Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Thoughts from Camus on Rebellion

Karl Marx isn't the "only" "great thinker" worth reading. For those of us who want to have a diversified theoretical toolbox for our interaction with the world, it helps to sift through the whole of human history and pick the seeds with the most vigor to take root in one's life. (Contrast this with the niche writing produced by microsects around the world, these hard and mostly barren clusters of stagnant thought, which cannot make the proper connections with mainstream culture but try anyway to co-opt or influence popular movements....)

It is impossible for any one philosopher or school of thought to sum up the whole of human experience and prescribe a program for operation. It's entirely necessary, however, to venture some sort of guess about what's going on. But even with the homogenizing effects of globalization, thinkers run the risk of over-simplifying complicated interactions. This is the lesson we the revolutionaries of the 21st century learn from post-modernism: that no single thought is ever entirely accurate, that no one philosophy can address all the factors in play, that any number and variations of paradigms can operate simultaneously within the social environment.

So after some time of laying off the political writings, I've recently turned to Albert Camus and his philosophical examination of different types and movements of dissent, a frayed old book entitled The Rebel. Written in 1951, The Rebel takes a good hard look at many thinkers who are still relevant to - and studied by - us today. Many, like Nietzsche and de Sade, are tarnished by reputation and still discouragingly misunderstood by our contemporaries.

The point of this post is not to discuss the ideas, but to encourage my readers to pick up this obscured essay in light of recent developments in the United States. So then, for your consideration, a condensed quotation from Camus, and a picture from the news that rocked California and the #Occupation movements Tuesday night and Wednesday.

Analysis of rebellion leads at least to the suspicion that, contrary to the postulates of contemporary thought, a human nature does exist, as the Greeks believed. Why rebel if there is nothing permanent in oneself worth preserving? It is for the sake of everyone in the world that the slave asserts himself when he comes to the conclusion that a command has infringed on something in him which does not belong to him alone, but which is common ground where all men - even the man who insults and oppresses him - have a natural community....

[A]n act of rebellion is not, essentially, an egoist act.... Moreover, the rebel - once he has accepted the motives and at the moment of his greatest impetus - preserves nothing in that he risks everything. He demands respect for himself, of course, but only insofar as he identifies himself with a natural community.

Then we note that rebellion does not arise only, and necessarily, among the oppressed, but that it can also be caused by the mere spectacle of oppression of which someone else is the victim. In such cases there is a feeling of identification with another individual.... Therefore the individual is not, in himself alone, the embodiment of the values he wishes to defend. It needs all humanity, at least, to comprise them. When he rebels, a man defines himself with other men and so surpasses himself, and from this point of view human solidarity is metaphysical.

I rebel - therefore we exist.
- Camus, from "The Rebel"

Protesters struggle to get a woman in a wheelchair away from the teargas and rubber bullets at #occupyoakland, 10/26/2011

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Victory Without Demands

Within the spectrum of thoughts that take #OWS seriously there are two prominent currents creating a discussion I enjoy. The question is over whether or not a movement can be "successful" with a "tactic" of "no demands." One current of thought points to Occupy California, which issued no concrete demands at first (statement) and, at least temporarily, seemed to end in "defeat"; ie, not a lot of institutional gains appear to have been made.

The other opinion on this subject looks at absence of these tactics as a positive, or at least inevitable, aspect of the movement. This is the side towards which I lean. I wasn't a part of Occupy California, and only watched at a distance from here in Minnesota where a similar campaign (opposed to budget cuts, etc.) generated virtually zero publicity (statement from one of the participating groups here). It had clearer demands, such as a moratorium on tuition hikes (if memory serves me correctly). But it didn't go anywhere. Last year around this time, a march around the Loring Park neighborhood with a hip-hop show featuring Guante (an artist I admire and respect a lot) was energetically attended and yet made zero lasting splash.

This dog has done more for "the movement" than that march in Oct 2010 (not pictured).

All across the country for decades, grassroots activists have been building their protests and vocalizing their demands. Even the biggest demonstrations - such as those against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or for LGBTQ rights - have been ludicrously slow in gaining attention in the media, much less institutional traction. We have, in fact, seen a decade or more of entrenched corporate politicrats ramrodding their own agendas through the federal government. One reason Obama was able to win by such a large margin in the '08 elections is that he spoke, however abstractly, to the very concrete and diverse hopes of tens of millions of people: an end to war and torture, the beginning of new health and jobs reforms. But he only passed half-measures watered down by Republicans and remained faithful to the cash ambitions of corporations and Wall Street.

