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Friday, January 6, 2012

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Yesterday evening I ventured down to Boston. Once again, I met with my friend Nick, along with his girlfriend Lauren (he had been visiting her in nearby Woburn for their anniversary that week). We headed to the Lucy Parsons Center to hear Cindy Milstein give a talk on the Occupy Movement and its relation to anarchism (the talk itself was entitled "Occupy Anarchism").

The infoshop was pretty much packed that evening. Cindy started off her talk about how the Occupy Movement is really part of a much larger history of anti-authoritarian movements. She emphasized the fact that the use of direct democracy in the decision-making process (as opposed to the ill system of representative democracy) was full of quirks and problems, though in the end it only served to re-affirm her belief in direct democracy. She had been at Occupy Wall Street for a few days during its first week (I recall seeing her at Zuccotti Park during the occupation's one-week anniversary) before leaving to participate in Occupy Philly. For the most part, the occupations felt like an anarcho-communist experiment: no leaders, no money, everyone from every background on earth freely giving and associating with one another without any real leaders. She told us of the medics who would go around helping people for free, and Food Not Bombs comrades who prepared most of the meals. No one would force you to pay for anything or turn you away from what you needed, no one would kick you out of your tent if you didn't pay usury to a parasite; everything - literally EVERYTHING - was based on giving to others. Random strangers became your best friends within hours. From everything she was saying, I felt the reaffirming of my belief that a horizontally-organized, anti-authoritarian, mutual aid-based society can and does work in reality. The order is of course spontaneous but that in itself is what carries it so well. If there ever was a challenge to capitalism, ideologically and pragmatically, this would be it.

What Cindy added is how this movement was truly related the fact that the state-capitalist system is finally rearing its ugly head to the majority of Americans who had been deluded for so long. The fantasy of the state as some kind of protector of the weak and poor is fading away in public consciousness. Even the people who Cindy contended were fairly privileged - that being the white men - were feeling the bogus idea of "the American dream" and the ideals of the rugged individualism leading to financial success slowly dissolving for good. She told us of all sorts of people in Occupy who had been completely non-political for most of their lives until they joined in the activities. Now, she said, we have to move on to bigger and better things. One such plan, she stated, was to focus on creating more commons.

Of course, the movement was not without contention (as most usually are). In Occupy Philly, there existed a huge split between the privileged who had no hard feelings for the police and those who knew full well of the polices' oppressive nature (cops in Philadelphia are some of the worst in North America from what I've been told) on what role they wanted the police to play in this occupation. Cindy also began an anecdote about the Ron Paul people who attended.

Someone in sitting in the chairs asked, "Who is Ron Paul?" She wasn't joking.

Cindy answered, "He's a really awful politician who's running for president. He's racist and pro-patriarchy and just an awful human being."

Everyone in the room, including Nick and Lauren, laughed. Lauren whispered to me that she absolutely abhors the Ron Paul worship.

Cindy went on finishing her anecdote about the Ron Paul people at Occupy Philly. She described them as being rather anti-social to the rest of the occupiers. They never left the little tent with signs read things like: "Crony Capitalism Is Not Capitalism" they set up in a distant corner. The "leader" of the Ron Paul crowd stood outside the tent with a big gun on his belt - not exactly the way to make friends, Cindy said. Later on, however, they attempted to do a few direct actions and came to the social anarchists for support. It was pretty amusing.

The whole room was now going to go into discussion. The first person in the audience to speak started by throwing her finger up at Cindy. She ranted, "First of all, before people can be educated in all this philosophy, they need food on the table and a roof over their head. Grub before philosophy." She went on and on for well over five minutes. "And another thing, enough with this 'you know the movement is getting somewhere when the white cis males are getting involved'." She ended with a nasty, "So all white cis-men in this movement need to shut - the - HELL - up."

The room fell on awkward silence. Cindy looked incredibly disturbed. I thought she was going to cry for a second. Lauren whispered to me about how shocked she was. Cindy appeared to have shaken her emotion off very quickly and gave a very non-contentious response. The woman kept interrupting Cindy, but Cindy remained calm and enthusiastic as she was for most of the night. She told of how the movements try to do both: give people what they need (food, a place to stay, a sense of community and belonging) and spread anti-authoritarian philosophy; not through repetitive preaching but through deeds to others. The most successful liberty-driven revolutions, she stated, were the ones which gave everyone everything at once.

