Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Occupy Everything - Reflections On Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere

Just over twelve months ago, in the wake of the anti-fees student uprising, and in the midst of what would soon become known as the 'Arab Spring', Newsnight economics editor Paul Mason posted a blog entitled 'Twenty reasons why it's kicking off everywhere'. The article went viral within seconds, and set off debates within the new, young, hyper-linked activist circles which were starting to form. Mason has since gone on to turn the article into a book of his own, but this title is a compendium of mostly British activist responses to the suggestions and questions he raised.

Each of the dozen articles is extremely interesting in its own way, and offers a slightly different perspective on modern activism. But there are still important limitations.

Thomas Gillespie and Victoria Habermehl kick of proceedings with a description of the problems facing "the graduate with no future" - one of the key new factors identified by Mason. They do an excellent job of detailing the policy changes - plus the historical economic thrust behind them. An alternative university of the future is offered, where "participating in education is about producing the common, not about purchasing a commodity." Unfortunately, little guidance is given for us reaching such a utopia.

Next, the 500 Hammers writing collective ponder the "ideology fail" which has left many people feeling politically disenfranchised, and has meant that "finding someone who unequivocally supports a particular political party is akin to encountering an evangelical Christian". The group find hope in this situation, especially at a time when "critical analysis often comes to you", unlike when one had to consciously seek it out.

My candidate for least effective essay is the contribution by The Free Association, another writing group, who - having failed to offer any outline of potential resistance - merely ask us to "put a little bit of fucking fairy dust over the bastard", in a bizarre reference to something a Troggs member once said...about a Troggs song. Swearing aside, they have almost nothing to offer.

The now disbanded Deterritorial Support Group give us an interesting overview of how focus of the message board 4Chan evolved from a masturbatory obsession with 'random' pranksterism ("EVERYTHING IN THE LULZ, NOTHING OUTSIDE THE LULZ, NOTHING AGAINST THE LULZ") to the "Sincerity" of the Anonymous hactivist phenomenon. I covered similar ground in a blog post last summer, but DSG are on home ground discussing this, whilst I was just an intrigued visitor to that world.

Ben Lear and Raph Schlembach trace the death of the "capitalist promise" that each generation will be a little better off than the one before it, arguing that this has triggered something like despair amongst many young people, but also that this itself could be an occasion for hope, since there is a certain power "in the recognition that capital simply cannot fulfil its promise". This assertion seems rather pale as Lear and Schlembach paint it, but the subsequent rise of the Occupy mass movement has shown that collective despair is easily translated into collective anger, and collective anger into collective political action.

Camille Barbagallo and Nic Beuret's examination of 'precarity' in work and life - especially for that younger generation - is a powerful one. Some shocking statistics are followed by excellent autonomist analysis of how this young precarious worker relates to capital, and vice versa. Since the collapse in Keynesianism and then neoliberalism as traditionally conceived, now "only revenge is possible" as an avenue of working class political expression. They conclude that "We must seize the means of reproduction, violently, and with a hatred of life enslaved."

Vradis argues it's becoming impossible to "take a day off" from Greek struggle
The next two chapters pick up Mason's contention that - in contrast to the miners and families during the 1980s strike - young radicals can "take a day off". David Robertshaw, Rohan Orton and Will Barker clearly differentiate between the situations in Egypt and the UK, while revisiting the situationist Vaneigem's quote and implying that while we're likely not dying of starvation, retreat from 'the struggle' sometimes risks "dying of boredom". But starvation is an everyday phenomenon in Greece, and Antonis Vradis of the Occupied London blog writes of how last summer's Syntagma Square occupiers "stayed put in the face of a police onslaught [...] before spreading the spirit of the square occupation into neighbourhoods, workplaces and their everyday life." For Vradis, an all-encompassing desperation is spreading throughout people's lives everywhere, and this necessitates quotidian commitment to fighting back.

Tabitha Bast and Hannah McClure invoke the parody archetypal female revolutionary of 2004 film Raspberry Reich, to look at the implications of Mason's woman as the "backbone" of modern radical movements. They conclude that only through participation in struggle can women transcend the traditional roles ascribed by patriarchal society: "With rebel joy we take to the streets but it is as much in the transformation of the occupiers as the occupation that we rejoice."

Andre Pusey and Bertie Russell also take on alienation when they emphasise the ways in which modern capitalism has alienated workers from one another, and created what they call an "entrepreneuriat" at war with itself. The corollary of this is that the coming struggles "will necessitate a co-ordinated pyscho-social deprogramming".

Federico Campagna sidesteps the book's main theme and claims it is time to try radicalising the armed forces. While this is a great idea in theory, Campagna does not give any tips on how this can be done practically, without exposing ourselves to great danger. However, at a time when the government is preparing to bring in paratroopers to repress future outbreaks of unrest, the question could soon be an urgent one.

Finally, Emma Dowling explains how the 'Big Society' is much more than the joke it is sometimes held to be in activist circles, and is actually a vital part of the coalition's plans for reproducing capital value following the austerity agenda. For her, "solidarity and creativity in and against" the Big Society can be a basis for radical change.

As might be guessed from my descriptions, the collection feels very fragmentary. No-one really tries to provide any overarching structure, and that is fine in of itself; there is no obligation to do so. But the result is that almost every individual article - for all their good points - seems self-reflective. Almost all project their own priorities on the 'movement' as a whole, without offering much in the way of context.

Furthermore, even though the oldest piece was only written a year ago, much of the material feels dated. The world of the collection was one where the summer riots had yet to occur, where Wall Street and the City of London were yet to be 'Occupied', and where the worker response to public sector cuts had yet to be manifested, to say nothing of the successful Sparks movement of electricians. If a week was a long time in politics back in Harold Wilson's day, it almost seems like an eternity since the current economic crisis began. Of course, this is no reflection on any of the contributors, but it does perhaps point to disadvantages of relying on ink in the midst of instant communication.

These Reflections are well worth reading, but do not expect a blueprint for revolution. Instead, you will likely be left with the overall impression that the capitalist model has catastrophically broken (us) down, but there is still no real alternative. For that, we need much more thorough analysis of workplace struggles, because it is primarily in the workplace that we can create a new society.

Occupy Everything is available from minorcompositions, or as a pdf.
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