Monday, January 30, 2012

Thinking about union organization in light of the last Joint Council meeting (mostly a critique)

      One of the earliest critiques of conventional trade union organizations was presented by socialist organizer and polemicist, Daniel DeLeon.  DeLeon has a generally justified reputation as a rather sectarian fellow in the history of the workers' movement, but his inability to get along with others doesn't negate his fairly sharp analytical skills in understanding the limitations of reformist structures.  DeLeon notes, "It has become an axiom that, to accomplish results, organization is requisite. Nevertheless, there is “organization” and “organization." That this is so appears clearly from the fact that the “pure-and-simplers” have been going about saying to the workers: “Organize! Organize!” and after they have been saying that, and have been “organizing” and “organizing” for the past thirty or forty years, we find that they are virtually where they started, if not worse off; that their “organization” partakes of the nature of the lizard, whose tail destroys what his foreparts build up."  For DeLeon, conventional or 'pure and simple' trade unionism continually fails in its effort a producing an effective organization because it accepts the basic structure of what it is ostensibly trying to fight. More significantly, he argues that the 'organization' of the conventional trade union takes on the formal characteristics of that system.  He phrases it in an interesting manner, offering a peculiar metaphor, 'a lizard, whose tail destroys what his foreparts build up.'  I'm not sure what it means for a lizard to build with 'his foreparts,' but the metaphor clearly indicates a organizational structure that is in conflict with itself, an organization that unknowingly undoes its own accomplishments.  DeLeon describes an organization in conflict with itself, an organization that still accepts the premises of its own exploitation without recognizing that contradiction.  Pushing this to a set of epistomological concerns, we find ourselves with an organization that doesn't recognize the implications of its own theoretical framework.  Or drawing on a different context, literary theory, Terry Eagleton notes, "Hostility to theory usually means an opposition to other people's theories an oblivion of one's own." (Eagleton viii)  It opposes the anti-capitalist perspective but through that action, it can't recognize the full implications of that decision, which place the organization in collusion with the institutional structures that it is ostensibly opposing.  At a more basic level, we are facing a set of people who have naturalized a set of social structures, putting them in a position where they not only refuse any alternative to it, but are unable to meaningfully recognize an alternative.

     I found myself returning to these questions out of fairly immediate and prosaic concerns.  The joint council meeting of the grad student union, UAW 2865, was held a week ago on my birthday, January 21st.  One of the central concerns of that meeting was to discuss the question of membership recruitment, in response to the loss of members over the past few years.  Within that discussion, it became obvious that our differences with the remnants of the USEJ (United for Social and Economic Justice) caucus had a number of substantial organizational differences at the heart of it, and that the USEJ members of the JC were incapable of recognizing this.  Before I move into this conversation, I want to make it clear that the question of membership is a serious one, and that our ability to meaningfully function as a union is dependent on the active consent and participation of the vast majority of the potential membership.  Our ability to negotiate contracts as well defend our rights cannot operate without this, as is our ability to use the social and institutional power of the union to create a genuinely democratic public education system.  Signing a card becomes the first step in getting involved in the (hopefully) vast assemblage of the union, contributing to it, and reshaping it.  The difficulty is that the previous dominant model of the union frequently operated on the premise that our first and last interaction with workers was the attempt to get that card.  (For a longer critique of the UAW membership model, read this.)  In effect, the meaning of membership has been hollowed out, transformed into a passive acceptance of representation, rather than creating a constitutive model.

      So when the USEJ members of the Joint Council from Santa Barbara made a proposal for increasing membership, it contained these sorts of assumptions within its structure.  The proposal was designed to fund organizers at all the campuses that fell below a certain level of membership, funding these positions at a 50% funding level, which is the same level of funding and work as a teaching assistant position.  This part of the proposal was fairly uncontroversial.  There was a bit of volunteerist over-enthusiasm within the AWDU (Academic Workers for a Democratic Union) camp early, but most folks seem to recognize that have someone spending twenty hours a week just thinking about organizing might be necessary to keep the organization strong and coherent.  However, the Santa Barbara proposal had a number of other stipulations that proved to be much more troubling.  In addition to funding local positions, they wanted the executive committee to control both the hiring and the direction of work of the organizers, effectively cutting out the local branches from having a say in how organizing occurs on their own campuses.  Fortunately, this got revised in the discussion to allow for a substantial amount of local control over these funds, but I think that the original proposal is revealing of an organizational common-sense, one that operates on the basis of top-down control and one on one organization that cuts out forms of horizontal communication and solidarity.

