Saturday, October 15, 2011

More Occupy Wall Street

For the last week or so, I've been involved with a small-city offshoot of Occupy Wall Street. I haven't wanted to blog about it because I'm always suspicious of people who blog about protests as Carnival. It's easy for people to get caught up in the social aspects of protest, and not so much in the long-term work after; look at the comparative numbers of posts about the protests in Wisconsin and the subsequent recall efforts. Anyways, with Occupy it's far too soon to tell what the consequences will be, and my own self-chosen role, far from being carnivalesque, has much more to do with setting up Google Groups and helping people figure out how to use it.

But a few early observations:

1. There are a number of older people, like me, involved. But I'm genuinely surprised at the number of people for whom this is their first significant activism.

2. What is the first thing that happens when you set up a camping site in the city center? Of course the site becomes a haven for long-term homeless people, most of whom are more or less apolitical because politics requires that you first be able to deal with society well enough to do things like find shelter. "We are the 99%" is a great slogan, but the people directly involved have to deal with society's neglect of the lower 1% in a much more immediate way than with the politics of the upper 1%.

3. I'm also genuinely surprised at the low level of preexisting technology use here. I know that Occupy Wall Street itself is large enough to have all sorts of advanced technology projects, and I'm located in what is basically a hinterland. But the movement itself is a complete rejection of the techno-optimism of "Twitter Revolutions" and so on, involving as it does even the rejection of sound amplification. And at least where I am, the people are in general not technology types at all.

Lastly, the "We are the 99%" Tumblr has spawned a host of imitators. I'm not going to link to the tired right-wing "We are the 53%", although I will link to this post about it. What strikes me about the 53% bit, other than the obvious -- people on the left want to include almost everyone, people on the right want to divide the country in two and take the just slightly larger half -- is that the 53%ers tend not to hide their faces as much as the 99% pictures do. It's self-promotion vs shame, basically.

Other Tumblrs: We are the 1% and we stand with the 99%. The cruel and very, very funny Actually, you're the 47%. And one for comics fans.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The return of Some Guy With A Sign

During the Bush years, one influential person made a common appearance on the political stage -- Some Guy With a Sign. No matter what you needed to have your opponents say to discredit them, Some Guy With a Sign could be found, somewhere, to obligingly have his sign say it. The right-wing media were champions of this technique, only occasionally overreaching, as with amateurs like Donald Douglas and "Sasquatch Israel". The left, of course, had the Morans! guy, but didn't have Fox to catapult the propaganda. The electronic version of Some Guy With a Sign is Some Guy With a Blog Comment, commonly held to discredit everything written on that blog, or indeed everyone on the same side of the political spectrum.

This is a bit different from the right wing's use of agent provocateurs, such as Patrick Howley, the editor of the American Spectator who openly boasted about trying to get Occupy protestors to turn to violence. Any really good Guy With A Sign could be an agent provocateur, of course. But it's not required. It's impossible to police and discipline every sign brought to this kind of demonstration, or to anything that has a contemporary style of mass involvement without a leadership cadre. And some of those signs are going to be brought by crazy or ignorant or bigoted or self-promoting people.

The Occupy version seems to be Some Guy at a General Assembly, as seen in this iconic picture (they are always iconic pictures, if they catch on) of Some Guy Marginalizing John Lewis. Some people gamely try to make the argument, in comments, that John Lewis is a politician and the movement can't let itself be taken over by politicians etc etc. Which just doesn't work. Any press flack, if Occupy had such things, would have said something like "Geez just let John Lewis talk for a while, then we'll go back to whatever we were doing." But Occupy doesn't have press flacks, leadership cadres, or any of the other things beloved by our mass media, so these scenes are inevitable.

I wish that people could move to a style of defense that doesn't involve denouncing Some Guy With a Sign, and that doesn't involve saying oops we are so sorry and blaming it on the "process". It's an unguided popular movement. Things are going to happen. We have a media addicted to sanitary photo ops, which loves to treat pictures like this as if they mean something symbolic, but really, what they mean is that in a consensus-driven general assembly, some guy named Joe can have a bad day. That's pretty much it.

If the general assembly was supposed to be a cadre making decisions, then sure, it's a very bad way to do that. But it's not. It's supposed to be a way for people to talk to each other, basically. People made fun of the grab bag of Occupy Wall Street demands, which I'd guess were indeed just a grab bag of things that someone got up and said and other people cheered to and that got written up. But the real point of Occupy is that the people are there, warts and all.

ETA: "Anarchists for good government", and the sign "Our economy could be more fair". (Via here) You can find vaguely British understated humor in these signs too. "Anarchists for good government" is worth coming back to, though.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Take it away, Marty Lederman

First, read this Greenwald article. It describes one Marty Lederman; strong opponent of secret detention and expansion of executive power when Bush was President, and author of secret law once Obama became President allowing the President to have people assassinated at will.

