“Let All Indignados in all the squares join together”: Wall Street and the growing movement

The Occupation of Wall Street is entering into it’s third week and things are heating up. The large Transport Workers Union has pledged it’s support, echoing the much-vaunted ‘Teamsters and Turtles’ (Unions and environmentalists) alliance that helped make Seattle so legendary. Similar movements are spreading around the country (see here and here). The first official statement from the occupation has been released, stating amongst other things:

“…no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power. We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments.”

These are fascinating times, particularly given the seeming inability of government’s to deal with the ongoing economic turmoil (this video has also been causing quite a stir). With this article I wanted to talk a bit about the parallels between Wall Street and the movements often cited as inspiration, most notably Syntagma Square in Athens, the ‘Indignados’ movement in Spain and, of course, Tahrir Square. Then, partly drawing on Verso’s recent reader ‘The Idea of Communism’, analyse some of the political developments we’re seeing. Naturally, due to the sketchy and incomplete information these observations are based on fragments. If I’m wrong about things or if there is more I should know, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

1.

Geographical spaces have been central in the movements mentioned above. As the Global Research Institute report:

“It has been one month since the country’s ‘Indignados’ (Indignant Ones) movement claimed nonviolently sixty city-squares in cities across the country, calling for economic democracy, political justice and peace….We have seen the Bastille in Paris, taken nonviolently by French ‘Indignados’ only to be quickly reclaimed by the country’s police force. We have observed the rise of a parallel movement in Portugal where most city squares have also been camped on by ‘Indignados’, and where only hours before the country’s general elections protestors in Lisbon were attacked and beaten by police. We have witnessed how on that same night, in Athens, Greece, 80,000 protestors congregated in the city’s main square in opposition to the country’s ‘austerity measures’, waving banners in solidarity with the ‘Indignados’ of Spain and of other European country’s.”

The history of popular assemblies in fermenting revolution and revolt is an interesting one, as argued in an interesting article on People’s Assemblies here.

In Spain, the movement has involved both the massive occupation of Puerto del Sol and the creation of more than 150 regional assemblies to create space for discussion and action. Crucially, these assemblies have resulted in a number of direct actions by the populations there, so we have heard reports of groups preventing police evictions, preventing police repression of migrants and the organization of demonstrations. Of course, they still spend a lot of time debating process and coming up with proposals, but the constitution (to put it in Negri’s terms) of power via popular participation in the form of the actions is inspiring. [1]

In Greece the occupation of Syntagma Square was, as far as I understand it, a response to the 15 May movement in Spain. Greece has seen, over the recent years, an incredibly active movement (a recent example of the popular militancy can be seen in the occupation to prevent a meeting between debt inspectors and the government.) I don’t want to use up space with an exhaustive discussion of Greece, but suffice to say that the movement is broad, tactically diverse and the situation is absolutely worthy of your attention.

Then there is Tahrir, an occupation which is in the process of regenerating. The occupation of Tahrir is interesting because, as Rashed and Azzazi write in their account as participants, it allowed the space for the consolidation of diffuse demands into a simple demand for Mubarak to go.[2] At the same time, they describe the emergence of a singular will:  “In the impromptu temporary society formed in Tahrir Square, the power of the group emerged from the union of hundreds of thousands of egos in a collective cry against tyranny.” Another question here is the extent to which the movement also provided self-defense against the regime, through strength of numbers which I would speculate on this being so.

The movement in Wall Street, while seemingly attracting more attention in the Anglophone world, is of course far smaller than the movements described above. What’s interesting is the attempt a short circuit between the development of a movement and the final outcome. This can happen because the global context provides an immediate framework for understanding what is happening. This shows an interesting synergy between decentralization – via social media networks, etc – and the reclaiming of the local via the assemblies.

So what are the similarities and differences? Certainly, using the space to consolidate and imagine demands is the most obvious and inspiring. However, we’ve yet to see concrete examples of action emerge from the occupations as elsewhere, but this may well change as time passes, especially now that unions are getting involved. The emergence of a singular consciousness (for those present and relating to it) is also something that would be interesting to monitor. Will the police repression backfire and create more militancy now that participants are less isolated, as it has elsewhere? Certainly, there is some suggestion that this is already happening.

2.

The lack of a recognizable ‘politics’ within these movements has proved troubling for some. As Michael Albert has written about the Greek movement, there is division between the traditional ideological left, which he calls the ‘ides’, and the newbies who lack a pre-existing political program and are new to organized politics:

“You could see it inside of ten minutes, and it became more and more evident the more time you spent at an Assembly. The ideological folks acted like they owned the movement. They alone, in their own view, at any rate, understood social events. They were teaching, instructing, informing the rest – quite repetitively and without much life in their words and manner – and, honestly, they had little to say that everyone didn’t already know in any event, and hadn’t heard many times, only they could say it with bigger words.”