Lauren raised her hand to speak right afterwards. She said very calmly that there are plenty of people who society may label as "privileged" who are just trying to get by, and implied that radicals shouldn't shun them just because they don't "rank" as low on the social hierarchy as others. Cindy also responded to her with a string of positive anecdotes. Someone else in the audience made a remark that he thought Cindy's analysis of the current situation in the US was very condescending. He said that it's usually never a good idea to speak to people like, "You're fucked up". (He told us he works with abusive parents and has seen more pain than anyone would wish to see in their lives.)

Nick gave his views to everyone. He told us about a debate he had on Facebook with others about slut-shaming. Someone else in the audience didn't know what it was. He explained, it's when a woman can't freely express her sexuality; if it's a man with many women people in this culture won't see it as negatively than if it's a woman with many men. What he found is, instead of trying to explain what it is, it's much more effective to talk about the people it hurts. If people realize the effects that hierarchical systems and practices have on others, they will be much more motivated to challenge them.

The discussion lasted for a lot longer than planned. Just like the case with the first audience member to speak, most of the discussion revolved around criticism and discontents that people had with their personal experiences. Certain people said they were worried that the Occupy Movement would end up going down the wrong direction, such as selling out, becoming commodified, or isolating oppressed populations even more.

Once again, Nick spoke up to share his views, friendly but bluntly (as he had done during the argument at Milly's Mingle), "When you address white privilege, you don't have to be condescending. It's not supposed to be about making people feel guilty because they're white. It's supposed to be about pointing out the fact that the culture and the system put you in a certain role because of who you are." Cindy agreed.

The talk finally ended once everyone realized they had gone way over time. People gathered around Cindy to talk with her one-on-one. Nick told me as we browsed the books on the infoshop's upstairs, "It was a good talk. I'm in no way an an-com but I liked a lot of what she said. You have to find a common ground. Voltairine knew that." (Of course, he would reference Voltairine de Cleyre, an anarchist writer whom both of us love.)

Right before the three of us left, Lauren and I came up to Cindy to talk. Lauren, who told me she still felt a little uneasy about some of the things said during the discussion, complimented her. I told Cindy it was good to see her again after seeing her in Baltimore a while back, how I was planning on working at Red Emma's once I get back to the city, and how I used to work at LPC back when the shop was in the South End. I went on about my experiences working at the shop, how strangers would tell me how the system fucked them over, and, just like at Occupy, they became very dear to me the same day we met. I also brought up my experiences at Occupy Wall St., like the time I brought my once-completely-non-political friend Drew from school to the events on November 17th. He turned out to be amazed at the whole thing; when his friend was driving us back to McDaniel from the metro he told him how impressed he was with the mic check and how they were able to organize without specific leaders. Right before we said goodbye, Cindy revealed that Occupy Baltimore is planning to take over empty homes in the city on MLK day later this month. How I wish I was back in time to join them!

As we were walking back to the Jackson Sq. T stop Lauren told us what made her feel uncomfortable during the talk. To her, it seemed like it was all about "fuck the white guy" (she herself comes from a working-class background, from everything she told me). I tried to explain, "You know I go to college near Baltimore where racism is extremely blatant. It's much easier to be poor if you're white than it is to be poor when you're black, but does that mean that all the poor whites want to preserve the system which made them poor in the first place?" She saw what I meant.

3 comments:

  1. Thanks for all of your reporting on these meetings and events. I live in Florida and I am always curious what's going on in the big city "radical" circles: the news obviously never brings it up except to condescend and smear.

    I'm also interested in the microcosmic social dynamics, in how people interact. As an individualist (and here I promised myself I wouldn't obscure my comments by using labels), I'm kind of cynical toward the whole social revolution idea. I think it could be beneficial if it occurred, but 1)history has shown that people on par are not interested in total freedom and 2)any revolution could easily turn into further tyranny.

