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Archive for the ‘analysis’ Category

Author and Occupy activist Yotam Marom tackles in his article the age-old question of reformism versus revolution. The article was originally published in the book We Are Many: Reflections on Movement Strategy from Occupation to Liberation (2012). Here’s an excerpt discussing the nature of revolutions:

“In school, history is taught around dates and figures. We learn that revolutions are led by gallant individuals, and fought on certain days. We see images of revolutionary flags billowing on liberated mountaintops, of magnificent leaders applauded by masses of people, of moments of struggle when old orders collapse and new ones take their place.

But we rarely read of the decades of hard organizing that led up to those moments, the fight for small gains all along the way, the many working people of all colors and genders and sexual orientations who fought for survival day in day out making the movement a reality, the countless smaller uprisings that won smaller victories, the many that were crushed along the way. And we learn very little, too, about the struggle that takes place after momentary victories – the incredible work of transforming ourselves and those around us, of building institutions that facilitate a free society, of fighting again and again to keep what we’ve won, of the beautiful struggle of resisting, reclaiming, and reconstructing over and over again.

We have to come to terms with that history, although it might not be as appealing.  We’ve got to outgrow the idea that the revolution is an event to be measured in moments and actions, and that it’s just around the corner – that all we need are oppressive conditions and a match to light the flame. Those notions are based on immature premises, proven wrong time and time again, that the worse things get, the more likely we are to rise up – that reform, because it makes peoples’ lives better, is counter-revolutionary. We have to confront that thinking, because it’s popular, it’s sexy, it comes up over and over throughout history, and because it is cruel, empirically false, and incredibly divisive to the movement.

On a very basic level, that kind of thinking is heartless. A theory that compels us to oppose measures that would materially improve people’s lives in the service of some abstract goal cannot possibly be driven by the compassion, love, and idealism that must be at the center of any worthwhile revolution. The consequences of theories like this are disproportionately felt by those already most oppressed and most marginalized, and often proposed and defended by those with great privilege.

But even more to the point, it’s empirically untrue. The theory itself – that deep crisis on its own leads to revolution if it is met with a spark – is bankrupt. If all it took was conditions being terrible and a vanguard marching in the streets to wake everyone up, we wouldn’t need to be having this conversation. It’s already bad enough – just how awful does it have to get? The truth is it’s harder to fight back under worse conditions, not easier. The many working people all across this country struggling around the clock to support their families, straddled with debt, or facing foreclosure can attest to how hard it is to scrape together the time to be a revolutionary while constantly facing crisis. So can political organizers living in police states like Egypt, or under military occupations like Afghanistan, or close to starvation in places like Haiti where people eat cakes made of mud to survive. Desperation doesn’t mean it is any easier to be a revolutionary; it just means more suffering.

There is no magical tipping point, no low point so low that it automatically compels us to fight, no spark so compelling that is spontaneously wakes us all up. We fight because of our concrete experiences of oppression as well as the little bittersweet tastes of freedom we have pieced together, because of our education and the culture around us or the unexplained ways in which we have learned to reject them, because of hard organizing people have done for decades to prepare us, because a whole host of other factors we don’t even understand. In many cases, actually, we rise up not when we are absolutely desperate, but when we have won a little bit – enough to realize our collective strength.

Revolution is not event, but a process. There is nothing inevitable about it, and our freedom is not historically determined. To win it, we have to build movements able to fight for it, movements that struggle over long periods of time to knock down the institutions of the status quo and replace them with the institutions of a free society. That means growing, practicing, learning, teaching, and winning things that put the movement in an increasingly better position to win more; it means fighting back to protect ourselves while pushing forward to create new possibilities.”

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Marco Berlinguer from the Transform! network maps here some potential points of rupture in our current form of capitalism. Excerpted from his article over at openDemocracy.

