Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Occupy Movement: Bakunin, Bolsheviks, and Change in America

The Occupy Movement is now a few months into its life-cycle, but since I live in a rural area, I was not able to drop by any of these encampments in Northern California until this previous weekend. Much has been said about these various occupation acts, and I have mixed feelings about the movement (if we can prematurely call it such) and the tactics it has used. While my experience with these protests is limited, I have been following the discussions and debates related to the movement and its tactics, and will dwell on and discuss some of those debates here.

Terry Glavin has not been kind to Occupy crowd. In his recent piece in the Ottawa Citizen, Terry argued:

"The aborted lunacy of Occupism is now descending into merely a Jonestown of the Imbecilities, with eviction notices and standoffs and arrests breaking up Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Oakland, Occupy Toronto, Occupy Halifax, Occupy Vancouver, Occupy Victoria, and on and on. And as usual, there is a celebrity with a conspiracy theory to explain why. Famous pseudo-documentarist Michael Moore fingers the Department of Homeland Security. "This is not some coincidence," Moore says. "This was planned and I think the question really has to be asked of the federal government and of the Obama administration. Why? Why?"

Why? It just could be that maybe the Department of Homeland Security doesn't have its agents doing the devil's work in the bylaw-enforcement offices down at 12th and Cambie in Vancouver, and that ordinary working citizens and taxpayers are growing bored with having their public parks expropriated by people who dump buckets of their own urine on parks board workers."

Terry wasn't the only one that has a problem with the currents driving portions of the Occupy movement forward. Spencer Sunshine writing for Shift Magazine recognizes many of the problems a broad movement encounters on the left (and should be of no surprise to readers of this blog):
"All progressive social movements have dark sides, but some are more prone to them than others. Occupy Wall Street and its spin-offs, with their populist, anti-elitist discourse (“We Are the 99%”) and focus on finance capital, have already attracted all kinds of unsavory friends: antisemites, David Duke and White Nationalists, Oath Keepers, Tea Partiers, and followers of David Icke, Lyndon Larouche, and the Zeitgeist movement (see glossary below).
On one hand, there is nothing particularly new about this. The anti-globalization movement was plagued with these problems as well.(1) This was sometimes confusing to radicals who saw that movement as essentially Left-wing and anti-capitalist; when the radicals said “globalization,” they really meant something like the “highest stage of capitalism,” and so from their perspective, by opposing one they were opposing the other. The radicals often saw the progressives in the movement as sharing this same vision, only in an “incomplete way”­—and that they only needed a little push (usually by a cop’s baton) to see that capitalism could not be reformed, and instead had to be abolished.
But for numerous others, “globalization” did not mean capitalism. Just as for the radicals, it functioned as a codeword: for some it meant finance capital (as opposed to industrial capital), while for others it meant the regime of a global elite constructing their “New World Order.” And either or both might also have meant the traditional Jewish conspiracy’s supposed global domination and control of the banking system. Whether they realized it or not, the many anti-authoritarians who praised this “movement of movements” as being based solely on organizational structure, with no litmus test for political inclusion, put out a big welcome sign for these dodgy folks. And in that door came all kinds of things, from Pat Buchanan to Troy Southgate."
I agree with both of their points. I bought a cup of coffee at a cafe across from the Occupy camp in San Francisco, and asked the woman working the register how has business been with the camp across the street? She complained that they would come in and steal from the shop and make a mess of its facilities. Even if it is a minority of those at the camp, pissing off the working folks around the location is never a good political tactic, and I hear this woman's sentiments echoed at other Occupy locations.

