Saturday, October 29, 2011

Documentary on the Trafalgar Poll Tax Protests

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A short comment on Agamben's Homo Sacer

     This is a move away from the more immediate recent writings, focusing on the current political situation. I recently came across this engagement with Agamben and thought I would put it up. Don't worry, I'll probably return to questions of the contemporary Occupy movement, and will probably spend some time discussing the protests that will be occurring in a couple weeks on the various campuses of California colleges and universities.

      The first section of Agamben’s book tries to ask the question of what is the structure that defines sovereignty. We find this formulated in the following manner in the introduction.

     Today, now the great State structures have entered into a process of dissolution and the emergency has, as Walter Benjamin foresaw, become the rule, the time is ripe to place the problem of the originary structure and limits of the form of the State in new perspective. The weakness of anarchist and Marxian critiques of the State was precisely to have not caught sight of this structure and thus to have quickly left the arcanum imperii aside, as if it had no substance outside of the simulacra and the ideologies invoked to justify it. But one ends up identifying with an enemy whose structure one does not understand, and the theory of the State (and particular of the state of exception, which is to say, of the dictatorship of the proletariat as the transitional phase leading to the stateless society) is the reef on which the revolutions of our century have been shipwrecked. (12)

      We find that Agamben is interested in engaging in a certain critical intervention within the understandings of sovereignty that have been produced by its traditional enemies. Agamben is clearly engaged in the same project that the two movements, marxism and anarchism are engaged in, the destruction of the state. But Agamben argues that these movements have missed something crucial in the construction of the state. He finds that this structure is tied to the state of exception, and the creation of the state as the moment of indistinction. Perhaps if we use Bataille’s terminology rather than Badiou’s, we could define the State and the homogenous as being produced out of the heterogeneous. We find this logic being presented in Bataille’s understanding of fascist movements in “The Psychological Structure of Fascism.”

       In any case, the remainder of the book seems to be a genealogical study of the structures of law and sovereignty that Agamben sets out and the beginning of the book. In a certain sense, one can read the entire book as an attempt to accomplish Walter Benjamin’s imperative to understand history. “The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized….” (Benjamin 255)

      This genealogy begins with the figure of the ‘sacred man’ in Roman history, who can be “killed, but cannot be sacrificed.” He moves through discussions of the king’s two bodies, and also a discussion of the figure of the werewolf and its linkage to the figure of the bandit, but the most significant section seems to be the one dealing with the figure of the camp, which Agamben sees as the nomos of the age. In order to understand this structure of exclusion he spends a considerable amount of time discussing the death camps. It seems that Agamben is interested in making a connection between this camp and the various crises that came up through the 1990’s, primarily the situation in the disintegrating Yugoslavia, and the crisis in Rwanda. He links these crises with the “Life that does not deserve to live.”

      Furthermore he links up the production of the state of exception of the camp with the democratic tradition that is ostensibly in opposition to it. In this sense, he is also following Benjamin, who also makes such a linkage. He links it with the 1789 document on the rights of man, as well as connecting it to a whole series of acts that limited who could be considered a citizen throughout Europe. There is an obvious linkage that can be made with the discussion of the production of the race, which Foucault discusses in Society Must Be Defended. After all, this disallowing life to the point of death is directed to the production of a stronger ‘people’, a stronger ‘race’.

     There seem to be a number of potential problems. The first that comes to mind is the absence of resistance within Agamben’s model. The camp may become a way of creating a state of exception, but the residents of the camp have never really been totally compliant in this situation. Even in the most extreme example of the Nazi death camps, one can find modes of resistance. There are moments when one feels that Agamben may be a bit ensorcelled by the model of power that he has found in the particular genealogy. The other note that I would want to make concerns the lack of discussion around colonialism. I find this peculiar given the importance that it has for one of his sources, Hannah Arendt, in her understanding of the rise of fascist power.

      On the other hand, I think that it does begin to chart the course of a particular response of capitalist sovereignty in response to the crisis that exists in its structure. In a sense, it dovetails with the project of Antonio Negri who is interested in following the trajectory of resistance within the current structures. But unlike Negri, Agamben seems to lack an understanding of the living labor that supports the system.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Jacobin Debate on Occupy Wall Street, featuring Malcolm Harris, Jodi Dean, Doug Henwood, Natasha Lennard, and Chris Maisano

      I'm far from the first person to put this debate held by the Jacobin magazine on their blog, but it seems like an important discussion to spread around.  There are some limitations to the debate, leaving out the voices of activists of color, to point to the most significant lack in the debate.  One also has to accept that the format is a little scattered.  That aspect of the debate didn't bother me.  Maybe its my aesthetic education in punk, but I enjoyed the chaotic aspects of the debate.  It showed that there was some real energy in the room, and overall, I feel that this material is worth the two hours of time, even from the small screen of a computer.  I don't feel much need to lay out the terms of debate, because even if you don't know these people, the terms are established fairly quickly.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Some initial comments on demands