It’s easy to be cynical about the seemingly naive assemblies, who in Albert’s account react to tend to resist this sort of thing. I think, instead, we see it as an opportunity ‘begin from the beginning’. This idea, which runs through ‘The Idea of Communism‘ is worth fleshing out. For Badiou, the ‘communist hypothesis’ can be distinguished from the concrete manifestations of the Idea. This means that what he calls the ‘second phase of the idea’, the statist, authoritarian movements and parties that emerged from the October revolution in Russia onwards and active throughout the world do not represent the totality of what Communism is.  Rather, there is a recurring notion, recurring throughout history, that is anti-hierarchy, anti-property, anti-authoritarian and pro equality, that should command our loyalty, awaiting a third era. This ‘communist hypothesis’ can be defined like so:

“What is the communist hypothesis? In its generic sense, given in its canonic Manifesto, ‘communist’ means, first, that the logic of class—the fundamental subordination of labour to a dominant class, the arrangement that has persisted since Antiquity—is not inevitable; it can be overcome. The communist hypothesis is that a different collective organization is practicable, one that will eliminate the inequality of wealth and even the division of labour. The private appropriation of massive fortunes and their transmission by inheritance will disappear. The existence of a coercive state, separate from civil society, will no longer appear a necessity: a long process of reorganization based on a free association of producers will see it withering away.”[3]

This basic idea that the hierarchical control of society via wealth can be overcome is central to these movements. You can see it in the statement from Occupy Wall Street above and the joint statement from Syntagma Square and Peurto del Sol here. Moreover, their rejection of the political parties as ‘corrupt’ comes close to Badiou’s notion that democracy can mean more than the simple allocation of resources by the state in line with the pursuit of profit.[4]

While the name isn’t necessarily important (although I would argue the theoretical tradition certainly is) the possibility that these movements fit into a historical tradition and allow us to move away from our fear of emancipatory struggles is exhilarating.

This is not the only important thread. As Ranciere writes in The Idea of Communism: “… equality is not a goal; it is starting point, an opinion or a presupposition which opens the field of a possible verification.” [5] Put another way, we have to assume equal intelligence  from the start of the process. That this is being encouraged, through participatory models of decision making and long, drawn own discussions which include everyone, is promising. Why? Because working out how to achieve lasting revolution against our economic system without iron-fisted discipline and an all powerful party is a question to which we do not yet know the answer. To, again, ‘begin from the beginning’ in a way that includes everyone is absolutely the way forward.

This attempt to make the impossible possible by carving out a space to converse and propose also demonstrates what Peter Hallward has described as ‘Communism of the Will’ i.e., the willingness to use movements to create, rather than simply implement, alternatives. This is crucial when, as is the case now, we struggle to imagine what these alternatives might be. As he writes:

“…to adapt Antonio Machado’s less prosaic phrase, taken up as a motto by Paulo Freire: a communist assumes that if ‘there is no way, we make the way be walking it’…To say that we make the way by walking it is to resist the power of the  that in an emancipatory political sequence what is ‘determinant in the first instance’ is a collective will to prescribe, through the terrain that confronts us, the course of our own history. It is to privilege, over the complexity of the terrain and the forms of knowledge and authority that govern behaviour ‘adapted’ to it, the purpose and will of the people to take and retain their place as the ‘authors and actors of their own drama’.”[6]

Moving forward, I’m enthusiastic about similar things happening in Britain. This isn’t to say I don’t have massive reservations about the British left, who seem committed to differentiation (we’re the student movement!) and have little patience and no love for the more excluded members of our society. Still, that’s another article. In the meantime, in the words of the joint declaration: “No to the payment of illegitimate debt. This is not our debt. We owe nothing, we sell nothing, we pay nothing.”

A shorter version of this article also appeared here: http://brightgreenscotland.org/


[1] The information supporting this section comes from an interesting exchange on ZNet. http://www.zcommunications.org/greek-lesson-by-michael-albert#comment_container_181425

[2] Rashed, M. A. and El Azzazi, I. (2011), The Egyptian revolution: A participant’s account from Tahrir Square, January and February 2011 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-8322.2011.00798.x/abstract

[3] Alain Badiou The Communist Hypothesis New Left Review January-February 2008 http://www.newleftreview.org/?view=2705

[4] Badiou, the Meaning of Sarkozy (2008) Verso pp. 90-2

[5] Jacques Ranciere Communists without Communism? in ‘The Idea of Communism’ (2010) (ed. Costas Douzinas & Slavoj Zizek) Verso pp. 168-177 pp. 168

[6} Peter Hallward Communism of the Intellect, Communism of the Will In ‘The Idea of Communism’ (2010) (ed. Costas Douzinas & Slavoj Zizek) Verso pp. 111-130, pp. 117

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  1. #1 by Keshav on October 2, 2011 - 3:23 am