“Let’s put it simply. We are still living in a capitalist society; and in the last twenty years, one major change has been the qualitatively new importance of information, communication and knowledge both in the economy and in society at large. These two frameworks are overlapping, but they do not necessarily coincide which leads to some important problems and tensions worth closer study.

First, where knowledge, information and communication play a central role, the processes of production appear intrinsically and more immediately social. They benefit and rely on flows and networks of production which go beyond the formal boundaries of any specific organisation (not to say single individuals). This gives more prominence to the forces of cooperation and of mutual interdependence and presses any institution to experiment in organisational logics based on openness to the ‘outside’. This, for example, is one reason for the success of open source within a growing segment of IT-industry. More significantly this ‘openness’ is the logic behind the internet itself: an open architecture is its initial conception and the secret of its incredible (and fundamentally unplanned and decentralised) development.

But there is also another aspect of this social nature of production that needs to be noted: in many senses, the flows of production appeared to shift away from the formal boundaries of what is traditionally considered productive work, to spread into society at large. The gargantuan literature in business and media studies about the increasing blurring of the divide between consumer and producer has to do with this phenomenon. But just consider Google’s model of value production – that is, offering for free online services and platforms of social networks, to then exploit the user- generated data and contents in various ways – and here is one emblematic example of this shift.

In any case, the general problem which then emerges is that the social nature of these processes seems to put pressure on any regulatory, governance and accounting system closed within the boundaries of formally isolated organisations. This is well reflected in the proliferation of mechanisms of governance that stems directly from the need to regulate the collaborative action of a multiplicity of protagonists who are autonomous and so not governable by simple authoritative mechanisms. But, more deeply, this configuration also brings people to questioning the adequacy, legitimacy and efficiency of property regimes as we know them, be they private or state mechanisms. The increasing rediscovery of the notion of commons by these movements and many beyond them – has its roots here. Though yet arguably indefinite, it reflects the search for a new conceptual guide in the design of institutional frameworks more attuned to these new relations of production.

Let’s now turn to another aspect: the nature and organisation of work. When we look at the qualities which need to be mobilised and at the forms of organisation of production in these spheres, we observe an increasing importance of attitudes and capacities such as creativity, flexibility, development of information, continuous learning, problem-solving, initiative, communicational and relational skills, decision-making, attention, experiential/practical/”tacit” knowledge. Now, what makes these qualities peculiar is that they are embedded in individuals and are not easily reproducible and controllable through planned command or automated mechanisms. Moreover, they depend on motivations which are not easily reducible to the monetary, as is recognised in the same management literature and experience and as the experience of [Free Culture]-movements widely confirms. The necessity to deal with such a workforce and processes of production has been indeed one of the major sources of the crisis in the Fordist organisation of production and of innovation in management styles. But the puzzle for governance in these productive forces – which reflects a blurring of entrepreneurial and managerial functions and of dependent work – is far from being solved.

However, there is another dimension where the experience of the FC-movements is interesting. There are experiments of a different kind around these problems and these potentials which have contributed to re-framing in a different way complicated problems related to the meshing and mobilisation of different motivations, non-hierarchical division of labour, collaboration and coordination, and so on. And quite interestingly, they have done all this by experimenting with new notions of what constitutes property, working on the basis of a distributional/sharing – rather than exclusive – approach to property, conceiving themselves as producing common resources.

There is, finally, a third cluster of problems which I would like to highlight in this brief and very incomplete map. The increased immaterial and social nature of the processes of production and of products is creating a series of problems in the systems of measures. Economists, policy-makers and the business literature all struggle to define new parameters for the measure of the value of capital, of work, of wealth, of productivity. Such problems are evidently further complicated by the digital revolution, which made it possible that a digital product, once created, can be potentially reproduced “easier, faster, ubiquitously and almost free”; and which, moreover, is subversively creating social practices that are exploring an economy based on principles like, “not scarcity, not rivalry, not exclusivity”, that is something which evidently troubles basic rules both of economy and of the control of the appropriation of value. In this lies another clue that fundamental difficulties are emerging, which point toward what could be called a crisis of the system of value – which, indeed, has many other roots, well beyond this realm.