      There has been a lot of talk about demands, lately.  Most of this conversation comes out of the Occupy protests occurring in a variety of cities across the United States.  A number of commentators have found the phenomenon confusing, claiming not to understand the goals of the movement or its methods.  To tell the truth, a lot of these folks, most notably the mainstream news industry, are engaged in deliberate obfuscation.  But some of these comments are coming from people who are committed to counter-systemic movements, such as Doug Henwood and Jodi Dean who have made some comments worth taking a look at.  My views on the question are a little more ambiguous, primarily because of some of the misunderstandings about the role of demands on the part of those who oppose them, and because of some of the exaggeration of what demands can accomplish in regards to organizational clarity on the part of those who support them.

      To open up the conversation, I want to make it clear that I support the idea of making demands.  You can call those things any number of things, goals, policies, etc.  Any serious social movement needs to develop a sense of what its goals are, what it's trying to accomplish, in the short term, the mid term, and the long term.  Obviously, these projects aren't going to stay the same over time, but they provide a type of critical, cognitive mapping of where a movement is, and where it wants to be.  You might notice that I haven't made any statements about 'speaking truth to power' here, or even 'speaking to power.'  That's because demands are a way of organizing, of constructing 'constituent power' to use the language of Antonio Negri.  Rather than talking to members of congress or the bourgeoisie, demands allow for movements to communicate with potential participants, as well a allowing for a healthy internal debate over the direction of the movement.  They create the drive for projects, and allow for the success of those projects to be measured.  Our militancy and collectivity create space for reform amongst constituted power, while our communications are designed to foster those forms of militancy and collectivity.  Demands also can separate a movement from very problematic elements who want to appropriate it.  Exclusion may sound bad until you realize that the people being excluded are racists, conspiracy theorists, and libertarians, folks who are going to derail any social justice movement.

     The demands made surrounding the spring sit in in 2009 is a good example of how demands can be used.  (see here for a listing of the demands.)  The demands created by the group to link the demand for a public university to a variety of struggles on the university, making both immediate and long term demands.  They effectively challenged the economist interpretation of the movement by the local paper, by linking the struggle to fights against racism, militarism, and workers' struggles occurring on the campus.  More significantly, the demands created a lot of buzz on campus, and the various demands were discussed extensively by students and faculty.  We can effectively see a moment where demands allowed for a shift in political conversations, and took a small action (albeit a very militant and energetic one) and made it the talk of the campus.  It also managed to express the goals of the movement in a much more accessible and simple language than the often overwrought occupation manifestos of northern California, creating a non-sectarian and intersectional political project for the movement.  Finally, it set out a wide variety of demands, some which were very realizable such as the demand for unisex bathrooms, but also demands for larger structural changes that are not immediate available for appropriation.  In effect, it created demands that could create immediate victories, but without the illusion that those immediate victories were sufficient for the movement to succeed.

      At the same time, I think that there are some mistakes made by those who put their faith in demands.  Most significantly, this is a new movement, and the political goals of that movement have to be created through the struggles of that movement.  They can't be the creation of a few folks in a small room, to paraphrase Rosa Luxemburg.  I also think that it's a mistake to think that any genuinely political movement can be made immediately coherent with a few slogans or a couple manifestos.  As Adorno and others would point out, there's nothing radical about common sense, and therefore, any radical movement is going to seem strange and unfamiliar to the common-sense of our society, which largely operates on hegemonic norms.  To give a practical example, many of the demands for the action discussed above, often confused and alienated the students, particularly demands for non-economic concerns. Additionally, while we want to make our political projects accessible to potential members, we don't necessarily want to make our actions immediately accessible to dominant institutional structures.  Confusion frequently allows for us to accomplish better actions, ones that create larger effects, that attract more attention, that challenge the expectations of everyday life.  In effect, movements need to make themselves coherent to build themselves, but actions frequently benefit from forms of innovation and confusion.   Moreover, most real social movements constitute and represent themselves in struggle.  'Demandless' events can contribute to that process.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Links on the Occupy Phenomenon

      As I said yesterday, I'm going to put up a bunch of links about the Occupy events that I have been reading and have influenced my thinking on the process.  (Look here for the original posting.)  Unlike the last posting, I'm going to put up material that covers a multiplicity of events, rather than simply focusing on the Los Angeles situation.  Some of this material is pretty critical, but I think these criticisms gesture precisely to the potential productivity of these actions, rather than their failure.  I'm pretty excited about the present, and perhaps more optimistic than I have been in a while, but I think critique is a crucial aspect to successful activism and movement building.  Movements that don't listen to internal and external critique wind up become small, isolated, paranoid, and stultified.  I know that it's really easy to become defensive when you're pouring all your energy into something, but that defensiveness never helps a movement.  Anyways, here are the links.  There is no particular focus.  Just a lot of stuff that was of interest to me.

