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« Occupy Madison is a Home for the Homeless | Main | How disorganization is damaging Occupy »

Keeping 1 percent values out of a 99 percent movement

This was published with considerable feedback from affinis, JuliaWilliams, okanogen, and lambert. My sincere thanks to them for their help.

The purge of livestreamers and other transparency advocates at Occupy Oakland has been largely successful, and last weekend produced one of its predictable results. At the weekly Fuck the Police march there was a huge spike in vandalism (via) over previous ones, and there was a greatly escalated police response. The unilateral disarmament of livestreamers meant that, as Sue Basko (among others) pointed out, only the authorities were able to record the events of that night. If they choose to selectively edit or show only clips that support their side of the story, what will there be to rebut that?1 (Basko also points out that livestreaming video can be used to rebut charges made by authorities, something the accused in this case might find handy. Her Occupy Symposium has been collecting really nice essays on this topic, incidentally.)

It actually is not strictly true that there were no live streamers at Fuck the Police. There were a couple, and they were physically threatened.2 Because of that intimidation they radically trimmed their coverage. The resulting video is of some help, but not nearly as much as a full and open livestream.3 In an email exchange afterwards affinis noted that livestreamers have become afraid of covering the news, to which lambert responded: “Exactly. Since when is covering the news about respect? This is no different from the Washington Post!”

On the face of it that is just a little bit of snark, but there’s a very serious subtext. At its most ambitious Occupy represents an audacious leap of imagination, what some call prefiguration: Envision the world you want to see, and then begin to inhabit it. Model the behavior you want to see in the larger society. Or more colloquially, fake it till you make it.

Doing so takes time and patience, though. It takes a while for something that radical to sink in to people’s heads, even those people who are sympathetic. Matt Taibbi - a close observer of the movement and no friend of Wall Street - took a couple of months to come around, but he finally did: “People want to go someplace for at least five minutes where no one is trying to bleed you or sell you something.”

Getting people on board with something so different requires openness and transparency. One very important aspect of openness that has either been only sporadic or entirely missing from Occupy is stated values. The consensus process at Occupy - which has been criticized for not being an authentic one - has largely prevented the adoption of broad principles that a minority object to. With something like a statement of nonviolence, a tiny minority with strenuous objections has shown the ability to frustrate the will of the overwhelming majority. A dynamic like that could ultimately cause the long term failure of Occupations that cannot resolve it, though as in science failures can be useful (lots to examine and learn from for those inclined!)

As for transparency, advocates need to not only expect visibility into others’ processes, but must willingly open themselves to that visibility too. If your new model does not allow for that - if, for instance, you want to plan violence in secret and carry it out anonymously (neither of which is transparent) - then you can’t very well expect to draw too many others to your cause. Why go to all that bother to trade one opaque, unaccountable elite for another?4 The prefiguration is crucial.

One type of prefiguration is media ecology. Big media outlets catering to power instead of challenging it have been a major source of dissatisfaction for nearly a generation now.5 That dissatisfaction may be driving viewers away, which opens up new possibilities - which Occupy is showing an ability to seize. The emerging sensibility of the new media environment is one of lightly mediated - or entirely unmediated - transmission of information. There are certainly hazards with this approach. For one, it means trying to take a drink from a firehose. A twitter stream or livestream can be hard to process; too much information, too much video to watch, too many links to click on, too many stressors maintaining online relationships. Consumers need to be their own quasi-editors, deciding which sources to rely on in order to be able to process what’s coming in.

Another hazard is epistemic closure, the condition where one only gets information from sources one trusts. The resulting echo chamber serves only to reinforce one’s prior beliefs, and causes people to retreat into rigid, sclerotic worldviews consisting exclusively of agreeable sentiments. There’s an entire book that can be written about that, though, so I’ll just note that it’s a phenomenon that predates the Internet.

For all the potential problems, though, there is no denying that Occupy’s media ecology is a very different model than legacy media’s. Which is the point! I don’t think most of the people who support Occupy do so because they want some new version of the Washington Post. I for one have had quite enough trembling deference towards those in power, and I’m not especially interested in seeing the same thing start to happen in this new context. As John Seal put it, “some Occupy supporters are now eagerly mimicking the high-security, everything-is-classified government they supposedly hold in such contempt.” And they are attempting to impose the same atmosphere of meek compliance on those who cover them. None for me, thanks; I’ve seen how that movie ends.

