Saturday, July 5, 2014

Mark Bray's "Translating Anarchy" / Occupy (VI)

I recently read Mark Bray's book "Translating Anarchy", and this post will refer to it extensively. It's also the long-delayed sixth post in my series on Occupy, a post in which I'll focus on organization and ideology. (The first five are linked here).

Translating Anarchy is a worthwhile book, well worth reading as an organizer's view of OWS. But a lot of it is concerned with arguing that important organizers of OWS were mostly either anarchists or held anarchistic ideas. I already believed this, so I'm not really going to engage with this major part of the text. I read the book primarily to find out whether Bray's view of OWS at the center was similar to the one I got from an Occupy group in a college town at the periphery. In the aspects that I'm interested in, I'd say that it was. The rest of the book has helpful sections that were new to me (the chapter on the media with how the movement was expected to follow the rules of "communication with the elite" and "mimicry of the elite") and sections that I found not so helpful (a brief history of anarchism may be necessary for some readers, but tends to become a definitional exercise favoring the writer's preferred kind of anarchism). This post isn't really a review, because I'm going to focus on one particular part of the book that I disagreed with.

An unfortunate coinage in the book is the phrase liberal libertarianism (sounding very similar to Bhaskar Sunkara's "the anarcho-liberal", but as a footnote explains, intending to describe people who are "less explicitly ideological and more interested in free expression and a lack of constraint"). First of all, there are already in the U.S. two contesting meanings of the word "libertarian", the usage "a right winger who believes in individual freedoms for rich people" driving out the original meaning of "an anarcho-socialist". Adding a third meaning does not seem likely to help. And, as with Sunkara's "anarcho-liberal", this is a descriptive term that the people purportedly described by it do not use. What does Mark Bray mean by the phrase? A quote from pg. 91 of Translating Anarchy: "Liberal libertarianism rejects anything that smacks of coercion even when directed toward those who are actively working against the interests of the group." Bray goes on to describe an example: the OWS spokescouncil is interrupted by notorious disrupters A and B,but they weren't the real problem. "The problem was the people who responded to [the facilitator's'] attempts to quiet him by shouting, 'Let him speak!' Without the enablers, disrupters wouldn't have had any leverage." According to the liberal libertarians, "Any attempt to silence anyone in any context was anathema. Doing so, in their eyes, would be replicating 'the system.'"

This is a case in which Bray and I see the same thing, but put very divergent interpretations on it. It's quite true that in every Occupy group that I heard of, people were "driven away in droves by disrupters" (pg. 92). But note where Bray locates the problem: with the liberal libertarian who "fails to recognize that there are times when the way to end coercion is to coerce. After all, a revolution is the most coercive thing there is, but to most anarchists it's silly to decry militant action against the state and capital as 'coercive' given the context of exploitation." That's an interesting way of describing facilitators repeatedly failing to facilitate meetings due to an unworkable meeting structure. Why do the liberal libertarians have this power to enable disrupters? Because what they are guilty of is taking OWS ideology seriously, and trying to follow ostensible OWS structure. When people joined Occupy, they were told (informally, of course) that they were now in a group in which every opinion was important, that anyone in the 99% was part of our movement, and that we operated by consensus with decisions made by a General Assembly in which anyone could speak. If the word "organizer" means anything, that's a problem of the organizers, not the organized.

I think that Bray is approaching this problem from an entirely wrong direction. Rather than getting into an argument about how "the way to end coercion is to coerce", I'd say that there's much wider agreement that freedom of association implies freedom of disassociation. People gathering to effect political and social change are doing work. Anarchism does not mean that you are stuck with the co-worker from hell. There has to be an easy way for the collective to say "Sorry, we can't work with you because you're being disruptive, goodbye." There's no need to get into a difficult and quite contested argument about revolution vs evolution, and in general start an unconvincing explanation about how coercion is necessary and coercive means can lead to good ends. Bray does write about the right of disassociation, but it's a kitchen-sink justification when it should be a sufficient one.