      A number of other moments in the meeting revealed a similar set of assumptions.  Within the conversation about the vision of the union, the Santa Barbara contingent was concerned about the absence of any discussion about defending the contract in the vision statement.  I happen to agree with this sentiment.  The contract provides an important site for creating social power and solidarity in the workplace.  But rather than thinking of the contract in these terms, the remaining USEJ forces continually posed this work in terms of 'servicing' the contract, and 'doing our job.'  In effect, we were offered the servicing model of the business model, a model that isn't that different from the anti-communist unionism of Samuel Gompers.  Their discussion of grievances operated under similar model, working to have a greater say by union officialdom in the secondary documentation (this is the document that states what we are expected to do as workers), but no thought on how this sort of agency could be taken on by workers themselves through collective action.  Furthermore, these officials were unable to or were unwilling to recognize that this is only one of many ways of organizing a union, insisting that the only thing lacking within the current framework of the union was enthusiasm, refusing to recognize the role of their own organizational structure in the lack of union membership.  Even though there are folks involved in these fights that I don't particularly care for, I want to emphasize that I don't think that the issue with the former USEJ is a matter of a lack of sincerity or enthusiasm.  We're talking about some genuinely committed folks, but that commitment is based on a set of class-collaborations that have been dead for years, and on the basis of an alienated worker that has never adequately described the labor practices of folks involved in public education.

      At the same time, we at AWDU have had our own limitations, as well.  We've done a lot to contribute to the renewed struggle in defense of public education, but we haven't given enough thought into how we can make the union more relevant to the day to day life of the union.  We ran on the premise that our union should be in a position in which we could meaningfully go on strike, but we are very far from this position.  Comrades such as Josh Brahinsky, Anne Kelly, Alfredo Carlos, Adam Hefty, Katy Fox-Hodess, and others have been offering some useful ideas on the sort of work that we need to take on in order to accomplish this, but we haven't put the kind of collective intellectual labor that is necessary to imagine the new sorts of organizational structure and practice that are needed to produce a successful union within our current crisis.  We need to build stronger horizontal structures such as steward's councils, as well as creating reproductive mechanisms in those departments to allow for a continuity of the union at the departmental level.  We need to produce a set of organizational models that allow for a lot of folks to play the part of activists, while completing their education, rather than a few specialists that move on to work for the international of the union.   These questions will not be resolved by the simple application of enthusiasm to a model that destroys with its tail what its front parts are trying to create (returning to the lizard model.)

Monday, January 23, 2012

Initial thoughts on Leguin's The Dispossessed

      The criticism of Ursula Leguin’s The Dispossessed has a fairly strange history. On one hand, the novel is recognized for its importance, but on the other hand, it hasn’t garnered a very serious engagement on the part of either Marxist or Feminist critics. Marxist critics such as Frederic Jameson have tended to reference the text without much serious engagement[1]. On the other hand, Feminist critics have read the narrative fairly seriously, but primarily in terms of lack. The narrative lacks women characters, engages with the genre in a far too traditional manner amongst other critiques. Other than the out of print reading by Tom Moylan, critics have not made much effort to engage with the novel at a serious formal level. The current chapter will attempt to make such a reading, examining the question of domesticity, reproductive labor, both in the household and in the public sphere, and gender relations, through the formal apparatus of the book, which, along with Leguin’s other major novels, Left Hand of Darkness, and Always Coming Home, draws on the strategies of estrangement created from a serious engagement with the traditions of travel writing and ethnography, which have always had a strong connection to the utopian tradition.

       Unlike the other two novels, The Dispossessed doesn’t structure its narrative through multiple perspectives, nor does it bring in a discourse of expertise. It operates through a single narrator, who operates as the naïve witness of the new society, which is fairly traditional in utopian narratives. However, rather than moving from the naturalistic setting of the author to the utopian space, the main protagonist, Shevak moves from the utopian society, acting as a traveler in the naturalistic setting of the stand in for Earth, Urras, allowing for him to denaturalize the everyday expectations of the audience. At the same time, the narrative doubles as Shevak critically thinks back on the events that bring him to the Earth. This use of perspective then abandons the notion of the utopian society of Anarres as a static blueprint, and the term ‘ambiguous’ is introduced into the title of the novel, precisely to mark the open constitutive process contained in the utopian society.