Lack of transparency leads easily to lack of accountability, and unsurprisingly that was what happened in the Fuck the Police march. In addition to the absence of livestreamers, those engaged in violence concealed their faces. This is a preferred tactic among violence advocates, but it has some obvious drawbacks that Jasper Gregory pointed out: One, a child could figure out how to infiltrate such a group, and two, the choice of that tactic made it irrelevant who did the actual violence. If you choose anonymity in advance, then anyone who uses it is one of your fellows - whether you want them to be or not.6

Some violence advocates tried to distance themselves by saying it wasn’t the real black bloc that did it (“no true Scotsman”), but a heretofore unknown imposter black bloc that is merely comprised of an immature group of transient kids who are only in it for the adrenaline rush of violent confrontation. Unlike the actual black bloc, of course! It’s hard to know where to even start with unconquerable ignorance like this, though Jasper captured its essential absurdity nicely. (Bonus stupidity: “if pigs want to smash capitalism by my side, i say let em.” Yes, capitalism was certainly dealt a death blow while you - and the pigs, naturally - engaged in petty vandalism against a Quizno’s and a local credit union. Well done.)

For as much as conformity, opacity and lack of accountability have become characteristics of elites that Occupy is rebelling against, it may be that their violence is the most objectionable - and therefore the most important not to reproduce. A country exhausted by endless wars (including of the death-from-above covert drone variety), militarized police forces, executive assassination programs and a brutally punitive criminal justice system is not going to rally around a movement that promises more of the same. Those who are rising up against the wholesale theft of ordinary citizens’ houses (a truly great act of violence) will not generally see justice in wild acts of retribution.

“Retribution” is the most charitable way to describe the rioting that violence advocates are so enthusiastic about. And yes, it is wild. While there are occasional lazy stabs at trying to circumscribe their vandalism, violence is a fundamentally chaotic act. It can veer out of control with little warning, and the destruction at the Fuck the Police march is just the latest example. Small wonder there has been so little discussion about it. People did not flock to Occupy to shift the locus of antisocial behavior in society from wealth-addled bankers in suits to twentysomething punks in black.

In order to have a chance at substantial and lasting change there has to be more to Occupy than some crude idea getting even. There has to be something that calls the overwhelming majority of people to something better. Part of that call is strategic. There is already a great deal written on the ultimate advantages to a nonviolent approach, with this being a great example. Lambert recently made the case in an email: “Rhetorically, I think we need to frame over and over again that [nonviolence advocates’] strategy has the greatest chance of success. That’s what we want, success. We want to look to successful movements.”

While that is certainly important (winning counts!), I believe the greater part of that call is moral (or ethical if you prefer). In an extended exchange (see footnote), Hugh wrote: “Change does not come from winning arguments but by changing hearts.”7 If you turn people off the way violence advocates do, then the only way to produce change is at the barrel of a gun. This would be the “neither hearts nor minds” approach. It is oppressive, and those under it will throw it off at the first opportunity. If you seek to persuade people to your cause, it is possible to win them over. You can then make more durable changes, though it can be reversed by a shift in the political winds or effective sophistry. This would be the “minds but not hearts” approach.

But if you change people’s hearts as well, they are liable to do more than simply accede to your wishes; they might just join in the effort as well. In the case of Occupy is also allows for the greatest contrast with the ruling class. Convincing most that our bellicose foreign policy is making us more enemies than friends, or that rampant lawlessness by the people running our biggest financial institutions will prevent the housing market from finally bottoming out; saying that such things are bad policy for America and ultimately against our long term interests might get lots of head nodding in agreement. But convince those same people that these things are grave injustices and deeply immoral? That’s the stuff revolutions are made of.


NOTES

1. “Marchers wearing black clothing and backpacks were captured on video committing acts of vandalism and retreating into the marching crowd, police said.” Also: “Several of these acts of vandalism and suspects were captured on video surveillance.” Way to go, dumbasses.
(Back)

2. See here for how violence advocates have intimidated livestreamers. In particular, jeffkloy, Josh and worthoftheworld were all present; Eiko Huh stayed away entirely. Josh appeared to be representing the Oakland Media Group, but no livestream of the event is available at their site. Jeffkloy avoided recording violence to “show respect” to those engaged in it (not that it won him any good will). Meanwhile, worthoftheworld - who appears at least somewhat sympathetic to those engaged in violence - announced a livestream, but as far as we know has not posted it. Interestingly, she had this to say about the suppression in a series of Tweets (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)

every1 is so quick to confront the streamers for their accountability in capturing sensitive evidence… we should put same energy on holding ourselves accountable to our actions, helping comrades make wiser decisions in the heat of moments & ultimately, we need to put serious energy in holding the system (#SFPD, #OPD, #DEA, etc..) accountable!!! every1 attacks a streamer for their footage, who actually makes a physical effort to hold the System accountable? Beyond #Ftp marches? streamers are not the key element of arrest. an action of wrong doing has to happen first. this is The System failing,or comrade mistake. so on the topic of streaming, 3 elements of accountability. let’s spend equal time on all of them. and be fair

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3. Affinis: “The basic chronology is pretty clear. Watching what actually happened (or at least, what Kloy was able to capture) is very different from you’d infer if the OO twitter stream was your only source of info.”
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4. Here is where things start to get a little interesting. One sticking point among those working out prefiguration is, prefigured by whom? Or more precisely, excluding whom? In a movement of the 99% presumably the 1% would have no say, right? Are Wall Street executives kept out of the discussion? Violence advocates? There’s a whole slippery slope argument around that, as well as around who performs the gatekeeping function.