What Lederman did is, in some ways, worse for the system than what Obama did. People expect Presidents to run off the rails. You don't get to be President in the first place without a strong liking for power and a lot of narcissism that convinces you that whatever you do must be right. The rest of the system is supposed to keep Presidents in check. Well, it obviously doesn't. The Supreme Court has been a joke since Bush v Gore. The Justices are, openly, appointed-for-life ideologues, chosen for their adherence to some political position or other, and the decisions on important matters don't come down to law but come down to this. And now it couldn't be more clear that the Constitution restrains nothing, that lawyers only rationalize whatever their client wants to do, and no judge will ever call them to account.

It's easy to shrug cynically and say, what did you expect from lawyers. But cynicism is too easy here. When Yoo and company were writing for Bush, they were an aberration. Even Ashcroft refused to do everything his President wanted. But now lawlessness has been normalized. There is no reason to think that any important decision about war, torture, surveillance, imprisonment, or assassination is ever going to be governed by anything but secret memos again.

We are currently imprisoning a higher percentage of our population than any other country on Earth. The rich are immune from prosecution for rich-people crimes like defrauding people out of their houses; the poor can be thrown in jail for any number of activities involved in being poor. Democratic legitimacy has gone from being a farce, a bought-and-paid-for property of lobbyists and PACs, to being simply irrelevant. The President can have anyone imprisoned at a black site, or killed, for secret reasons that presumably involve the accusation of being a terrorist. The President can declare war on Libya without even bothering to pretend to consult anyone. The population welcomes this, even people like Josh Marshall are perfectly willing to take the government's word that someone "was essentially waging war against the United States from abroad" without any of those messy trials or presentations of evidence that ridiculous documents like the Bill of Rights say we're supposed to have.

We no longer have a legitimate state. I'm tempted to write that what we have is an oligarchical anarchy -- anarcho-capitalism as it really is, not how its deluded advocates think it would be -- but that just confuses the issue, probably. In any case, law is now just something that you have to watch out for, not something that you have to take seriously at any intellectual or moral level.

Our elites are incompetent at even running a corrupt system in their own interest. It's likely that the system will collapse in one way or another, not because of anything that people do purposefully, but just because it will get increasingly unable to respond to reality, just as everyone knows what we have to do in our current economic crisis (and in our current global warming crisis) but somehow no one can do it. When we pick up the pieces afterwards, I hope that we don't try to put together the same fantasy that we had before.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Occupy Wall Street

From experience with how people reacted to Wikileaks, I think that I understand how this works now. Occupy Wall Street seems to me to be an unreservedly good thing. But most everyone who comments on it prefers to think of it as a platform for What They Are Doing Wrong. If anyone reading this is still unfamiliar with it, there are some convenient links here, though you should probably start with the We Are the 99% Tumblr.

First, the archetypal, much-derided media response from Andrew Ross Sorkin in the New York Times on 10/3/2011:

I had gone down to Zuccotti Park to see the activist movement firsthand after getting a call from the chief executive of a major bank last week, before nearly 700 people were arrested over the weekend during a demonstration on the Brooklyn Bridge.


As I wandered around the park, it was clear to me that most bankers probably don’t have to worry about being in imminent personal danger. This didn’t seem like a brutal group — at least not yet.

Everyone loves this quote because it's so obviously and cluelessly corrupt. A reporter gets a call from the C.E.O. of a bank, asking whether he's in danger, so of course the reporter goes to check it out for him. You couldn't get a better illustration of the relationship between the wealthy 1% and the media. But there's another aspect that's less commented on. The "not brutal, not yet" phrasing functions to reassure the reader that this group of people could "turn brutal" any time that the C.E.O. gives Sorkin another call and tells him to report it that way. But there's also a certain obvious disappointment to it. Why aren't they being good anarchists and providing him with better copy? They'd better get some big black round gunpowder bombs fast or Sorkin will have to write about them as clueless hippies, which is not as good a career builder for him.

The mainstream left, meanwhile, is full of lectures about how these people should never have stepped outside without a list of demands and an organizational chart and a charismatic leader suitable for media profiles. Most of this stuff is too tepid to be worth quoting. Some of it is a bit better, but heavy on experienced people saying how Occupy is likely to fail without the advice and work of people like those experienced people: Rich Yeselson's article, say. One of the best and most sympathetic of them was David Atkins' Democrats: A necessary but insufficient condition post at Digby's blog, which I actually largely agree with. I certainly agree with:

Ultimately, the institutionalists need to allow the Occupy Wall Street protests to develop organically without attempting to convert them into electoral activism in any form. Supporting the protests is perhaps the most important thing progressives can be doing right now.

