Radical media, politics and culture.

Nathan Schneider, "Thank You, Anarchists"

"Thank You, Anarchists"
Nathan Schneider

It is becoming something of a refrain among the well-meaning multitudes
now energized by Occupy Wall Street that the movement needs to shed its
radical origins so as to actually get something done. “If they can avoid
fetishizing the demand for consensus,” James Miller wrote in late
October [1] in the New York Times, “they may be able to forge a broader
coalition that includes friends and allies within the Democratic Party
and the union movement.” According to some activists [2], groups like
Van Jones’ Rebuild the Dream are poised to turn occupiers into Obama
voters. Especially as the 2012 election season starts, the thinking
goes, it’s time to get real.

This actually reminds me of long debates about planning that took place
in the NYC General Assembly before September 17, and then again during
the early days of the occupation. Many people—myself included‚ though I
was there to observe as a reporter—first arrived with some preconceived
agenda about what needed to be done given the current political
situation and how the occupation should do it: abolish corporate
personhood, or enact a Tobin tax, or (as crasser signs would say) “Eat
the Rich.” They complained that the anarchists‚ along with assorted
autonomists, libertarian socialists and so forth‚ were hijacking the
movement’s progress by bogging it down in process. But, after a while,
after enough long meetings, they started to come around.

For some who were experiencing it for the first time, the General
Assembly became a cathartic opportunity to unload long-pent-up polemics.
Perhaps never having really had their political voices heard off the
Internet, newcomers would interrupt the agenda and turn the people’s mic
into a soapbox. With practice, though, that would change. They’d find
that hewing to the process was better than making off-topic speeches.
They heard stories about the assemblies in occupied squares in Egypt,
Greece and Spain firsthand from people who had been there. Helping shape
the daily decisions of the Occupation started to seem actually more
empowering than trying to tell Obama what to do.

The anarchists’ way of operating was changing our very idea of what
politics could be in the first place. This was exhilarating. Some
occupiers told me they wanted to take it home with them, to organize
assemblies in their own communities. It’s no accident, therefore, that
when occupations spread around the country, the horizontal assemblies
spread too.

At its core, anarchism isn’t simply a negative political philosophy, or
an excuse for window-breaking, as most people tend to assume it is. Even
while calling for an end to the rule of coercive states backed by
military bases, prison industries and subjugation, anarchists and other
autonomists try to build a culture in which people can take care of
themselves and each other through healthy, sustainable communities. Many
are resolutely nonviolent. Drawing on modes of organizing as radical as
they are ancient, they insist on using forms of participatory direct
democracy that naturally resist corruption by money, status and
privilege. Everyone’s basic needs should take precedence over anyone’s

Through the Occupy movement, these assemblies have helped open
tremendous space in American political discourse. They’ve started new
conversations about what people really want for their communities,
conversations that amazingly still haven’t been hijacked, as they might
otherwise might be, by charismatic celebrities or special interests. But
these assemblies also pose a problem.

The Occupiers know that more traditional political organizations—such as
labor unions, political parties and advocacy groups—are critical to
making their message heard. With the "Re-Occupy" action on December 17
[3], they called upon Trinity Wall Street, an Episcopal church, to grant
the movement an outdoor public space. As the movement enters the winter
and so-called "Phase II," outside organizations seem to be ever more
crucial. But unions, parties and churches aren’t the coziest of
bedfellows for open assemblies. Precisely what enables these
organizations to mobilize masses of people and resources is the fact
that they are hierarchical. Moreover, they are financed by, and dirty
their hands with, electoral politics—all things a horizontal assembly
aims to avoid.

But traditional organizations that have found new momentum in the Occupy
movement don’t need to sit around and wait for the assemblies to come up
with demands or certain types of actions. They can act “autonomously” as
the anarchists would say, doing what they do best with the good of the
whole movement in mind: pressuring lawmakers, mobilizing their
memberships and pushing for change in the short term while the getting
is good. They can build coalitions on common ground with the Tea Party.
The occupier assemblies won’t do these things for them, and it would be
a mistake to wish they would.

The radicals who lent this movement so much of its character have
offered American political life a gift, should we choose to accept it.
They’ve reminded us that we don’t have to rely on Republicans or
Democrats, or Clintons, Bushes or Sarah Palin, to do our politics for
us. With the assemblies, they’ve bestowed a refreshing form of
grassroots organizing that, if it lasts, might help keep the rest of the
system a bit more honest. There will, however, be tensions.

“Any organization is welcome to support us,” says the Statement of
Autonomy [4] passed by the Occupy Wall Street General Assembly on
November 1, “with the knowledge that doing so will mean questioning your
own institutional frameworks of work and hierarchy and integrating our
principles into your modes of action.”

Kevin Zeese of the Freedom Plaza occupation in Washington, DC‚ though
certainly no anarchist‚ is even more militant against the “progressive”
establishment: “Bought and paid for with millions of dollars from Wall
Street, the health insurance industry and big energy interests, Obama
and the Democrats are part of the problem, not the solution.”

In countries like Spain, Greece and Argentina for instance, networks of
local assemblies, often built around occupations, have shaped electoral
politics even without forming parties or endorsing candidates. Their
focus is on the people in them, not those who would purport to represent
them. I was in Athens earlier this fall, just as the prime minister was
stepping down and the economy was collapsing, and I found [5] that those
in the city’s assemblies weren’t really concerned; they were too busy
saving local parks and resisting unfair taxes.

Spain recently held a general election, and parties across the political spectrum were responding to issues raised by the assembly-based movement which began there in May and which profoundly influenced the organizers of Occupy Wall Street. Even so, the movement called on people to cast null votes. The right-wingers won. Many on the left here will see this
as a dangerous precedent, but in the long term and the big picture, autonomists see it as better than being co-opted. There is more at stake than a contest between one status-quo party or another. Occupations and assemblies are not solely an American, Greek or Spanish phenomenon; they’re the basis of a new global justice movement to confront a global crisis.

As assemblies enter our own politics through the Occupy movement, we
should take care to recognize what they’re not and will never be. Even
more important, though, is what they’ve already done. They’ve reminded
us that politics is not a matter of choosing among what we’re offered
but of fighting for what we and others actually need‚ not to mention
what we hope for. For this, in large part, we have the anarchists to thank.

[3] http://wagingnonviolence.org/2011/12/why-occupy-calls-for-sanctuary/
[4] http://www.nycga.net/resources/statement-of-autonomy/
[5] http://wagingnonviolence.org/?p=13480)