The picture above was taken at the Occupy San Francisco location by someone on Indybay. While I can not say with certainty, re-enacting Glass/Steagall has been one of Lyndon Larouche's talking points for years now. The frequency in which I see Larouche cult members at protests over the last few years is troubling. With that in mind, the core political principle behind the movement is one that I do support (as would most Americans for that matter). Paul Berman eloquently notes:
"Yes, yes, at Occupy Wall Street the madmen, the madwomen, the Groaners and the neo-Muggletonians will eventually have their day, and the movement will be ruined. Already the Maoists of the Revolutionary Communist Party are at work, together with Ron-Paul-ists, according to another of my informants. Visiting the demonstration on Thursday I noticed that the Workers World Party (which secretly controlled some of the big anti-Iraq War demonstrations, in the name of advancing the cause of North Korea) was already in evidence. The costumed neo-hippies and neo-anarchists will prove to be no match to the fanatics of Leninist discipline. Sooner or later the screw-ball groupuscules will wreck the whole thing. “Creative destruction” is originally Bakunin’s phrase, but the destructiveness of the Revolutionary Communist Party will not be creative.
So the movement will stumble and fall, and a lot of young people will feel a little embittered and distraught. But not every movement or street manifestation has to be what the wooden-head Leninists call a “pre-party formation.” The Tea Party is a pre-party formation. Occupy Wall Street is not, even if some people imagine otherwise. Occupy Wall Street is a festival. It is declaiming truth, and this is good. Wall Street has led the country and the world over a cliff. Somebody needs to say so. The damnable conga-drummers in the downtown streets have appointed themselves to say so. The drumming is not too articulate, but the job of festivals is not to be articulate. (It is the job of magazines to be articulate.)"
The Daily Show recently ran a scathing piece of commentary on the splits that have occurred in the Occupy Wall Street camp. Listening to activists drone on about "horizontal leadership" and other post-modern platitudes often results in its share of eye-rolling on both sides of the political aisle. My criticisms of the lingo used by the New Left to communicate its aims are numerous, and the pseudo-academic babbling has always gotten under my skin. It routinely makes those on the activist Left sound ridiculous and unconnected to real struggles around them.

Having said that, attempting to create different ways to organizing a community, is not without merit. I don't believe for a second that the anarchist model of organization can work on a large scale, and thus undermines its usefulness when confronting pressing problems on the national and international level. Yet, experiencing a community governed by those idealistic and leaderless principles can be inspiring, if even just for a fleeting moment. It may not work on a large scale, and the participatory democracy advanced by the Occupy movement may eventually devour itself, but I feel sadness for those who have not contributed and taken part in a project like this before.

Michael Kazin from Dissent magazine, recently penned a piece concerning the way Anarchism as a political idea has been thrust into the public debate, even if it is not addressed by name. He writes:
"The “principles of solidarity” adopted on October 25 by the General Assembly at Zuccotti Park usefully summarize the updated utopian creed. They include beliefs in “direct, participatory, and transparent democracy,” “a consensus-based decision-making process,” “valuing people before profits and eliminating the exploitation of labor,” “full rights for all people, regardless of document and citizenship status, sexual preference, or gender identity,” “a sustainable economy in harmony with nature.” Red Emma would endorse all these principles, although the one about “practicing and supporting wide application of open-source technologies” would surely puzzle her.
Such romantic notions are easy for pragmatic liberals to deflate: How would “direct democracy” preserve Medicare? Wouldn’t an open border between Mexico and the U.S. lead to an increase in “the exploitation of labor”?
Yet there is something both bracing and even rational about the anarchist revival. When the political and economic heights are occupied, on both shores of the Atlantic, by men (and a few women) who seem at the mercy of finance capital and are unable (or unwilling) to do much to help ordinary people in trouble, it should not be surprising that a kind of non-doctrinaire anarchism has become popular. Anti-authoritarianism can be a useful corrective to authorities who have lost the confidence of the citizenry, if not their legitimacy to rule. It also keeps the Occupiers on guard against Leninist sects and other keepers of extinguished flames and encourages individuals new to activism to speak their minds, create their own slogans, and imagine how to build a better world whose structure is not and cannot yet be known."
Having these ideas discussed, debated, and put into practice is not a scorn worthy exercise, but one worthy of support. I no longer share that idealistic fervor exuded by some of the Occupy movement, but I appreciate seeing these radical principles put into action beyond the university's ivory dome. Perhaps the lasting effect from the Occupy Movement will be a whole new generation of individuals who recognizes the power they have to shape their own lives and the world they live within. That do-it-yourself mindset should be celebrated. As for the sites themselves, this is what I observed at each location.  