I don't so much agree with the contention that real change can only happen with Democrats in power, frightened by activists on the left into doing the right thing. That could have happened a couple of years ago. I think it's too late now. Real change can only happen when the system collapses in one way or another. Atkins' post is nicely symmetrical with Ian Welsh's "I’ll just note that Occupy Wall Street is necessary and insufficient. That is, the revolt of the students and the young intellectuals is necessary. It must occur. It is insufficient."

None of the above is to disrespect the Occupy movement. I’m a big believer that they’re doing something important and that they deserve props for putting themselves on the line. Their embrace of apparently leaderless leadership is a master stroke of organizing, and indicates they understand that any visible leadership will be destroyed, smeared or co-opted. This is all good, but it is useful for those of us on the intellectual margins to disengage our emotions, keep our hopes in check, and look at the state of play dispassionately.

This is better, but it still treats the people in Occupy as a way station towards the radical cadres that supposedly need to happen in the eye of the dispassionate, intellectual observer. Which, structurally, is no different from any of the other comments of the form "I admire their naive energy, but they'll only be what we need when they turn into X."

The most comical example of radical scolding was probably the "Anarcho-Liberal", as seen, say, in Bhaskar Sunkara's article here with Cyrus Lewis following on here:

Some things were broadly shared by “anarcho-liberals”: an anti-intellectualism that manifested itself in a rejection of “grand narratives” and structural critiques of capitalism, abhorrence for the traditional forms of left-wing organization, a localist impulse, and an individualistic tendency to conflate lifestyle choices with political action. The worst of both worlds, the “anarcho-liberal” can neither manage the capitalist state nor overcome it, and aspires to do both and neither at the same time.

That kind of piece is instantly familiar. The people we don't like should get a group name chosen by us, not one that they use. (Attaching "liberal" to anything means Very Bad Indeed.) If people begin to "proclaim a new politics of 'rhizomatic' and horizontally organized multitudes" (quoting from Cyrus Lewis) that means that they are anti-intellectual -- only people who read real leftist works are intellectuals, evidently, not poseurs who read Deleuze and Guattari. And of course these Anarcho-Liberals are individualistic and therefore unconnected to real political action. It would be so easy to write a parody counter-article, declaring people who write for Jacobin the "New Neo-Socialists", as people who must have a grand narrative even though it has proved false, as those with a condescendingly described gift for rigor in the service of nothing real, and with an incoherent attachment to mass politics while having far less connection to the traditional forms of left-wing organization like unions or political parties than Occupy does. But one paragraph is more than enough already.

What's actually going on? One of the best articles -- because it's an interview, probably -- was this one. Here'a a quote from David Graeber:

July 2nd. That was the first actual meeting. What happened was AdBusters put out this call for these protests. We had heard there was supposed to be a general assembly on July 2nd. So I just showed up. But it was a rally, not an assembly. Some Marxist groups had set up stages and megaphones and was making speeches and were planning a march. So we said we don’t need to do this. We pulled a small group together and decided to have a real assembly.

So we wandered over to another part of the area and began a meeting and people kept migrating over. But we had a problem because we only had six weeks. AdBusters had already advertised the date to 80,000 people. And their date was a Saturday. You can’t really shut down Wall Street on a Saturday. So we were working under some significant constraints. We assembled 80 or 100 people and formed working groups for outreach, process, so forth and so on. And we began meeting every week

Parts of this are instantly familiar from the Bush-era protests against the Iraq War, during which a lot of leftist hand-wringing occurred over whether people should march in protests organized by A.N.S.W.E.R. But something different happened here. One group put out a call, and the usual Marxist groups were there with their one remaining, antiquated skill set: stages and megaphones and march planning. And people just wandered off and organized on their own. The existing leftist leadership, such as it is, is ineffectual at all levels, and there is no point in following them any more. Graeber again:

You’re creating a vision of the sort of society you want to have in miniature. And it’s a way of juxtaposing yourself against these powerful, undemocratic forces you’re protesting. If you make demands, you’re saying, in a way, that you’re asking the people in power and the existing institutions to do something different. And one reason people have been hesitant to do that is they see these institutions as the problem.

Yes, exactly. Yes, it's easy to score cheap shots against this: it's idealistic, it's undisciplined, it won't last. Is it really more realistic to say that a list of demands for reform of the banking industry would do better? Or that people need to pass through this way station on the way to being good Democrats, good radicals, good whatever else has already failed?

It's not supposed to last. If Occupy Wall Street lasts, it will have failed. We have plenty of organizations that have lasted, long after they should have gone away. Occupy Wall Street's success is now, and has already happened.

ETA: police riot.

ETA: And here. I don't get the left's liking for Jon Stewart as reporter. If a comedian is the only person in the media who can say anything true, then that's not a good thing. But still, he's the only one saying it.