    Great post. I think the main difference between Occupy Wall Street and Tahrir Square is that the citizens in Tahrir were, from relatively early on, `externally’ united by a single, precise demand (remove Mubarak). (John Robb argues that a single achievable demand is especially important for what he calls open source protests which are not `internally’ united by a common ideology/formal structure – http://globalguerrillas.typepad.com/globalguerrillas/2011/01/egypt-how-to-lead-and-open-source-protest.html – I find his comments on this stuff interesting though he is a bit too tech-determinist and apolitical for my taste.) Maybe this was true to a lesser extent in Greece, and opposition to the austerity program was a simple unifying demand. In Liberty Plaza, by contrast, it’s clear what everyone is against in a broad sense (economic inequality and Wall Street’s power), but this is not as clear a demand. (FWIW, I don’t think it was a great idea for Adbusters to announce that they would determine their one demand after they had occupied the square. The complicated thing is, we all know “the movement is everything, the *immediate* aim is nothing” – it doesn’t matter too much what the immediate demand is, because the system cannot be changed immediately, we just need a demand that can channel people’s anger and give us the space to practice new forms of democratic struggle etc. – but we can’t very well admit this in public, because people get annoyed if you have protests without demands!)

    Also of course Greece has a much stronger radical left, anarchist and communist tradition than the US (in the last ~40 years any way). So the ‘ides’ that Michael Albert talks about are either keeping a low profile or are absent altogether. I’ve been down to Liberty Square a couple of times, I haven’t been camping out there and I haven’t been to a full General Assembly, so my observations may not be representative. But I haven’t heard anyone spouting Marxist (etc.) rhetoric at the assemblies. In fact, a couple of Trot groups are conspicuous by their absence (to an aspiring lefty trainspotter like me, anyway). There have been a couple of libertarian individuals/groups hanging around (Mises Institute, Ron Paul fanboys), and lots of ‘End the Fed’/’Stop printing money’-type placards earlier in the week (less today though). So an interesting mix of ideologies, to put it charitably (although I agree 100% that the “basic idea that the hierarchical control of society via wealth can be overcome” characterises this movement). We’ll see how much they can accomplish without either an `external’, unifying demand or a common, coherent ideology. Having been down there I find it hard not to be optimistic.

    • #2 by ascannerdespairingly on October 6, 2011 - 4:31 pm

      I really appreciate the comment, particularly given the fact that you’ve been down there.

      Something that really comes across in the coverage is that people are finally getting sense of their own power. Suddenly everything seems possible. I guess for me that’s why the fact that people are gathering to deliberate while finding this out is really exciting. Is that something you’ve found?

      • #3 by Keshav on October 7, 2011 - 12:28 am

        Certainly people feel optimistic (many people think they are part of a bona fide revolution). The whole thing has expanded people’s horizons about what is possible. Personally I haven’t seen a huge number of discussions about long term strategy/demands/how to build a better society – probably b/c I’ve only been down there 4 times, mainly for the big marches. So the ‘popular assemblies’ I’ve seen have been concerned with immediate, practical problems (whether to march in solidarity with arrested comrades, etc.). But then the popular assemblies are so large (with no amplification, and the ‘human mic’ only goes so far) that I think it would be hard to have deep ideological discussions in the assemblies. I imagine that kind of discussion goes on informally in smaller groups but I haven’t been party to it.

        I think the ideological diversity of this movement could open up two problems in the coming weeks. First, how is the movement going to relate to unions, the Democrats, and Dem-affiliated groups like MoveOn? In the past few days the liberal/center-left establishment has stopped ignoring OWS and will now try to use it as a ‘liberal Tea Party’, i.e. a radical social movement which ultimately works to get the Dems elected. Maybe some people in the movement are ok with this – especially as the movement has porous boundaries – but lots of people aren’t (http://dailybail.com/home/photo-of-the-day-dear-moveonorg.html). We’ll see whether these differences can be worked out through the consensus democracy process.

        The second potential conflict within the movement is between `progressives’, socialists, anarchists, greens on the one hand – I’ll be sectarian and call them the ‘normal left’ – and the Ron Paul supporters, ‘End the Fed’ guys, Alex Jones fans, Zeitgeisters, libertarians, truthers, etc. on the other hand (e.g. http://occupythefednow.com/). There is a lot of overlap between these groups, which is bizarre to me since they are almost completely opposed on paper (fair enough, socialists and libertarians can agree on abolishing migration controls, IP and ag subsidies, legalizing drugs, and fighting imperialism, but we should disagree on everything else!) and lots of ideological confusion on all sides (especially regarding the Federal Reserve),. I think the ‘normal left’ has a healthy majority so maybe splits of this kind are nothing to worry about, and in any case the consensus process allows for diversity of tactics. But it’s hard to see how this diversity can persist in the long run (unlike the differences within what I called the ‘normal left’ which are less severe).

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