     Doug Henwood has produced a number of thoughtful commentaries on the Occupy Wall Street protests.  I'm more sympathetic to the horizontal organizing than Doug is, but he has provided some thoughtful criticism of some of the problems in the nascent movement.

1.  Occupying Wall Street
2.  The Occupy Wall Street Non-Agenda
3.  Shaking a Fist at the NYPD
4.  99%

Jodi Dean has some material on her blog, approaching things from a similar position to Henwood.  Worth a read.

     The Kasama project has put up a lot of material about the movement over the past few days, from a multiplicity of positions.  I would point out productive posts, but there are just too many of them, so I'll just link to the website as a whole.

      Hena Ashraf--Brown Power at Occupy Wall Street

     There is some useful material at Racialicious, and some problematic material.  I'll put out a sampling.
1.  An organizing statement by activists of color in Occupy Wall Street.
2.  This response is a little more problematic
3.  So Real It Hurts
4.  A Mix of Useful Critiques

     Disoccupy has a lot of great material, some of it significant to my analysis of Occupy LA
1. Some Thoughts on Occupy LA General Assembly
2. a follow up piece

      Another good blog on the LA situation.  The more I read, the more exceptional the LA situation seems to be.  This isn't to say that there aren't some real problems elsewhere, but those problems seem to be dealt with and acknowledged in collective decision making processes in ways that we aren't seeing in LA.

Shag posted up this useful comment on the confrontation of sexism in Boston The entire blog is worth a look.

Louis Proyect put up a nice set of interviews from Boston to remind us why folks are out there in the first place.   Additionally, he put up some more interviews and a first impression from himself.  He has some other good material if you take a look at the blog.  I'd avoid the comments, though.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Initial observations about Occupy LA

      Most of the fairly limited amount of people reading this blog have been following the rather large to-do about the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon.  There's been a lot of writing on this subject, and I've read a fair amount of it.  For better or for worse, it has been the central focus of conversation for both the liberal-left, reformists, and revolutionaries.  I've largely stayed out of the conversation until this point because my engagement with the struggles has been limited to the variety of written communiques of the group and the variety of critiques produced inside and outside the movement.  I guess I could have taken up my role as a literary critic and produced an ideological critique of those documents, or perhaps take up the fashionable 90's pose of deconstructive reading, but I find the prospect of writing such an analysis almost as boring as most of its readers would find reading it.  After all, the most powerful aspect of the event, and its rebranding across the country, is its creation of political space and its creation of assemblages of people, not documents.

       While I'm excited about this shift in the political environment, I'm a little confused by the cacophony of claims that this event marks a new day in political protest.  Don't get me wrong, it's good to see a lot of folks out on the streets, taking action.  The occupy movements can possibly represent a shift from the melancholy and defensiveness that defined radical activism since the collapse of the anti-war movement and the reelection of President George Bush.  A lot of folks are excited and they're making their presence felt.  At the same time, there isn't anything particularly new about the kinds of tactics and political organization that are at the heart of this series of events.  One can go back to the formation of SNCC in 1960 and its to find the kind of horizontal organizing discussed by David Graeber and others as so unique to the occupation events.  SDS activists basically borrowed the 'beloved community' model from SNCC and spread it across the nation.  From there, the tactic has been taken up by anti-nuclear activists, environmentalists, ACT-UP, and the anti-globalization movement from there.  Each of these groups have modified the horizontal structures, making it there own, generally shifting away from some of the formalized structures contained in the original SNCC formation.  In this sense, rather than constituting a break from earlier counter-systemic movements, the occupy formulation stays resolutely in that set of post-68 practices, drawing particularly from the anti-globalization movement.