My first stop was UC Davis. The day prior, UC Davis police had attempted to disperse a number of students who had occupied one of the school's administrative buildings. Captured on a now infamous viral video, one of the police officers doused sitting students with pepper spray.

By the end of Friday evening, police had successfully cleared the building of occupants, as well as the quad in front. I only found a lone box with the words "Occupy" written on the side down the road from the site of the occupation. As the weekend progressed, the video picked up national (and international) media attention. Since I am still classified as a graduate student at UC Davis, I received a flood of emails from my department condemning the act and demanding action be taken. The school's chancellor was working to minimize her role in the event, and sent out a slew of emails to staff and students. By Monday, the pepper spraying was all anyone was talking about, and a large protest was planned on campus.
The following pictures were taken by the Aggie, the student newspaper on campus.
Definitely the largest protest I have seen on campus, and apparently the quad is now reoccupied with tents on the lawn. The media attention brought to the Davis Occupation surely surged its numbers in the immediate aftermath of the pepper spraying, but I assume the school will not tolerate the quad being occupied for long. With the winter break coming in a few weeks, I would also expect to see less physical support for the occupation as students leave town.  

San Francisco
Those responsible for the Occupy camp in San Francisco did pick a picturesque location to set up camp. With the Bay Bridge as a backdrop, the camp was pretty quiet while I was there, as the rain kept folks inside their tents and out of the cold.
You could see a clear divide between the activist crowd, busy cooking breakfast for the camp and contacting members of the media or city politicians, and the transient and homeless population that has convalesced around these Occupy camps around the country. A handful of folks, clearly on drugs and acting erratically, seemed to put the other campers on edge. The police, perhaps hoping to avoid the fugazi that occurred in Oakland, were cordial to the occupiers. Some of the activists seemed to know the police personally, and they discussed problems around the camp. The only altercation I observed was between a deranged woman who refused to leave one of the public toilets the city had set up for the occupiers. As she was carefully escorted out of the camp, I got the sense that most of the occupiers observing the ordeal were relieved to see her go, and did not see the incident through a "Police vs. Protesters" lens.
Occupy Oakland was clearly the main event for the Occupy Movement here in the west. The city's mayor had handled the occupation poorly, and well publicized confrontations between the occupiers and the city resulted in unwanted media attention for the city still reeling from allegations of police brutality and abuse. Zombie has a round of pics (and a series snarky comments) of the Oakland camp that existed a few weeks back. What I have found interesting about the Oakland protests, has been the way some of the more destructive and reactionary portions of the activist community have been condemned by an overwhelming portion of the Occupy movement. A few weeks back, the Black Bloc, a loose collection of anarchists that often piggybacks on other protests, roamed through Oakland smashing up shops and causing property damage. Some of the group's participants posted a screed on Indybay justifying their actions. Surprisingly, the comments that followed the piece were overwhelmingly negative, with most condemning the actions of these vandals. One of the commentators wrote:
"I'm an anarchist, and I am also highly annoyed at the way people are employing Black Bloc tactics. What the hell people?
If the folks who insist on doing this were truly interested in creating a world where we can all feel free, then that means that they actually need to calm the fuck down for a second and start listening to what everyone else is talking about. To them I say: Grow up. It's not all about you getting off on "fucking shit up." Some of us are actually trying to bring about a world where we can move beyond Crimethinc tactics and create real, difficult, meaningful dialogue. It might be less glamorous, but it will last a lot longer. I support squatting; I am not even saying that property destruction never has value. But I am saying that if folks don't start reeling it in, we are done. Seriously."
The debate over tactics and property destruction is not a new one on the left, but the fact that Occupy Oakland was on difficult footing to begin with, likely intensified the reaction by members of the activist community opposed to the Black Bloc;s tactics. It was their movement on the line, and they didn't want it dragged through the mud by activists more concerned with destruction and reaction, rather than creation. On Saturday night, some of the Occupy Oakland activists decided to occupy a park off 19th St., just around the corner from the Fox Theater. Unfortunately, it was wrapped up quickly, and both sites were empty by the time I arrived on Monday.