Without laying down any specific markers, I’d just say as a general principle that more inclusion is better. If the goal is to subvert existing pillars of the establishment, it seems to me that engaging with those who provide crucial support for those pillars - not antagonizing them - is the best way to win them over. If the prefiguration includes a rigorous process of harmonizing new groups and ideas with the stated values, there’s a pretty good chance it will be robust enough to resist falling into a “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” trap.
(Back)

5. That’s provided you date your disillusionment with the start of the Clinton impeachment circus and the way the big outlets uncritically catapulted right wing propaganda during the entire affair. There are lots of different places one could put that marker down, though.
(Back)

6. Those fellows could include modern day Pinkertons, among others (emph. added):

Approaches more often used by intelligence agencies are needed to confront this threat. The creative use of intelligence officers, either developed internally or borrowed from the private sector, can afford police agencies the speed, knowledge and agility needed to counter these emerging threats and the chaos that they promote.

(Back)

7. Original exchange here. Here is a lightly edited (for readability) version:

By Hugh on Fri, 03/30/2012 - 10:42pm

Also I think people need to go back and study social movements in the past. I would suggest in particular Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. King and the movement were effective because they were willing to confront authority in the pursuit of justice and they infused their movement and actions with a moral purpose. This not only served to unify those involved and keep them moving together in the same direction but the morality of what they were doing and what they were willing to risk and sacrifice won over millions to their cause.

It wasn’t that they were intellectually right on the issues that swayed the country. That in itself was insufficient. Nor was it the justice of their cause. That might have won them a few converts. It was the moral purpose with which they imbued their struggle and which they were able to communicate to the general public that gave them their power. They did it in their words, their actions, and their sacrifices. They made millions care. They put their opponents on the defensive. They did this by focusing on the moralness of their purpose. People can dance around an issue for an age and still remain uncommitted. But by their example and sacrifice, those in the civil rights movement forced Americans to respond to them on a moral level. And on that level they were irresistible because a moral response is about who and what we are as human beings. It is the one place, if only for a little while, that we can cut through all the bullshit.

John Jay Chapman who belonged to a different era and another struggle said that reform movements to be effective must be religious in character. At the time when I read him, I wasn’t sure I agreed. But with time, I have come to see the wisdom in what he was saying. Change does not come from winning arguments but by changing hearts. Change someone’s mind, they may acknowledge the justice of your arguments, and do nothing. Change their hearts, and your struggle becomes their struggle. It is on the moral level that all this plays out. Words must fit actions and both must fit the moral purpose being invoked. If there is a dishonesty in any of that, then the battle is lost because people will be repelled by the falsity. They don’t need to know all the facts and arguments. They only need to see the flaw. But if these are true, suffused with a moral purpose, and tempered by real sacrifice, most people will respond to that truth and act according to its demands.

This is what I see missing from Occupy. Certainly you can see bits and pieces of this in particular actions but overall the movement remains strangely morally empty.
By RanDomino on Sat, 03/31/2012 - 9:26pm

I think I agree with the sentiment if not the terminology. “Morality” to anarchists means the morality of religion and society - personal restriction even when it would harm no one, for no other purpose than control of individuals by institutions such as the church and State.

If you mean something more along the lines of ‘vision’ that we certainly have.
By Hugh on Sun, 04/01/2012 - 12:24am

Yes, “vision” will win you 3 or 4 new converts at the least. Sorry for the snark, but it really looks like you have no interest in making common cause with the 99% because you reject right off the bat speaking to them in any way they are likely to respond to. Not only will you be unsuccessful but you will deserve to be because you are being incredibly disrespectful of those you want as allies. You can not expect them to set aside their prejudices for even a little while if you are not willing to do the same.

Most people are focused on their everyday lives. They have their plans and their schemes. It is a lot to ask them to set that all aside, but there are moments in life such as before a great cause when they will if addressed precisely on that moral level which you discount. And that is where the disrespect comes in. The moral level is inherently respectful because, as King understood and what he counted on, was that millions of Americans could be reached at that level because he did not just believe in his own morality but he also believed in theirs. That’s respect. He did not necessarily believe in their plans and schemes nor ask them to believe in his. This was not about doing away with difference. It was about finding the underlying similarity, and for that you have to go deep into a person. At that level if you ask them to stand shoulder to shoulder with you, you better damn well be ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with them. And if you are not even willing to go to that level, well the game is over before it is even begun. You are left on the level of everyday plans and schemes. And why really should they sacrifice theirs for yours?

(Back)

Reader Comments (2)

Seen this?

http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/04/11/the-occupy-handbook/

April 15, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterpw

Funny enough, yes. I don't regularly stop at his place but I happened to yesterday and saw it. I'll be interested to see what kind of reviews it gets. It looks interesting though.

April 16, 2012 | Registered CommenterDan

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