A movement was started in the middle of September (2011) that has sparked enough interest to spread across the US and elsewhere. The call for the protests that are the heart of the movement was put out by the Adbusters group – a group that I suppose could be called “radical reformist” who make use of watered versions of half-digested situationist and anarchist theory to promote a fairly hip and media-savvy form of leftist activism. They grasped on to the power of the idea of occupation, harking back to the movement in California a few years ago where certain anarchists and anti-state communists promoted occupations with a genuinely radical agenda and also to the insurrection in France in 1968. The agenda of the Adbusters group is not nearly so radical. It is simply a fairly typical populist protest against corporate greed, inequality and government corruption. A lowest common denominator protest. This is why it has been able to draw in at least the sympathy and support of a lot of people, anarchists included. Unfortunately, most of the anarchists who have gotten involved have done so uncritically, as if they have no aims, no dreams, no desires of their own. The main challenge they have presented is to the nonviolence code that seems to be an assumed part of the movement. An important challenge, but not deep.
Despite my strong distrust for mass movements and populism, left or right, I have found a number of things in the reports I’ve read about this movement that rouse my sympathy. After all, any time slaves get up the courage, however temporarily, to say “fuck you!” to their masters, it gives me a quiver of joy. The problem is that as long as the slaves keep identifying as a mass, I don’t see how they can get beyond the desire for better masters – masters who are less greedy, masters who are less corrupt, masters who listen sympathetically to the complaints of their slaves. And so far I have seen nearly nothing in the language, the imagery or the practice of the movement that encourages getting beyond the mass mentality. I grant though that I may be missing a few things… But I am not sure whether it is possible to escape mass mentality when one’s rebellion starts there – more on that later.
The central slogan of this movement – “We are the 99%” – reflects the mass orientation of the movement in a most pathetic way. As interesting as statistics and percentages may be for looking at how this society has divided people and things up, they don’t even make for good “class analysis,” let alone an analysis of how domination and exploitation actually function in daily experience. Instead this slogan reflects the lowest of lowest common denominators, a populism that tries to appeal to everyone except the richest elite. Inevitably, this helps to create a situation where the most radical individuals get demonized – to such an extent that they even get attacked in the name of keeping a demonstration “peaceful.”
The mass need for masters manifests in this movement in general assemblies that actually operate as decision-making bodies. This should raise questions for anyone who favors autonomy. I know all of the collectivists will disagree with me, but autonomy is only meaningful as the autonomy of each individual to decide for herself how to act – in his life and in situations of protest or revolt. Obviously when a movement gains momentum involving large numbers of people, individuals need tools for coordinating their activities, and a general assembly can certainly function as such a tool. But coordination and decision-making are two very different things. If I insist on acting autonomously and so make the decisions for my own life and rebellion, no assembly can override that, and any assembly that tries to is as much my enemy and an authority standing over me as the state, capitalist institutions, etc. That the general assemblies are open to all and operate by consensus does not change the fact that they take decision-making power from the hands of individuals when they operate as decision-making bodies. But because this movement was started with the intention of making it a mass populist movement, the general assemblies did not rise spontaneously out of the needs of individuals involved, but were promoted precisely as a mass decision-making body. And so decisions are made in advance over individuals, and real autonomy, the capacity for individuals to decide for themselves gets over-ruled. Of course, there will be those who rebel. And there will be those on hand quick and ready to police these rebels against the sacred assembly.
So far the most interesting events I have heard about that have come out of this movement are those that have occurred in Oakland. There, in late October, the police viciously attacked the protest encampment and evicted it. A couple days later, people had returned, and a call was put out for a one-day general strike on November 2. Of course, a one-day general strike is a symbolic action, more a show of force than an actual exercise of force. But it was definitely an upping of the ante. Participation was fairly high. The port of Oakland was blockaded, from what I could gather, for the whole day. At the peak of this blockade, there were apparently at least 20,000 people involved, including longshoremen whose union had told them not to participate. In addition, several banks were attacked1, as was Whole Foods which had ordered its employees not to participate in the strike.
