimated the public sector. But on the subject of the Black Bloc he sounded remarkably close to the kind of Fox News propagandistic fear mongering that he so vocally deplores. Having a prominent journalist off course when it comes to anarchists is nothing new. But what is new is that this is predominately an anarchist-inspired movement with prominent left wing spokespeople.

It would be one thing if Hedges spoke and the movement could all say, “this is crazy. We all know that people that use Black Bloc tactics are a variegated bunch many of whom don’t read John Zerzan or dismiss the Zapatistas. We realize generalizations about this are difficult and that they have, in many instances, been a very generative element in OWS and the alternative globalization movement.” But frankly, many people in OWS could only rely on Hedges’ veracity. No fact checkers in the world of web 2.0 certainly has its drawbacks. All these emotions and lack of historic specificity produced a deeply convoluted dialogue that became difficult to tease out. For activists that had worked through the alt-globalization protests a decade ago, anarchism and its various off shoots were familiar and comfortable ground (if not the most comfortable of all the various ideological and strategic positions). For those that haven’t, this kind of specter of a strange violent element of the Black Bloc quickly adopted Hedges’ problematic generalizations of hopped-up testosterone fueled middle class boys determined to ruin the movement in their own narcissistic nihilistic romantics.

So the question isn’t simply why was Chris Hedges so poorly informed, but perhaps, why is he speaking on the movement in the first place?  Why had I/we trusted him? Sure the Pulitzer Prize helps but that isn’t enough. In the realm of Facebook reposting, his talks on television and articles for prominent journals were compelling, well articulated and easy to spread. That sort of rapacity provides a sort of go-to team spirit until something like this article appears. Then all of a sudden one realizes that this person who has so poetically and articulately assaulted the aggregation of power has no experience with actual movement building. His entire approach has been one of a singular person speaking truth to power but in so doing, has never developed the skillsets of organizing with lots of people.

An adage of OWS that has come to be popular is: it is not a leaderless movement but a movement of leaders. It is one of those simple sayings that reflects an inner sort of logic of OWS. One of the central tenets of the consensus-based anarchist inspired methodologies at the center of OWS is that of destabilizing hierarchies. Not only structurally but in spirit as well, OWS is suspicious of leaders and spokespeople. There is a vast amount of reasonable concern regarding co-optation that one will find in any subcommittee. It is an integral part of the movement and wrestling with this tendency is not only what will set it apart from many other movements but will shape its formation in the years to come. It is both its strength and its most complicated hurdle.

As this movement tries to learn what makes it not only unique but how to adapt and work through its specific form, there are certain lessons that are being taught. The actions of Chris Hedges should be considered one of them. As the movement struggles to not jump at the microphone, certain prominent left leaning political personalities eagerly take centers stage. We can all recall the celebrity circus that emerged at the General Assemblies as famous folks arrived to something rather inspiring but not always that insightful. One can easily recall the inspiring speeches of Cornell West, Judith Butler, Slavoz Zizek, or Naomi Klein as they chanted from the center of a circle with the human microphone chanting their words. It seems to me that when it comes to the leaders of this leaderless movement, the default is the people in the beleaguered left pundit world that choose themselves.  The ones that skip the waiting time at the General Assembly are the ones that will get the microphone. The ones that show up at the demonstrations but also eagerly are interviewed on television for their positions on the movement. The ones that will write a report for the UK Guardian on how OWS is shaping up. The ones that already have institutional legitimacy.

While at times this can be a good thing (most of the people mentioned are extremely intelligent interesting people), as we found out with the poorly informed article by Chris Hedges, it can also be extremely problematic.  More often than not, the traditional left leaders have been disconnected from people’s movements for a long time. They do not know that this whole project has a deeply anarchist inspiration. They do not embody the paranoia of hierarchy or question their own relationship to privilege or power. They do not bother with whether they should or should not be speaking on behalf of a movement.

What Chris Hedges revealed in his article was how little he understood how damaging his own role in the movement had become. His critique was a disastrous move in the social ecology of the movement. It produced false enemies and hard line categories where complexity and empathy actually existed. Core organizers who were sympathetic with Black Bloc felt they were now being positioned as “the enemy” which only produced more animosity and made tensions higher. Hedges spoke from a position of ideas because that is all he is working with. We don’t need that. We need people to speak from a position of ideas mixed with a sympathy for people. This is a movement of people coming from radically different positions. Many people in the movement are aware of this. They are sympathetic to it. They want to make room to hear each other. They want to listen and not to scream. They truly want a leaderless movement.

It isn’t Chris Hedges fault. Not exactly. But people with large platforms should obviously stay away from generalizations. They should tread lightly and listen. They should question their own power and why they got where they are. The voice of this movement should abide by the rules of progressive stack in that voices that are typically marginalized should be privileged. But this isn’t something that can be decided by any meeting or gathering. OWS radically decentered and thus often in the space of stasis, the logic of action takes precedent. So in general we need those that speak less to speak up. The public presence of OWS would benefit from voices inside this movement who are sensitive to the issues of capital, who know how we got to where we are both historically, globally, nationally and locally, who can be reflexive in their questioning of power but not paralyzed, and who can speak truth to power strategically and empathetically. Yes, it is a tall order, but this is what the movement needs. It doesn’t need the voices of people out of touch with not only anarchism but how this is a global movement of numerous tactics trying to overthrow a vast consolidation of power and capital. To do so requires movement building and movements are about listening to everyone in it. It is about empathy and direct action. It is about strategy and it is about people. It is a new movement with new attributes. There is no cancer in the occupy movement but certainly turning the conspiracy inwards is a sign of someone needing to be gently moved off the microphone.