All this doesn’t mean that these problems are not solvable in principle within a capitalist framework. We can already observe innovative mechanisms of accumulation which effectively deal with these new developments. What is more dubious is that they can be managed without fundamental changes in the institutional framework.”

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In this interview with Occupy Brooklyn TV, political scientist Norman Finkelstein discusses the Occupy movement and Mohandas Gandhi’s approach to political organisation, amongst other things. According to Finkelstein, the starting point Gandhi’s politics was the everyday sense of injustice felt by the common people, as opposed to the theoretical approach of the Marxist tradition which emphasises the need for an enlightened vanguard to lead the masses. Finkelstein sees the Occupy movement as essentially Gandhian in this particular sense. The interview was recorded on August 25, 2012.

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Journalist Glenn Greenwald analyses here why people today seem to be so reluctant to challenge authority, or even to engage in any critical discussion about it. Excerpted from his column over at The Guardian.

“One of my first posts when I began writing about politics back in 2006 was an examination of the blindly loyal, cult-like veneration which the American Right had erected around George Bush; as Paul Krugman was one of the first to observe, that same disturbing thirst for leader-worship then drove followers of Barack Obama (Krugman in February, 2008: “the Obama campaign seems dangerously close to becoming a cult of personality. We’ve already had that from the Bush administration – remember Operation Flight Suit? We really don’t want to go there again”).

There is always much to say about this topic, as its centrality in shaping both individual and collective behavior is more or less universal. But I want to highlight two specific points about all of this which relate to several of the topics I wrote about in my first week here, as well as some of the resulting reaction to that:

First, there are multiple institutions that are intended to safeguard against this ease of inducing blind trust in and obedience to authorities. The most obvious one is journalism, which, at its best, serves as a check against political authority by subjecting its pronouncements to skepticism and scrutiny, and by acting in general as an adversarial force against it. But there are other institutions that can and should play a similar role.

One is academia, a realm where tenure is supposed to ensure that authority’s most sacred orthodoxies are subjected to unrelenting, irreverent questioning. Another is the federal judiciary, whose officials are vested with life tenure so as to empower them, without regard to popular sentiment, to impose limits on the acts of political authorities and to protect the society’s most scorned and marginalized.

But just observe how frequently these institutions side with power rather than against it, how eagerly they offer their professional and intellectual instruments to justify and glorify the acts of political authority rather than challenge or subvert them. They will occasionally quibble on the margins with official acts, but their energies are overwhelmingly devoted to endorsing the legitimacy of institutional authority and, correspondingly, scorning those who have been marginalized or targeted by it.

Their collective instinct on any issue is to rush to align themselves with the sentiment prevailing in elite power circles. Most denizens in these realms would be hard-pressed to identify any instances in which they embraced causes or people deeply unpopular within those circles. Indeed, they judge their own rightness – they derive vindication – by how often they find themselves on the side of elite institutions and how closely aligned they are with the orthodoxies that prevail within them, rather than by how often they challenge or oppose them.

It is difficult to overstate the impact of this authority-serving behavior from the very institutions designed to oppose authority. As [Craig] Zobel, the writer and director of Compliance, notes, most people are too busy with their lives to find the time or energy to scrutinize prevailing orthodoxies and the authorities propagating them. When the institutions that are in a position to provide those checks fail to do that, those orthodoxies and authorities thrive without opposition or challenge, no matter how false and corrupted they may be.

As much as anything else, this is the institutional failure that explains the debacles of the last decade. There is virtually no counter-weight to the human desire to follow and obey authority because the institutions designed to provide that counter-weight – media outlets, academia, courts – do the opposite: they are the most faithful servants of those centers of authority.