    To submit my will to society at large or to a "common" is just as detestable to me as submitting myself to a government or a religion. But I do think that, on the whole, a pluralistic anarchist society would be better than what we have now for sure because there would be greater freedom. And yet, that's only theory. It hasn't really ever been perfected. Even Anarchist Spain was troubled.

    Anyway, thanks again for the writing. I really enjoy it. Here's to hoping a revolution does occur and that it is a revolution that stresses the freedom of the individual:

    "But go not 'back to the sediment'
    In the slime of the moaning sea,
    For a better world belongs to you,
    And a better friend to me."
    --Voltairine de Cleyre

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  2. Commons are just unused lands which are held in common by the community. There is plenty of empirical evidence which proves that holding lands in common to a ton of good for communities and the land itself. I get the feeling that a lot of people confuse "commons" with "state-owned lands" which have nothing to do with each other. Last night I was talking to a free stater in Manchester who told me that the way to save the environment was to auction off state lands to private companies (landlords), since, according to him, these companies would have more of an incentive to keep the lands clean because they'd want to lease it to others. The thing is, there is absolutely no evidence in reality which supports such a claim. For-profit companies can treat the lands they have monopoly control over WORSE than the state does (for example, certain businesspeople wanted to buy up the wetlands here in Windham so they could pave them and place their stores and parking lots on them; not exactly good for the ecosystem). As far as I'm concerned, "tragedy of the commons" should more appropriately be called "tragedy of absentee landlordism". Landlords just function as mini-states and states just function as giant landlords. There is no difference at the end of the day.

    I agree that a lot of people today aren't really turned on by the ideas of total freedom, but I would argue that this is because they've been so heavily conditioned to do so. We live in a culture of authority where institutions are extremely hierarchical. That in itself fucks us up. It also makes us fear freedom in a way. I have friends from school who tell me all the time that they think anarchism's ideals are beautiful things, but they are literally terrified about living in a world without politicians, bosses, or police, just because they have no idea what it would look like and whether or not it would be better than what we have now.

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  3. Thanks for responding.

    Yes, I know what a common is. I suppose I phrased my sentence poorly. I should have said "To submit my will to... [a common's collectivity (those who share it with me)] is...detestable."

    I can see--and have read about--how well commons work sometimes. I used to think private property was tyrannous too. I would have called myself (here I go labeling again) a libertarian socialist or a "real" anarchist only a year ago.

    But when I started reading the Egoists, I began to change my mind. I find this article from the journal Non-Serviam, particularly interesting:

    Anent abolishing private property:
    http://i-studies.com/journal/n/pdf/nsi-17.pdf
    (*The article starts on page 20.)

    I would agree that commons can work (the land grab going on in the Guangdong province of China right now is a great example of gov't corruption screwing up a commons system that has worked well for generations) and further, I would agree that the free-stater you spoke to is missing the plank in his own eye if he thinks corporate big wigs or even small businesses would be good stewards of fragile, valuable ecosystems.

    But, to me, it comes down to a pragmatism that would have me branded petit bourgeois by the red anarchist community: to truly be free (the essence of anarchy, as I understand it), I will war with any god--be it a head of state or a system like the gov't, an idea I'm meant to submit my desires to (like morality or the common good), a metaphysical god or religion, and even society when I don't agree with its intentions.

    A collective anarchist society without a way to escape the tyranny of the majority (an obvious possibility, even a surety) scares me for that reason. Not to say you agree with such a system necessarily, but common lands would be a facet of that system. If common lands were interspersed with private property so there were choices, I would feel much more comfortable.

    Finally, maybe the people you tell about anarchy are afraid of it not only because they are conditioned to accept hierarchy, but also because of their dispositions. (Voltairine de Cleyre wrote about this too, actually.) It's a sad possibility to consider, but more and more I'm starting to think that this social revolution anarchists have pressed for for so many years is yet another religious hope: a longing for heaven on earth.

    Some people want to live in safety and comfort and are not willing to live free lives of self-determination because they don't have the guts. Could that be true for at least some people? Do you think an anarchist society is likely to come out of Greece or OWS; or is it all going to sink into meager statist solutions?

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