      The basic premise behind the novel is that planet Urras looks remarkably like the Earth of the time of its writing. The world is in the midst of a cold war, and this cold war was leading to the kind of low intensity warfare that occurred in Greece, Vietnam, and Korea. Simultaneously, the kind of intellectual repression represented by McCarthyism was still occurring, and there is a strong state influence over the intellectual life of the society. However, there are a number of differences as well. Most notably, there is an awareness of the existence of multiple worlds, and those worlds have Embassies with on the world. In addition, the moon is populated due to an anarchist uprising that ended in stalemate. The truce that was negotiated allowed for the rebels to leave the planet for the moon to set up a colony, and until Shevek’s mission, there had been no contact between the two societies.

      The ostensible purpose of Shevek’s visit is scientific, drawing on the extra resources contained in the universities of the main planet to develop a theory that will allow for faster than light travel. However, because of this, the narrative also explores the family structures of the society, its schools, its forms of protest, etc. In effect, the narrative structure of The Dispossessed shifts the structures of reproductive labor from liminal and private spaces of the domestic to the public and the political. The narrative focuses on precisely the dominant institutions of reproduction in the society, the family and the school. The oscillation between Shevek’s childhood on Anarres and his experience working within the institutions of the dominant society of Urras opens up a crisis of legitimacy, marked by insurrectionary strife in Urras and political organizing against the contradictions within the revolutionary society of Anarres.

[1] There are two notable exceptions to this tendency in the tradition.  Darko Suvin has a serious analysis of Leguin in his Positions and Presuppositions in Science Fiction; however, this does not focus much attention to The Dispossessed.  The second is Tom Moylan’s Demand the Impossible, which I have not gotten my hands on yet.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

An extended reading of Delany's Trouble on Triton (early draft)

            Joanna Russ both links Delany’s Triton with the creation of the set of feminist utopias and distinguishes it from them due to “an implicit level of freedom that allows him to turn his attention subtly by persistently away from many of the questions that occupy the other writers.”[1]  Russ notes that this freedom allows for Delany to explore a more complex conception of sexuality than the ones found in the other novels, focusing on a multiplicity of sexualities, rather than the simple avoidance of coercion and exploitation, as well as a complete break from the utopian form, shifting from Le Guin’s “ambiguous utopia” to the construction of Triton as an “ambiguous heterotopia.”  Russ argues that the shift in politics is linked to the relatively privileged position that Delany holds as a man, but without dismissing that position entirely, the reading misses out on the impact that Delany’s engagement with critical theory and the gay liberation movement had on the novel.  That engagement leads to a formal shift in Delany’s writing, a shift that simultaneously is committed to the linguistic effects produced through science fiction as a genre as well as transforming   It can be seen as a competing interpretation of the rise of the new left offered by the ambiguous utopia offered by Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, instead looking to the multiplicity of the new movements that arose under its label, the confusion and tumult created by them, as well as marking a politics of conservative backlash, defined by a resentful anger because of the destruction of a structure of symbolic familiarity.

            Delany’s critical work contained in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw provides an excellent beginning point for this engagement, intersecting with the with the earlier utopian work of Leguin, Russ, and others, as well as intersecting with Triton through a set of philosophical speculations contained in the criticism and the novel.  Written two months after the publication of Trouble on Triton, the critical reading of Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, while often ungenerous points to the concerns that Delaney had about the construction of science fiction narratives, particularly around questions of sexuality, but also around the science of the narrative and the plausibility of several of the characters.  However, beyonde any particular engagement with Le Guin’s work Delany offers insite into the formal and political concerns that were in play during the production of his novel, Trouble on Triton.  The essay then becomes a critique of the limitations of contemporary science fiction, and by extension, it gestures towards the intervention Delany was attempting to make with the publication of the novel.  Within this context,  my intention is to read the two together as a combined project, critically rejecting the utopia as the privileged narrative for exploring radical politics.  Instead, heterotopia becomes the possibility for an open and constitutive politics.