Second, it is very easy to get people to see oppression and tyranny in faraway places, but very difficult to get them to see it in their own lives (“How dare you compare my country to Tyranny X; we’re free and they aren’t”). In part that is explained by the way in which desire shapes perception. One naturally wants to believe that oppression is only something that happens elsewhere because one then feels good about one’s own situation (“I’m free, unlike those poor people in those other places”). Thinking that way also relieves one of the obligation to act: one who believes they are free of oppression will feel no pressure to take a difficult or risky stand against it.

But the more significant factor is that one can easily remain free of even the most intense political oppression simply by placing one’s faith and trust in institutions of authority. People who get themselves to be satisfied with the behavior of their institutions of power, or who at least largely acquiesce to the legitimacy of prevailing authority, are almost never subjected to any oppression, even in the worst of tyrannies.

Why would they be? Oppression is designed to compel obedience and submission to authority. Those who voluntarily put themselves in that state – by believing that their institutions of authority are just and good and should be followed rather than subverted – render oppression redundant, unnecessary.

Of course people who think and behave this way encounter no oppression. That’s their reward for good, submissive behavior. As Rosa Luxemburg put this: “Those who do not move, do not notice their chains.” They are left alone by institutions of power because they comport with the desired behavior of complacency and obedience without further compulsion.

But the fact that good, obedient citizens do not themselves perceive oppression does not mean that oppression does not exist. Whether a society is free is determined not by the treatment of its complacent, acquiescent citizens – such people are always unmolested by authority – but rather by the treatment of its dissidents and its marginalized minorities.

In the US, those are the people who are detained at airports and have their laptops and notebooks seized with no warrants because of the films they make or the political activism they engage in; or who are subjected to mass, invasive state surveillance despite no evidence of wrongdoing; or who are prosecuted and imprisoned for decadesor even executed without due process – for expressing political and religious views deemed dangerous by the government.

People who resist the natural human tendency to follow, venerate and obey prevailing authority typically have a much different view about how oppressive a society is than those who submit to those impulses. The most valuable experiences for determining how free a society is are the experiences of society’s most threatening dissidents, not its content and compliant citizens. It was those who marched against Mubarak who were detained, beaten, tortured and killed, not those who acquiesced to or supported the regime. That is the universal pattern of authoritarian oppression.”

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Professor David Harvey discusses in this talk why our current capitalism can’t be “fixed” to create a more socially responsible form of capitalism. He gives two main reasons. First, capital simply cannot afford to pay for the growing social and environmental costs of production, which therefore have to be borne by individuals. The second reason has to do with the growth imperative of capitalism. Harvey argues that there are no longer enough productive investment opportunities around to keep a sufficient growth rate going, which has led capitalists to invest more and more in property to be rented out (including “intellectual property” and land-grabbing in the Global South countries) and financial speculation, or what Marx calls “fictitious capital”. This, in turn, has led to more and more bubbles and even more concentration of wealth. Harvey goes on to draw some guidelines on how to go about overturning capitalism in the current situation.

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As a follow-up to the post about community organisation in Athens, I quote here Leonidas Oikonomakis who recounts the history of the early-2000s piqueteros movement in Argentina. It’s a good reminder of how the elite can easily co-opt a budding revolution with (false) promises of prosperity and security. This is why it’s so important to hang on to the principles of self-organisation regardless of who’s in government, and to keep a firm distance from any centralised power structures regardless of how benevolent they may appear to be. Oikonomakis’ article was published over at ROARMag.

“The first to revolt in Argentina, already since the 1990s, were the so-called piqueteros. The movement of the unemployed, many of them victims of Menem’s privatizations, that had adopted the road blockade as a tactic (and later on the blockade of boulevards, bridges, supermarkets, as well as government buildings) in order to highlight the social, political, and economic problems of the country.

Yet the piquetero movement never managed to mobilize the masses or capture the support of middle-class Argentinians in its challenge to the country’s political and economic status quo; at least not until the so-called corralito: the banning of cash withdrawals higher than 250 pesos per week (1000 per month) that the De la Rua government and Finance Minister Domingo Cavallo imposed.