I got the distinct impression, reading the book, that Bray himself doesn't really agree with OWS ideology or structure. Although OWS ideology insisted that consensus decision-making needed to be used, Bray says that he worked with breakout groups of various kinds or simply decided what he thought was best to tell the press without reference to any group-agreed-on line. From pg. 194: "Yet, although many actions were planned through the Direct Action WG [Working Group], a number of the largest and most significant actions were planned in private by affinity groups before being presented to DA or the GA for a rubber stamp." If I may generalize in order to shorten this already lengthy post, I don't think that many OWS organizers really believed in OWS' ostensible structure, and routinely circumvented it.

Whose problem was that? Bray has written about a book about how OWS was animated by anarchist ideas, and I agree with him. People on the left tend to attach the word "liberal" to anything they don't like, and Bray blames this problem on the liberal libertarians. On the contrary, I see the unworkability of OWS structure as being a direct outgrowth of anarchist ideas. Bray spends some time explaining how some people used "horizontalism", "direct democracy", or "direct action" as code words for anarchism. People took these phrases seriously. Should they have?

Anarchist organizers have to make some serious choices at this point. When the next movement springs up, are anarchists going to say that consensus flatly doesn't work for a mass movement? They should. Bray is quite aware of this problem, and writes about how Bakunin's anarchists worked by majority vote, or 2/3 for major decisions. But I'm impatient with hero worship of anarchists who have been gone for a century, and I think it's much more convincing to say that based on our recent experience of a few years ago, consensus decision-making should be rejected. And, to take aim at a few other Occupy sacred cows, that not everyone below the 1% income level is magically part of "the 99%" without regard to their beliefs, that working people may have goals and interests quite different than those that we wish to assign to them based on anti-capitalist theory and we can't really speak for them as a whole, and that not everyone who walks in off the street should have equal control of a movement in which different people do different amounts of work.

How would that avoid a return to charismatic leadership? One person in Occupy told me that what we really needed was another MLK Jr. or Cesar Chavez. This strikes me as being similar to saying that what America really needed was for Obama to be elected, although of course MLK Jr accomplished quite a lot more. People of color who I met in Occupy had often had their formative experiences and expectations set in these American mass movements, and were often very impatient with the Occupy style, preferring something more disciplined and less subject to the whim of whoever happened to show up at GA.

It's an unsolved problem, and anarchists would be better off confronting it squarely. Even the solutions that were attempted in the latter half of OWS do not seem to me to be solutions. The spokescouncils had "delegates", not "representatives". To me this appears to be a distinction without a difference. Yes, the delegates were supposed to merely bring the decisions of their groups to the council rather than making their own, and could be recalled at any time. But if these councils had ever actually made decisions, would the delegates really have gone back to their groups to get their new input on each new suggested change or compromise? No, they would have become representatives soon enough, or if they were often recalled and the decisions they were making were actually important, it would have led to confusion as the people who were familiar with the work were often replaced.

People on the left who disparage the liberal libertarian, or the anarcho-liberal or any other of what I consider to be variations of the same basic idea, always disparage the impulse towards localism. But perhaps -- rather than setting up a system that does not work and whose organizers routinely circumvent it -- it would be better to accept that horizontalism implies working within small groups. For instance, one of the staples of latter Occupy was the debate about Oakland, cast as an abstract dispute between "violence" and "nonviolence". Why was it important for those of us on the East Coast to say anything about Oakland as if our opinions were important? I trusted the people in Oakland to make their own decisions about what was right for their community. Bray writes about how OWS adopted the phrase "diversity of tactics" to cover both those who wanted to form black blocs and those who didn't, but of course this was merely a cover for necessity. There was no way in which the convinced advocates of "violence" (e.g. breaking windows) or "nonviolence" (e.g. not breaking windows) could ever really come to a consensus, not unless they were in locations where they actually had to live with what the others had done.

And if federations of local groups have to be made, barring some kind of wholly new Internet-based direct democratic structure, it would be best to accept in advance that these are pretty much going to end up as having majority voting, representatives who are called delegates, and charismatic leaders. Hey, it was good enough for Bakunin! (There, I did it.)

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