We should all know what happens to a dream deferred - and if we didn't already, we see it now - and it is not in fact one dream, which is the agenda of the totalitarian clique - it is many dreams, myriad dreams. A collective and participatory dream.

People who try to "draw valuable lessons from history" often end up dismissing old methods by insisting "they didn't work" at x, y, or z period. There is an almost lazy ignorance of the role of material conditions and changes in society. As Nietzsche put it, "The historian looks backward; eventually he also believes backward." If we're serious about fidelity to realism, in opposition to idealism and denial of the life experience, we can't get hung up on terms like victory and defeat. We need to foster the growth of movements that liberate our human potential. That means understanding very well the causes and conditions under which they operate.

You have to recognize that #OWS doesn't just represent a shared emotion, isn't just another protest, isn't just going to go away. It's a trend in our social arrangements. It's a product of the interaction of complicated factors. Its persistence - it's flourish and contagion in even just a few weeks - is indication of a new watershed. A deep and lasting change in how the global citizen sees the world.

New York City, Capital of the World that was, birthplace of the world to come?

This is the cutting edge of the folks who no longer accept the debate as it has been inherited. For the occupiers it isn't about debt and taxes, safety nets and healthcare and retirement benefits. This is the language of the bourgeoisie, of the middle class, of the bought-off proletariat that fought hard and settled for being included/deluded/diluted in the American Dream. Some of these words can still be found in the signs and rhetoric, but they are dying off like desiccated branches. They begin to taste like ash. The occupation, seated at the edge of a new experience, gropes in the dark for new props, new signs, new words to explain what will be next.

We build the old from the new. Boil, distill, mix ... human is the alembic.

There is no guarantee they will be "successful." Of course not: history takes dictation from no one. That's the fundamental downfall of totalitarian thinking! There is no such thing as "summing up," no such thing as "the final word." (Because life is beautiful.) But every morning that you wake up and you have the option of wandering over to a public space occupation and picking up a book from a book tent and sitting and listening to a drum circle, or reading Vonnegut on a bench, or drinking free coffee from a small business that proactively supports free speech and democracy, or can have a civil conversation with an environmentalist, or an anarchist, or an End the Fed advocate, and feel calm and at ease and thrilled by a deeply social satisfaction - some instinct in us unfed by the privatization of public space - that is the thrill of life. Of living. Of experiencing humanness differently than advertised or advocated or inherited.

If we need to redefine "victory" in order to overcome the limitations of the term, then we can say every day where and when there is an occupation, there is something of the old victory, and something of the new. Who can say how long it will last?

But the real question you should ask is, you detractors and/or critics and/or skeptics, is this: what will make these people go home? Now that they've come together and learned just how widespread and interlinked their net of oppression is - now that they've seen an entirely new arrangement is possible - how could they possibly ever stop?

A sentiment that may be finding its conditions ripe, for once.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Defense of the Security Industry/Field/Function

Since Friday, I have visited Occupy Minnesota several times and slept on the lawn of the People's Plaza once. I'm planning a much more detailed account of my experiences there, one that a blog cannot encompass, but one part of the discussion at last night's general assembly touched on my own field of work: safety and security.

As gossip tells it, the occupation movement is "disorganized." I would rather describe it as "dynamically organized," as each person gives input and discussion sets policy, always open to revision. Currently this structure is proving very adaptable and inclusive. A lot of ground work and precedent is being set right now. And of course we have a tendency to criticize new endeavors, and a healthy dose of that is good, very good. So last night the general assembly discussed a case in which the role of the security working group was examined.

I had not heard the rumors, but someone was kind enough to explain to 50 or so attendees what had happened. The previous night, a group of people decided to split off from the occupation with an impromptu march. In the course of the march, a smaller group of people fell behind. At one point some young gentlemen got off a bus and proceeded to beat up an old man and mug a young girl. It isn't clear what condition these folks are in now, or whether or not the attack was politically motivated, or if the police or downtown security did or can do anything about it.

