The Religious Attitude
April 21, 2012

The above clip comes from Adam Curtis’ four-part BBC documentary series, The Century of the Self, in which he tries to show how the modern West came to be ruled by (in his eyes) an ideology of radical individualism. Politics, he argues, is no longer about communal interests or the promise of a different world; it is instead about administering to the present state of affairs, and satisfying the individual’s self-interested needs and desires.

Curtis returned to that theme, one of his favorites, in a talk he delivered last weekend in New York City’s e-flux gallery. There, he expressed frustration with Occupy Wall Street and the left in general, saying that both had failed to come up with a workable alternative to the cult of the individual. Horizontalism, in Curtis’ dim view, is little more than an anarchified twist on the old fallacy of the market’s invisible hand: both posit that a mass of people all expressing their own individual preferences can somehow yield a coherent, dynamic, and mutually beneficial ecosystem.

You can quibble with that take on horizontalism, if you like — it is, to be sure, more than a little reductive to equate heavily structured General Assembly discussions with the Hobbesian chaos of a laissez-faire market. But Curtis’ broader indictment of the contemporary left is both harder to swallow and harder to dismiss. Those elements of the left that have denounced the ideology of the self (and they are fewer than you think) leave a conceptual vacuum in its wake. (more…)

From an Occupation to a Movement
November 16, 2011

The New York Times is reporting that, as of this morning, a handful of occupiers remain in Zucotti Park. That is both encouraging and unsurprising, but it doesn’t alter the fact that Liberty Plaza as it once existed — as a camp, an incubator for radicalism, and as an anarchist village unto itself — is over. Occupy Wall Street has lost its occupation, and I do not think it can be recovered.

Yet today I’m not filled with despair or anger, but hope. There are now, after all, other occupations. Many others. November 17 is tomorrow. And the New York occupiers are still out there. Many of them are doubtless more galvanized than ever.

So no, this is not the end. It may well be the beginning of the end, but that’s in our hands, not the mayor’s. The choices that Occupy Wall Street and its supporters make in the next couple of weeks will decide whether their eviction was a check on Occupy’s expansion or a catalyst for more. If we’re smart and lucky, then all that happened was what had to happen for the occupation to evolve. It’s not the way I would have chosen for things to go down, but that doesn’t change the fact that there’s tremendous opportunity in this crisis.

What we have now is a chance to fundamentally restructure Occupy Wall Street. That means completing the transition from one central space to a number of autonomous spheres. It means devolving power from the General Assembly to a network of autonomous factions with their own goals, strategies and leadership structures. Time to stop thinking commune and start thinking movement.

I’ve long been skeptical of the General Assembly. A consensus-based model of governance has considerable merits, but those merits have been harder to find the more the occupation has matured. The prerequisite of consensus makes the decision-making process difficult, time-consuming, and strategically incoherent. It leaves Occupy unable to seize the initiative or respond to nasty surprises (such as, say, an NYPD raid in the dead of night) in a rapid, coordinated fashion.

It’s also less democratic than it looks. Doing away with formal leadership structures doesn’t do away with hierarchy, it just makes it harder to see. Differences in knowledge, expertise, experience, charisma, and dumb luck create informal hierarchies that can be just as coercive as formal hierarchies (if not more so), but lack clear institutional boundaries. Behold the disproportionate power wielded by Occupy Wall Street’s opaque Finance Committee, or the unofficial network of “ad hoc leaders” profiled¬†here. When people say that Occupy, is “not leaderless, but full of leaders,” this is what they really mean.

Because these leadership structures go mostly unacknowledged, there’s no formal process for improving them. And because they’re based on the same informal hierarchies we find in the world at large, they often have the some old privilege-based power dynamics.¬†But to their credit, most of the occupation’s unofficial leaders seem to be aware of this, and they have been taking steps to correct the problem. As Sarah Seltzer reports in The Nation, Occupy has taken steps to privilege traditionally marginalized voices in the General Assembly. Even more promising was the recent adoption of the Spokes Council model, described here.

The formation of the Spokes Council was a good first step towards the eventual factionalization and movement-ization of Occupy Wall Street, but that’s all it is. This new model preserved the General Assembly’s tyranny of consensus while leaving a little more room for internal caucusing. For Occupy Wall Street to go full movement, these spokes would next have to be granted more freedom from both the GA and each other, and assume a central role in organizing and decision making.

The end result would hopefully look something like the American civil rights movement, one of the most effective and transformative mass movements in American history. If you look at one of that movement’s individual struggles — the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike that Dr. King died defending, for example — you’ll see an amorphous group of individual “spokes” with deep organizational and philosophical differences. In the case of the strike, those spokes included such wildly divergent groups as the Southern Christian Leadership Council, AFSCME, and a local group of black militants known as the Invaders. These groups did not try to achieve consensus, either internally or with one another. In fact, they had very serious disagreements that were never truly reconciled. Nevertheless, their ad hoc unified front successfully secured a collective bargaining agreement for hundreds of oppressed black sanitation workers, an unheard of victory in the anti-union, segregationist south.

That victory was won by the sort of movement-based model I always hoped Occupy Wall Street would eventually morph into. Now that the occupation’s central base of operations has been dismantled and co-opted, it might not have any choice. The time has come for evolution or endangerment, and possibly extinction.

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