           The Jewel-Hinged Jaw was Delany’s first sustained polemical and theoretical engagement with the genre of science fiction.  Written between the years 1966 and 1976, Delany produced a series of often harshly critical readings of critics and novelists.  The essays inhabit a curious transitional position with the body of criticism around the genre, standing between a set of critical texts produced by Judith Merril, Damon Knight, and others, primarily to legitimate the genre literarily, and to create standards to allow for that legitimation and the more formal modes of literary criticism inaugerated by the work of Darko Suvin  and the journal of Science Fiction Studies.  The essays oscillate between criticism of bad art and dismissive criticism within the genre and sustained engagements with the formal language of the history of the genre as well as particular works.

The relationship between the novel and the essays contained within The Jewel-Hinged Jaw go beyond a simple publication date.  The publications shared a number of similar citation, focusing on a number of philosophers of language, including Wittgenstein and Quine.  More significantly, there are small fragments of the novel contained within the pages of the essay.  In addition, the two texts deliberately operate interstitially, generically.  The Jewel-Hinged Jaw deliberately introduces a set of fictional narratives within its analysis of literary form, while Trouble on Triton introduces philosophy, critical theory, and literary analysis into the fictional narrative.  The two publications gesture towards a shift in Delany’s literary production, a shift from a set of more conventional science fiction narratives into a set of narratives that deliberately synthesize Delany’s fictional interests with his academic interests in structuralist and post-structuralist critical theory.

            In a short fictional philosophical lecture offered as a post-script to the narrative, Delany explicitly brings in Foucault’s concept of heterotopia, a concept explicitly contrasted with the utopian form.  That excerpt allows for a productive engagement with the critique of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed

Utopias afford consolation: although they have no real locality there is nevertheless a fantastic untroubled region in which they are able to unfold; they open up cities with vast avenues, superbly planted gardens, countries where life is easy, even though the road to them is chimerical.  Heterotopias are disturbing, probably because they make it impossible to name this and that, because they shatter or tangle common names, because they shatter “syntax in advance, and not only the syntax which causes words and things (next to and also opposite one another to “hold together.”  This is why utopias permit fables and discourse: they run with the very grain of language and are part of the fundamental fabula; heterotopias… desiccate speech, stop words in their tracks, contest the very possibility of grammar at its source; they dissolve our myths and sterilize the lyricism of our sentences.”[2]

            To turn to the language of Foucault, Le Guin’s usage of the utopian form transforms the tumult of the new left into the consolation of the utopian form, a form that turns the tumult of those varieties of movements into something familiar and organized, something that no longer challenges our social symbolic, the syntax of our language.  For Delany, the familiarity of the utopian narrative allows for a set of symbolic assumptions about social reproduction to be smuggled in the back door, about the socialization of boys and girls, about sexuality, and about the inability of the text to seriously incorporate queer sexualities into the social symbolic of the world of Annares.  He repeatedly opposes this comfortable fictional narrative with a number of anecdotes, bringing in narratives about media and protest, a white colleague’s inability to see Blacks in Johannesburg, science studies, and his experience in an informal collective of gay fathers.  Each gesture towards a complexity erased in the familiar language of Le Guin’s narrative, which Delany reads within the realist tradition of 19th century fiction, including socialist realism, and its inability to recognize the mediating impact of the mass media, the social structures of scientific knowledge production, and the proliferation in alternative forms of family life created by gay liberation and feminism.
         For Delany, these limitations are always linked to formal concerns.  His primary concern is framed early in the essay.

“We feel we can make valuating assumptions of reference and resolution in this particular examination because this particular novel—The Dispossessed—demands them: All in the book that asks us to take it as a novel ideas also asks us to hold the novel up, however sensitively, intelligently, and at the proper angle, to the real.”