It caused quite a bit of debate. The occupation has an internal team of people, ostensibly all volunteers, to make sure conduct in the People's Plaza remains safe. What exactly they do, I don't know - I heard nothing about this except the call on Twitter for some volunteers, preferably people with security experience. And although I'm now officially on the record as both an occupier and a security guard, I wasn't feeling particularly moved to answer that call. (First of all, I'm actually a "Certified Protection Officer," thank-you-very-much, although the term "guard" has a historical appeal that resonates with me.) Mostly that's because I can't spend all my days at the occupation - unfortunately - so I don't want to have responsibilities that carry outside of the limited time I have there.

The guards of Ashurbanipal, an Assyrian king. Alabaster relief, ca. 645 BCE. Security is an ancient and honorable responsibility.

But listening to people debate the role of the security working group really raised some questions about the industry and how it relates to society as a whole. Some of the more decentralization-minded folks (whom the media would likely broadbrush as "anarchists") have legitimate and vocal concerns about authoritarianism. When one facilitator suggested that no marches leave the plaza without some security escort the phrase "slippery slope" immediately came up. No one wants their spontaneous actions to be babysat. But nobody wants our activists to get the snot kicked out of them, or be too intimidated to participate, either.

"Slippery slope" is often used in a way that bypasses spectrum thinking and reinforces all-or-nothing dichotomies - and I think this is such a case. Behavior cannot be split neatly into "fascism" on one hand and "freedom" on the other. Just as we cannot divide up our experiences neatly into "privilege" and "oppression."

"If I had more time and could speak," my fiancee said to me afterwards, "I would have told them that walking alone downtown at night is different for me than it is for them. They need to check their privilege."

We were of course short on time. In the end, the facilitator (who did a good job with the meeting on the whole, I must say) made us aware of the issue and then dropped it. Essentially this leaves everyone to make their own decisions but doesn't raise the security-consciousness of the occupation. If anything, it is dangerously dismissive. This would be a prime opportunity for a teach-in, covering de-escalation (which every activist should have in their tool belt, IMHO) and personal safety. Self-defense lessons could be invaluable, too.

Call me a starry-eyed hippy, but I believe everyone is more or less capable of engaging in the kind of critical thinking necessary for security. Some people may be more vigilant than others, or more charismatic (which could help in de-escalation) or may have just plain more experience. But, as my fiancee once again put it succinctly, it's really a matter of cost-benefit analysis. If you leave the encampment and go out into the (sometimes dimly lit) streets of Minneapolis, you run risks considerably different than if you're in your sleeping bag among your fellow activists. The People's Plaza works because folks trust each other. I find that inspiring. But you do run the risk of getting in a shouting match with other impassioned people who happen to disagree with you, and you run the risk of being held liable if others make bad mistakes and cross the police. So, you know, all our behavior is a matter of cost-benefit analysis on some level or another. It's just not that everybody sees it that way.

So that is one function of security I strongly endorse - the raising of awareness. If you or a group of your friends want to do something risky outside of the plaza, liability falls on y'all. I feel like it is the responsibility of the collective to provide both training to the members as well as specialized members for escorts to meet the safety needs of the individuals and groups who require those services. But it shouldn't be mandatory; adults must be allowed adult freedoms.

The fresh look this gives me on my own field of work in the capitalist system is significant.

Education and protection services provided by security are useful in any society, no matter the complexity or level of industrial development. In a decentralized community, every member has a responsibility for their own safety and the safety of the collective. It's a foolish and unfair bourgeois conceit that any given member be treated as a representative or "unofficial leader" of an avowedly leaderless movement, an experiment in direct democracy, a horizontal organization. The only reason to put a single face on such a movement is to make targets, martyrs, to diffuse collective thought and united action. This is why a more successful and mature occupation should probably cycle members through all working groups, including security working groups. Everyone ought to have some taste of each job as well as receiving daily updates from all other working groups. Only then will everyone have an appreciation of exactly what security (and other) challenges face the individuals and the occupation.

This is one of the advantages of the horizontally organized community: the direct sharing of knowledge. Unlike government, academia, and business, all members of a collective share their information as freely as possible. If everyone hoists a part of the work, it is more fulfilling to our humanity than working the same repetitive drudgework day in and day out. For almost 100 years we had our days divided into three segments, one for work, one for recreation, and one for sleep. That informal social contract has informally expired: work now follows us home through technology, and involuntary furloughs and temp work makes our livelihood much more precarious. (Labor arrangements that provide alternatives to hourly wage have yet to be fully explored; take the initiative yourself!)