Only after they were denied access to their banking accounts did the middle classes — the ladies with the cacerolas and the pensioners that you may remember from TV — take to the streets. And it was exactly at that moment that things got dangerous for the system.

In an excellent documentary by Giorgos Avgeropoulos and his team, Exandas, there is a shocking scene: amidst protests against the coralito, and amidst screams referring to the thieves in Parliament (does it ring any bells, my Greek compatriots?), there appears an old man, presumably a pensioner, who faces the camera and cries out:

“Now we are fighting? Now that our pocket has been picked? Welcome coralito, it is one stage beyond consciousness. If that’s what it takes for the people to take to the streets, welcome coralito… the sheep have rebelled. The revolution of the animal farm.”

He was right. And the system knew it.

-“Que se vayan todos!” the Argentinians were shouting. Away with them all!
-“Να φύγουν όλοι!” they were shouting in the squares of Greece. Away with them all!

And their discontent was targeted towards similar directions: the Argentinians were protesting against the IMF for the debt and the neoliberal reform conditionalities it was demanding, but also against the country’s political establishment which it considered corrupt. The Greeks, on their part, are protesting against the Troika for the debt and the neoliberal reform conditionalities it demands, as well as against their country’s political establishment, which is characterized by corruption, nepotism, and clientelistic relations. And there’s one more thing the Argentinians and the Greeks have in common: they both started doubting the dominant economic paradigm as such: capitalism.

And if in Greece the squares have just started to learn how to ‘breathe freely’, to self-organize, to decide and act together, in Argentina things had become more dangerous for the political and economic status quo.

The piqueteros started coordinating with each other, started occupying workplaces and established workers’ cooperatives for their administration (watch Naomi Klein’s and Avi Lewis’ The Take for a wonderful impression of this alternative system of ‘grassroots socialism’), while at the same time they began experimenting with economic systems based on barter, or direct exchange.

The piqueteros also started operating communal kitchens, came up with neighborhood assemblies, and launched cooperative efforts to run bakeries, construction teams, and libraries. According to Benjamin Dangl, in Dancing with Dynamite, this process gave birth to more than 200 worker-run factories and businesses throughout the country, with more than 15.000 people working in these cooperatives in sectors as diverse as car-part production and balloon factories. All of this took place during the one year of Eduardo Duhalde’s transitional government.

[…]

In summer 2002, Eduardo Duhaldo resigned after backing Nestor Kirchner as his favorite successor. Elections were announced, and the main two competitors were Carlos Menem, the man who more than anyone else represented the Argentinian crisis, and Nestor Kirchner, a political outsider, former governor of Santa Cruz province – the only option for the Argentinean left.

Menem won the first round but, seeing that it would be virtually impossible to beat Kirchner in the second, he stood down. And so, Nestor Kirchner was elected President of Argentina, with the smallest ever percentage gained by a presidential winner: a mere 22 percent of the votes.

Upon his election, Kirchner refused to implement the IMF’s conditionalities, which included further cuts in social spending and a shrinking role for the state in the economy, while at the same time announcing that he would pay back to the country’s private creditors 30 cents on every dollar that it owed to them, using the effective threat of a total default instead. Of course, he paid back the IMF in full, but refused to continue receiving loans (and orders) from it.

In addition, Kirchner introduced policies that raised the minimum wage, protected workers’ and unions’ rights, and expanded social security programs to more unemployed and workers in the informal sector. He increased public spending on education and housing, and put limits on the prices of the formerly state-owned enterprises privatized by Menem. Moreover, Kirchner’s government took a solid stance on the prosecution of criminals involved in the 1976-83 dictatorship.

And of course, Kirchner did little to hide his intentions, which were to save the Argentine state from implosion and reconstruct the capitalist system in the country, reversing the extreme neoliberal measures that the previous governments had taken and replacing them with a more humanistic or social democratic orientation.

