Occupy and the anarchists

Food Not Bombs illustraion

Some interesting discussions of Occupy and anarchist history lately, as Roland has noted. In a guest post at Roland’s place, TNC writes:

Some including Paul Berman and Michael Kazin identify anarchist elements of OWS such as presenting a living, breathing, counter-modelto capitalism and the utilization of consensus decision-making.

 The notion that you can create a rival community, a new world “within the shell of the old”, a counter-culture, is intrinsic to anarchism. That this must be consensus-driven is much more recent. It is not evident among the various groups that considered themselves anarchist–anarcho-mutualists/collectivists/syndicalists/communists—from the mid-nineteenth century until the Spanish Revolution. All of them felt that voting within their own organizations and groups was just fine.
By the 1960s, elements within the New Left including Students for a Democratic Society and others were experimenting with styles of decision-making that were viewed as more inclusive, participatory and democratic. These themes were also taken up by the Radical Feminist Movement in the 1970s. Certainly by the 1990s consensus organizing was gaining steam primarily though the work of Food Not Bombs (FNB), Earth First! and a few other groups. FNB in particular was effective at distributing inexpensively reproduced literature, including their Handbook, promoting consensus as the only way to order a local chapter:
We make decisions by consensus rather than voting. Voting is a win or lose model in which people are more concerned about the numbers it takes to win a majority than they are in the issue itself. Consensus, on the other hand, is a process of synthesis, bringing together diverse elements and blending them into a decision which is acceptable to the entire group. In essence, it is a qualitative rather than quantitative method of decision-making.
From my experience on the radical left, the influence of consensus decision-making was incredibly negative. The long, drawn-out meetings with no discernable outcome eventually take their toll. People start to drop out.
While Michael Kazin, Paul Berman and others note the attempt by the OWS movement to create a counter society (some have termed the encampments “micro societies”) an important difference between OWS and the classical anarchists is an emphasis on what form the future society would take. All of the utopian socialists going back to St. Simon and Fourier had a model in mind. Never mind how wacky the model was, at least they had something to refer to. This is completely missing from OWS. They say this is “all part of the process”but it is not enough for most of us. We want to know what you want, especially if you claim to represent us (as part of the 99%).

There is an interesting interview with Kazin at The Browser.

As the Occupy Wall Street movement writes a new chapter in the history of American leftism, you’ve published a history of radical movements in the United States titled American Dreamers. Tell me about it.

It chronicles almost 200 years of the American left’s history, interpreting what the left did right and what it did wrong. What it did wrong is better known. The subtitle of the book is “How the Left Changed a Nation”. I emphasise the positive difference it made, focusing on a couple of themes.

One is that the left expanded the meaning of individual freedom. It made sure that people of all races, religions and sexual preferences are, at least in theory, able to enjoy the same opportunities and freedoms as everybody else. The book begins with the abolitionists and goes up until the gay and lesbian movement of the 1970s. The other theme is that the left succeeded in presenting a vision of a more egalitarian and socially responsible society. The left may have had less success in this respect but its success has been considerable nonetheless.

I highlight figures like Henry George and Edward Bellamy, both journalists. Henry George wrote a bestselling economics tract called Progress and Poverty in 1879. He was very popular among the labour unionists. Edward Bellamy was a Christian Socialist who wrote Looking Backward. Published in 1888, it ranks with Uncle Toms Cabin as one of the most influential political novels of the 19th century. Bellamy’s followers were important figures in the populist movement of the 1890s and the Socialist Party in the early 20th century. These figures articulated an anti-corporate platform which continues to be influential even in the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations.

Do you see the DNA of the abolitionists, suffragettes and other leftist forebears in today’s protest?

Yes, in many ways I do. There are different strands. Of course you have civil disobedience, which abolitionists were known for. You have nonviolence and a “beloved community”, which civil rights protesters were known for. And you have a very strong emphasis on the 99% being injured by the 1%, and a critique of American democracy as being corrupted by big money, that began in the late 19th century with people like George and Bellamy.

He goes on to talk about Marx and Engels, about Howard Zinn’s historical vision, and then Students for a Democratic Society, and finally Gene Sharp, who has also been cited as an important influence on the Arab Spring.

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Published in: on November 30, 2011 at 9:18 pm  Comments (3)  
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Occupy!

Rudolf Rocker, German Anarchosyndicalist

Image via Wikipedia

Phil Dickens’ quote of the day…

…comes from Martyn Everett’s introduction to the 1988 Phoenix Press edition of Anarcho-syndicalism by [Rudolf] Rocker;

Historically the oppressed and the disaffected have rallied to the standard of socialism because of its oppositional position within capitalism – an oppositional position which provides the appearance of a radicalism it did not possess. During periods of revolutionary potential, however, people see opportunities to go beyond attempts to ameliorate capitalism, and to instead abolish it altogether. It is important to realise, however, that this is not usually an apocalyptic conversion into revolutionary activity, but is an emerging process involving continual, but unsuccessful attempts to reconstruct a movement of socialist opposition, find new forms of organisation and activity as well as new forms of protest and expression. New movements appear, representing the interests of groups which have not previously confronted capital, and so lack the burden of tradition and the “password” phraseology of socialism, but which nonetheless possess greater potential for revolution. New ideas and new forms of organisation flourish.

Reading this today, I was struck at how readily – though Everett was referring to the movements of the late 80s – this analysis could apply to the anti-cuts struggles of now.

I’ve written before on how UK Uncut, alongside the student movement, had managed to mobilise a whole new generation of people and inject life into anti-cuts struggles. They pushed beyond the traditional leadership structures of the left, and their actions were far ahead of their politics. Adam Ford takes the analysis further in looking at the “Occupy” movement, set to explode globally tomorrow. In essence, what we have is ordinary people looking for new ways to resist and challenge the system, though not necessarily yet having adopted a revolutionary analysis to go alongside it.

This analysis is important because, as Adam says, it is the “no politics” mantra “which enables the formerly social democratic parties and their ‘left’ hangers on, against the building of a true revolutionary movement.” And the failure of such occupations to mirror the Egyptian experience by linking up with workers’ struggle is leaving it prey to a liberal vanguardism which takes ideas such as “direct action” and put a very different spin on them.

As Solidarity Federation argue;

Radical liberal activism talks about ‘direct action’, but it has a very different take on what that means compared to anarchists, based on a very different reading of history. For anarchists, Emile Pouget sums up the concept eloquently: “Direct Action is a notion of such clarity, of such self-evident transparency, that merely to speak the words defines and explains them. It means that the working class, in constant rebellion against the existing state of affairs, expects nothing from outside people, powers or forces, but rather creates its own conditions of struggle and looks to itself for its means of action.” This is the original idea of direct action as mass, collective, working class action carried out by workers themselves. For anarchists, it is mass struggles which change the course of history – winning things from the 8-hour day to universal suffrage.

However, the clarity and self-evident transparency that Pouget saw in the term ‘direct action’ has given way with the later emergence of a rival conception which in many ways is the opposite of the anarchist one. This radical liberal version is best summed up by an oft-quoted maxim by Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Here instead of mass, collective, working class action we have individual, exemplary action by ‘committed citizens’. A clearer example of the gulf between anarchism and liberalism would be hard to find.

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Published in: on October 14, 2011 at 8:36 pm  Comments (2)  
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