      I'm not bringing this up because the movement lacks some sort of antiquarian respect for the past, but because some of that social memory might help the movement.  This fact became immediately apparent during the short period of time that I spent at the OccupyLA site, attending meetings, and observing the daily life of the event.  From that short period of time, a couple things became immediately apparent, 1. there's a fairly small, top-down leadership structure, and 2. that leadership structure is pretty detached from the vast majority of the day to day life of the people involved in the occupation.  I was already aware from a number of conversations with comrades involved in the action that there were some substantial problems with the activities of the camp.  A number of well-known veteran activists were singled out as 'violent agitators' by the leadership, and fliers were passed out with names and photographs.  Rather than being cliched debates about 'violence vs. non-violence', the arguments that led to these actions were largely focused on taking actions that risked arrest, and the relationship of the occupation movement to the police.  The critics of the leadership felt that the movement needed to make its presence known through non-violent, confrontational protests, directed towards disrupting the daily life of the financial system, while the current leadership thought that the movement should focus on getting more people in the camp.  A legitimate debate, but one the 'appointed' leadership structure was never willing to openly engage in.

      Even with that foreknowledge, I really wasn't ready for how badly the meetings were run.  The 'action committee' met under a small pavilion, a space that clearly didn't fit the 15-20 people who were in attendance.  In addition, the facilitators made no real effort to create a sense of community within the space.  There were no introductions, no attempts to get people introduced to each other through icebreakers, or attempts to define community rules for the meeting.  Instead, the facilitators opened with a set of tasks that needed volunteers, creating a distinctly top-down atmosphere.  When the meeting moved into a discussion of possible actions, any action that could possibly lead to arrest was shot down on the basis that a general assembly had decided to avoid arrests about 6 days ago.  Perhaps, but the meeting wasn't created to pass resolutions, but to make a set of proposals to the general assembly.  There is no conceivable reason why the committee couldn't suggest that the assembly revisit the question, particularly when the population of the camp had changed so drastically in the past few days.  But beyond these political concerns, the meeting was miserable and inefficient.  With a change in location, and the introduction of some basic rules, the whole thing could have ran much more smoothly.  It also gestures towards a structureless environment that effectively constructed a leadership without any real formal responsibility to the rank and file of the movement.

      Which leads me back to my earlier comment, these aren't exactly new problems, and a lot of smart people have been thinking about these concerns in a variety of contexts.  These discussions range from how to run a meeting, how to a participatory environment, to larger critiques of racism and sexism in movement structures.  And some of those problems were pretty evident.  The camp was pretty diverse, but the leadership structure really didn't reflect that, remaining fairly white, and often male.  If you want to claim you're representing the 99%, you might want a leadership that looks like it.  Additionally, there was some pretty sexist behavior at times in the camp, which clearly wasn't getting dealt with.  The New Left put together some interesting material on these topics that could be talked about in discussion circles, stuff that's pretty smart and accessible like Audre Lorde's critiques of the white feminist movement or Jo Freeman's "The Tyranny of Structurelessness."  It was also help to create a set of much more transparent rules around running meetings, to create a friendlier environment for them to occur, and to work at making those meetings more friendly to the participation of folks new to activism.  Furthermore, the collective agreements of the occupation need to be revisited from time to time, precisely because of the transitory nature of the movement.  In short, rather than needing less process as Doug Henwood's thoughtful critiques indicate, I think the movement simply needs better process, process that would acknowledge the forms of representation and leadership going on in the occupation, and would make that leadership more formally responsible to the rank and file.

      At the same time, there is a wide swath of the life of the camp that remains fairly removed from the political intrigues of the meetings, people talking, holding signs, discussing how to transform the country, etc. It's a pretty diverse lot, a lot of radicals, reformers, with the some Larouchies, Ron Paul supporters, and believers in lizard people thrown into the mix.  (One of the stranger moments that I saw was when a particularly belligerent and possibly mentally ill Barack Obama supporter was told to chill out by a believer in the lizard people, 'because people protest in their own way.'  It's never a good sign when the lizard people guy is the voice of reason, especially when all the ostensible security people did nothing but rile the guy up.)  I think that if there's something really great about the protest, it really might be this, and I'd recommend that folks go down to the encampment to chat with some of these folks.  It isn't really a political community yet, but it could be come one with some work.  However, as long as the existent political structures of the occupation don't facilitate the incorporation of this group, we aren't going to see the creation of a genuinely political community.

       Despite my fairly low opinion of the 'leadership', and some of the fairly atrocious things that some of them did, notably driving out some of the veteran activists of color out of the camp and copbaiting, they struck me as a fairly hardworking and serious group of folks.  I never saw them sitting down.  They were always on the move, always planning, always working, but that activity seemed to lead to a kind of proprietary attitude amongst them, treating OccupyLA as a name-brand that needed to be protected, rather than a living, social movement.  The simple fact is that you can't control the messaging and political direction of a social movement.  You can try to influence it and direct it, but movements are movements because they're way bigger than any individual group.  In their attempt to control OccupyLA, these folks could very well kill it. 

       There are a lot of references to sources that I should make, but I think that I am going to leave that for a rather substantial links page that I will create tomorrow.