Kirchner’s measures brought middle class Argentinians back home from the streets — to the normalcy they were asking for. At the same time, while it cannot be denied (and it should not be underestimated either) that this certainly helped middle and lower class citizens to get back on their feet, it should also be noted that Kirchner’s measures clearly played a decisive role in the demobilization of the country’s once powerful social movements.

Some piquetero leaders were coopted and given positions in the government while certain civil society organizations were offered state subsidies. Those who insisted in their resistance were treated with police repression, isolation, and exclusion from the public sphere.

The rest was a matter of time. Soon, the radical experiments on direct democracy and life beyond capitalism lost their  momentum, giving way to Kirchner’s ‘capitalism with a human face’ (which, no matter how you mask it, remains capitalism, albeit slightly more regulated by the state). “In other words,” As Benjamin Dangl summarizes, “Kirchner was handing out crumbs, when what many demanded was revolution.”

[…]

In a way, the challenges faced by the piqueteros were nothing new. Throughout history, social movements around the world have been faced with an eternal and seemingly intractable dilemma: how to bring about lasting social change? While some have opted for a revolutionary road to capture state power, others chose the electoral road to obtaining state power. Others still have chosen to ignore the state altogether and build alternative institutions of direct democracy and autonomous self-management from the grassroots up.

Ahead of the Greek elections, and against the backdrop of widespread excitement around Europe about the expected electoral victory of a ‘radical’ left-wing party, maybe we should turn back and try to remember what happened in other parts of the globe when a left-wing party answered the eternal dilemma facing social movements with a decisive choice for the ‘parliamentary path’ to state power.

Maybe then we‘ll be able to answer the question asked by James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer: “Why do social movements consistently lose out to electoral institutional politics once the center-left takes over a regime?” And maybe then, at last, we will realize that we need to come up with new slogans to keep the Greek squares from falling prey to the same fate as that befell the piqueteros of Argentina.”

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Tomorrow, May 12, will be the second global day of action called by the Occupy and indignant movements. The first day of action on October 15 last year was a major success as it managed to spread the movement to dozens of new countries, spawning protest camps all over the world. On that day, there were events at over 1000 different locations in 82 countries. Some have promised that tomorrow will be even bigger, but this seems unlikely. Still, at least several hundred cities have announced their participation this time around.

There doesn’t seem to be any comprehensive list of tomorrow’s events, but see these maps for a sampling of where things are happening:
http://map.squaresdatabase.org/
http://map.12m-15m.org/

Tomorrow will be only a part of a series of events that has been dubbed the Global May. The most important of these events are probably going to be the anniversary celebrations of the 15M movement in Spain on and around May 15, the Blockupy protests in Frankfurt on May 16 to 19 and the protests that have been planned in Chicago during the NATO summit on May 20 to 21. It remains to be seen whether the mainstream media will pick up on these activities, or try to bury them like they did with the Occupy May Day protests.

The waning mainstream media interest has given the states a good opportunity to tighten their grip on the movements, whether it’s by means of illegal police violence or totalitarian jurisdiction. Further conflicts are to be expected at least in Frankfurt and Chicago. How these conflicts will be presented to the public could have remarkable effects on the future credibility of the movements. It’s important that we get our own point of view through or it won’t look good.

While street protests are useful for spreading the message and getting in touch with the greater populace, hopefully the movements will be now moving towards building the kinds of alternative institutions we need to sever our ties of dependence to the 1%. Sprouts of these already exist, with the cooperatives, free universities, social centres and other initiatives that have grown out of the movements. Some notable examples that could be duplicated elsewhere include the CASX financial cooperative in Barcelona, the Gill Tract farm occupation in Albany, California and the Global Square project. We need these institutions to serve as a base of operations if we want to turn our losing battle into a real offensive.

See you in the streets!

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