Still the feeling I got from everything I read or saw about this (I was not in Oakland) is that of mass activity not of a coming together of rebellious autonomous individuals. I have a strong feeling that going from a mass movement to a movement of rebellious individuals interweaving their autonomous activities together may not be possible. People who identify freedom with obedience to collective decisions rather than with individual autonomy and self-ownership aren’t likely to change perspective in mid-struggle. Especially since this reversal of perspective would require one to recognize his own responsibility in the current social reality: “If the rich exist, it is the fault of the poor…” as Stirner put it. And who wants to admit that? Most people prefer the role of victim that puts all responsibility elsewhere. But this is the denial of one’s autonomy; a movement of victims can never be anything but a mass movement seeking an improvement in their present conditions, a movement of reform.
I am not saying that anarchists should have nothing to do with this movement or these protests. Obviously, this is a choice each anarchist will make for herself. I have kept away from the events in Portland because I really couldn’t think of a way to intervene (and because this is a mass movement, anything I did would have to be in the form of an intervention) that would be an expression of myself and of my own rebellion. Without that, it would be ridiculous for me to go. Most anarchists who have involved themselves seem to have done so uncritically or with a critique limited to tactical questions surrounding the nonviolence code that liberals and pacifists have tried to impose on the movement as a whole (often using the general assemblies to do this). Thus, the anarchists have largely taken on the role of a the fiercely wagging tail of an otherwise well-behaved dog.
So, even though I feel some sympathy for what this movement has spawned and have found specific moments exciting, the movement still remains alien to me. I don’t see a way for my own rebellion to weave into it, because the fabric of this movement seems mono-textured – a lowest common denominator felt – not the multi-textural insurgence of rebellious individuals weaving their struggles together in such a way as to strengthen and enhance each individual thread. I’ll keep an eye on what is going on, but an eye without expectations or illusions. Where there is a mass, there is obedience, even when that mass is saying “fuck you!” Huge mass protests can look exciting, but then I consider the masses that took to the streets in Russia in 1917, in Germany in the early 1930s, in China in the late 1940s, and it becomes obvious that autonomous, non-conforming individuals can never trust masses. They are easily manipulated, easily directed by the forces most desiring to play the games of politics and rulership. In this movement, as in other places (the radical movement in Italy, for example), general assemblies have become a power over those involved in the movement. The illusion of democracy is exponentially increased here, because it is “direct democracy.” Again some words of Stirner come to my mind: “…for every member of the state-community, this community must be sacred, and the concept that is highest for the state must also be highest for him.” And what is more sacred to the modern western state than the concept of democracy2? There is simply no excuse for an anarchist in the present era to continue accepting and promoting this illusion. But I have yet to hear any anarchists who are seriously involved in this movement even questioning, let alone critiquing this adherence to the ideal of democracy or the institutional nature of the assemblies operating as decision-making bodies, rather than as tools for coordinating the autonomous decisions of individuals involved in this movement.
Anyway, I am keeping my eye on this movement for one and only one reason: to see if there may be a way to weave in my personal rebellion that will enhance it and perhaps sway some of the more radical elements in this movement to move in an autonomous direction. If this sounds selfish, it is. I have never denied that I am an anarchist, a rebel, a non-conformist, for myself, not for any “higher” cause. If it sounds arrogant, I don’t care. I am pretty clear about what I want and how I want to play with, in or against the various games of protest, resistance, rebellion and insurgence. That self-assurance may appear arrogant to others, but that doesn’t bother me. I am not here to please others (except to the extent it pleases me to do so). But I hope this makes it clear what I have seen so far in this movement, why I remain sympathetic, but highly skeptical, and how I will play if I play this game at all.
1 Of course, one of the ugliest moments of this movement that I have seen also happened here, when one of the internal wannabe cops attacked someone who had broken a bank window. The reason for this attack on another protestor? He wanted to “keep the protest peaceful.”
2 I know what all the various leftists and liberals (including the ones who call themselves anarchists) will have to say here: “But this is not a real democracy,” “The rulers are in the pay of the rich – this is a plutocracy,” etc., etc. But sacred concepts, by their nature, cannot exist in pure form in reality. This does not make them less sacred, but in fact is necessary to their sacredness. And the rulers of the US most certainly treat democracy as a sacred concept. It justifies everything. The need leftists and liberals have to defend “real democracy” show that they too are adherents to the state-religion.