Things were pretty quiet on the Berkeley campus on Monday morning, with just a small handful of Occupy protesters present. As with Davis, I get the sense that the university occupations will fade with the coming school breaks (and as it gets colder outside).
And what would a protest in Berkeley be without a mix of the old counter-culture thrown in? I saw this book lying on the ground in front of dedication of sorts. For those too young to know (or simply too uninterested to care), Bhagwan Rajneesh was a New-Age guru from the 70s that garnered some significant media attention related to his views on sex, and his opposition to socialism and Gandhi. He developed a legion or followers worldwide and has been influential on New Age religious thought that is popular in places like the Bay Area.


lorri666 said...

"We have formed our very own small communities with direct democracy and anarchy and utopianism, and it's lots of fun, and you should try this way of life America, camping in small tents, marching with puppets, etc. We are a generation who is great at bonding. Just call us the Bonding Generation! But we can't collectively figure out how to deal peacefully with one deranged woman locking herself in a portable toilet, refusing to bond. Uh-oh. Maybe we could get her to read one of our lofty brochures? Or, er, say, how do we go about setting up an anarchist police force? Any grownups around here who can lend a hand?"

All this energy spent on basically going out camping and having a public tantrum. Too bad all those people saying "We don't like the way the world is, and shame on all those mean people for being greedy and hogging the money, but sorry, we have not much to offer as far as concrete and practical and useful and workable ideas for change" didn't take all that energy to the streets back in 2009 or thereabouts and get this country a single-payer healthcare system. Don't know if it would have helped, but at least there would have been a tangible goal in mind.

Noga said...

Here is a view from Seattle:

"The initial camp at Westlake Center, a huge pedestrian concourse in the urban core, was abandoned in favor of a nearby community college campus, away from the financial and commercial centers. This was acheived without major conflict with the police. Tear gas and batons were not required, just a request from the mayor, and receptive college administration. The move reduced visibility and curtailed any disruption of daily activities in the city. No traffic jams, no more barricaded banks. This is entirely consistent with the Seattle ethos--we are nothing if not unfailingly accommodating."

bob said...

Roland, what a great piece of reportage and analysis. Thank you.

TNC said...

[Sent you a longer personal comment]

Kazin's historical understanding of anarchism is quite shallow. This is evident when he differentiates "anarchism that inspired terrorists a century ago to murder presidents and princes" from the anarchism of Emma Goldman. Goldman supported Leon Czolgosz, the assassin of President McKinley. She also supported her lover Alexander Berkman in his attempted murder of Henry Clay Frick, a factory manager. Surely Kazin must be aware of this basic biographical information?

It is also severely irresponsible for Kazin to claim--without any evidence provided--that:

"“strike” organizers never made clear why closing the Port of Oakland was the central aim of the day. It led to several angry stand-offs between protestors and union truckers who wanted to go home for the night and then make it back to work the next morning. Only the intervention of officials from the ILWU, the longshore union which has been a bastion of the left since its creation by veterans of the real general strike that took place in San Francisco in 1934, may have prevented a fracas similar to the Manhattan “Hard Hat Riot” during the Vietnam war, in which dozens were injured."

All of the information I have access to claims the ILWU was having an informational picket re: OWS and shut down the port. They were not forced into this situation, which is what the article article implies and it is not be the first time the union has shut down the port for political reasons. I remember when they shut it down "in solidarity" with Mumia when I lived out there.

This not surprising as the ILWU is not only a "bastion of the left", as claimed by Kazin, it was a bastion of the CPUSA. Harry Bridges, one of the key activists of the early ILWU, is now acknowledged as communist by most historians. Robert Cherney, one of, if not *the* expert on Bridges and the ILWU, made these connections evident when the Soviet archives were briefly opened for foreign scholars.