Likewise, the social need for security - like the need for sanitation, socialization, civic participation, education, and rest - extends beyond the conventional workday. Industrial and federal bureaucracies expand to deepen the management of these needs at many removes from general society. But neither this society or its constituents can continue to function under increasing structural and mental stress.

"What? You need me to come again? I feel like I just left!!"

Despite the tangential nature of this discussion, I hope I've made the structural implications of the security/direct democracy dynamic more clear, if for nothing else than to exercise and clarify our critical thinking. A community that does not take its security concerns seriously and incorporate it in all aspects of its functioning will continue to run into adversities that impede its expansion and evolution. In short, if the embryos of these occupation movements do not develop responsible safety ethics relative to their own needs, the social environment will abort them and resist their re-establishment until future catastrophes.

The function of security often carries with it a hint of authoritarianism to folks whose prime concern is liberty and democracy. It needn't. Like all the other functions of institutions, it can, with enough mindfulness on the part of collective associates, be effectively distributed in a fair manner. Like many other fields, it needn't be the exclusive domain of trained "professionals," but instead part of human development in a free-affiliating society with voluntary and negotiated division of labor.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Our One Demand: *Everything*

Revolution is ballet on the back of a bull.

It's been far too long, and it is far too late past our naivete to presume we can make some totalitarian summary of what has occurred since the Arab Spring.

With no more or less than that hesitation, the pause of someone who has not commented on the game despite watching closely for a summer - and most of an autumn - I turn my analysis towards Occupy Wall Street, the populist movement that has grown from a dozen protesters in Zuccotti Park to a swarm of tens of thousands in New York and thousands more in over 70 cities in the nation and the world.

It is, of course, a direct employment of the same tactics used to bring down Ben Ali and Mubarak, the same tactics leveled in the tilt against (a medievally entrenched) Gadhaffi, against the tyrants of Bahrain and Syria and Yemen and Iran. For different reasons, not all of them have "succeeded," at least as far as having their demands met.

And a lot of U.S. critics are especially derisive of #OWS because their demands seem nebulous, without realizing that this is a manifested symptom of how terribly fucked up this country has become. There are at least a dozen strong demands among the protesters, and countless other intelligent, thoughtful, and creative ideas coursing through its collective veins. A lot of people come out waving a sign about their "pet issue," but see others with different issues and think to themselves, or say aloud, "Right on!"

It is a conglomeration of decades of unmet demands.

And as such, it neither can nor needs to articulate "clear" demands. We the occupation as a whole have little faith that such demands would even be met, and even if they were the Democratic spirit of "bipartisanship" and the Republican ideal of "obstructionism" would only leave us further dissatisfied.

This is the next stage of the global populist uprising, what protesters and commentators are very rightly calling the "American Fall." Government as it has existed in this country for the last sixty years, ruled by oligarchical cash, cannot continue. Nor can it facilitate its own further evolution. The very social forces that gave rise to the state have changed into the anathema of the state. Its products have made it obsolete. The institutions of tradition are bankrupt, having spent the last 150 years careening through a menagerie of manifestations: monarchy, bourgeois republic, state socialism, Stalinism, fascism, authoritarianism. With the internet and all of human history now at our fingertips, we see through every cynical maneuver the ruling elite take to re-establish their rule of profit.

I'm faintly amused whenever I hear one side or another take up a debate about whether or not #OWS "wants" the "end of capitalism." Is it "anticapitalist"? Certainly one key demand is "the end of corporate personhood," a cornerstone of capitalist structure. But you can no more call for the "end" of capitalism than you can call for the end of the west wind.

Social forces are material forces, governed by social and material causes. No matter to what degree the protesters are aware of the fact, capitalism has run into one of its greatest impasses in unprecedented ways. Socially, ideologically, even physically - even the Earth itself has slid past the brink of ruin without any clear way back. The protesters from #OWS are only evidence that more folks feel the crush and the worry and the lack of alternatives than ever before.

The bottom is falling out. Some are losing their fear. Others will follow.