            Holding up the novel to the standards of the real may initially sound like a call for some sort of versimilitude, but for Delany the relation to the real is intimately linked to form.  Within this context, Delany’s call for an engagement with the real has a strong relationship to what Roland Barthes calls the reality effect, descriptive practices that do not contribute to the advancement of the narrative, but allow for the ‘real to slip ‘back in as a signified of connotation,’ gesturing towards the complex and fragmentary nature of reality, and the expulsion of the signified from the narrative process.  For Delany, the failures in Leguin’s text can be linked to to the text’s fidelity to a set of literary practices of the 19th century, particularly in the text’s representation of labor and protest.  He poses the creation of a new language of prose as an alternative project.  He notes,  “We are not talking about what is lost in the translation of from the language of another time or place.  We are talking about what is gained by writing in our own.” (Delany 225) 

           The creation of that alternative literary from is tied into the ways that sign structures of science fiction differ from mundane fiction.  Delany argues that mundane fiction makes the demand of description of its prose, whereas science fiction has additional analytical demands placed on it.  He notes,

            “Mundane fiction can get by with a clear and accurate portrayal of behavior that occurs merely because it occurs.  Science fiction can not.  In an alien culture—and both Annares and Urras are alien cultures—we are obliged to speculate on the reason behind any given behavior; and in this speculation, whether implicit or explicit, must leave its signs in the text.  The scenes and paragraphs cited are signs of the limitations on the social egaitarianism of Annares; they are not signs for the causes of those limitations….  Science fiction may ultimately end with an “I don’t know” about any given point, but only after a good deal of speculation, either implicit or explicit, has left its signs in the text.”

            Science fiction is put in the position of having to examine and question the reasoning behind the behavior and social structures contained in its narratives.  The reader must be put in the position of engaging with the structures of the imagined society at the analytical level, rather than simply at the descriptive level.  We can think of this process within the terms introduced by science fiction critic, Darko Suvin, who argued that the genre should be understood as engaging in a process of ‘cognitive estrangement.’  The genre both estranged the reader from the social, political, and cultural expectations of a society through presenting an alternative future that was possible given changes in technology and social forms.  It allows for the reader to recognize the contingency of the zero world of the reader through the presentation of a potential futurity.

            However, Delany’s analysis of this effect engaged with it at the level of language, rather than at the narrative level.  In the theoretical section of the text, he makes the following argument.

 “In  simple sense, what science fiction does—at the level of coined science-fictional term…, at the level of the specifically science-fictional sentence (e.g., Robert Heinlein’s “The door dilated.”), and at the level of the uniquely science-fictional plot—is to take recognizable syntagms and substitute in them, here and there, signifiers from a till then wholly unexpected paradigm.  The occurance of unusual, if not downright opaque, signifiers in the syntagm focuses our attention on the structures implied…, whether internal, external, implicit or explicit to any given signifier… in a given text.”

Rather than focusing on the process of ostramie, or distancing, Delany focuses on the ways that the introduction of new, alien words lead to a transformation of the structure of language at the level of the word, the sentence, and beyond.  He draws on Lacan’s interpretation of the signifier, emphasizing the transformation of the entire web of signifiers through the new signifier.  The science-fictional effect is similar to the reality effect discussed by Barthes.  It operates through a set of language effects that operate at the level of the signifier, while operating in excess of any narrative logic.  It gestures to a form of reality effect that simultaneously critiques the descriptive logic of both 19th century realism as well as contemporary mundane fiction.  It constructs another structure of literature, one that operates at a different symbolic logic.

      The shifts in the formal structure of Trouble of Triton from the earlier narratives discussed are immediately obvious.  The novel is presented in a deliberately fragmentary fashion, providing not only the novel, but notes on the process of its production, alternative material, and a fictional philosophical lecture.  It deliberately refuses the closed, synthetic mode of the novel taken up by the earlier novels discussed.  Instead, it operates within a modernist fascination with the fragmentary, the incomplete.  In addition, the narrative of the text is continually interrupted with a series of philosophical quotations, primarily from philosophers of language, adding an additional set of mediating breaks within the text.  Through these immediate formal differences, we can begin to think about the differences contained in the novel, differences that gesture towards a vision of futurity that neither operates on the logic of progress, nor through the decisive transformation of catastrophe.

Like Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, Triton is set in a multi-world system; however this narrative contains no alien species, only the effects of a continued human colonization.  There are constant conflicts and negotiations between the inner-planets and outer-planets of that system, linked up to an implicit center-periphery system.  This conflict plays a background part in the narrative, as Bron travels with the Triton government agent Sam on a never fully identified mission[3]  However, the focus of the novel is primarily Bron’s attempt to negotiate the complex structure of genders, sexualities, and family and care structures in the society.  In effect, the narrative brings out the full possibilities contained within a regime of sexuality that is only touched on by the other narratives.  The society simultaneously explodes any privileged form of symbolic and rejects any notion of the individual as such.  Instead, the narrative offers a society that proliferates as an infinite variety of types, bringing in a medical apparatus that allows for an endless transformation of the body.  The narrative uses the same structure of dormitories as Leguin’s utopian planet of Anarres, but those dormitories become the structure that both permits and categorizes the types of the society, allowing for a multiplicity of family types through the formation of communes, spaces structured for gays and lesbians, as well as single sex dormitories.

          Bron, rather than playing the privileged epistemological role that Shevek plays in The Dispossessed, instead plays the role of the throwback, the man who cannot adjust himself to the complexity of the society.  He can neither accept this variety, nor can he accept his role as one of many types in the society, keeping a sort of hopeless and outdated commitment to the figure of the individual.  In effect, Bron is a far more traditional protagonist for the utopian form, giving the reader a naïve witness to follow the various transformations in the daily life of the society, reproducing the reader’s estrangement to those arrangements.  Bron is pushed through the narrative moving event to event without much agency, failing at the role of spy, lover, and supervisor.  However, unlike those traditional utopias, there is no conversion of pedagogical transformation for Bron.  Instead, the narrative ends with the only discovery that Bron makes because of his sex change, the ability and proclivity to lie when a woman, bringing out a dimension of aporia found in all of the narratives, but made explicit through the inability for Bron to successfully adapt to the new society.

            Bron is both explicitly linked with a set of social expectations that are no longer held by most of society and she himself notes this.  “Sometimes I wish we did live in the past.  Sometimes I wish men were all strong and women were all weak, even if you did it by not picking them up and cuddling them enough when they were babies… because, somehow, it would be simpler that way to justify…” But she could not say what it would justify.” (Delany 302)  Obviously, this nostalgia invites the sort of ideological critique that was brought up earlier, but it also allows for the structural oscillation that Suvin considers crucial to science fiction.  Bron’s continual inability to grasp social relations is both tied to the fact that his social expectations look like something contemporary and the fact that this historically situated social symbolic limits the ability of the reader to fully grasp.  In other words, Bron becomes the access point for the reader through his incapability, rather than his capability.

            This thematic is returned to continually throughout the book.  Bron is confronted by something he cannot grasp or put in a position that he must confront his own limitations, and he shuts down.  This is given a multiplicity of explanations, ranging from emotional laziness by his sometime lover the Spike to logical sadism by his friend Lawrence.  This epistemological blockage is continually represented within the interior monologue of the character, which continually poses problems only to deflect them away from both blame and cognitive understanding.  This seems to be linked to his investment in a particular logical system, which allows for this continual avoidance.

[1] 146.
[2] Samuel Delaney, Trouble on Triton, 292
[3] Once again, providing an implicit parallel with Shevek’s travel to the Earth.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A Brief Comment on a Critique of Occupy Wall Street

     I recently came across an interesting critique of the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon on Racialicious recently.  There's a larger conversation around identity that could be taken on with this piece, but I don't think that I'm the person to do that, and it would be a distraction from the questions of organization that I want to discuss.  This is not to say that I'm discounting the questions of identity, and more specifically, the racism implicit in the behavior of the Occupy Wall Street protesters, but that I want to consider those questions through the question of organization, rather than working through the framework offered by Racialicious.  I don't intend this as a critique of that particular framework, but as an argument that the identitarian perspective needs to be taken seriously, even if one doesn't accept it's intellectual framework.  As this piece reveals, the refusal to engage with the long history of organizing around a variety structures of oppression and domination around categories of identity, also damage the ability of social movements such as Occupy Wall Street become a counter-hegemonic force, or perhaps more specifically, to live up to its claims of representing the 99%.  

    OWS protesters often make it seem like they are the birth of social justice activism, that they are here to teach us how to protest because none of us know what the fuck we are doing and need their wealth of experience to help us out. I was not at all surprised when that woman so naturally assumed that she, as a white woman, knew better than me – she thought that I had found a blowhorn somewhere and decided to play around with it. It didn’t occur to her that we had been planning this for weeks and thinking critically about every step, that it was led by a civil rights organization that has been at work for decades, that we had applied for 4 different kinds of permits so that our event could safely and effectively achieve its purpose.

     The actions of these OWS protesters showed that they were at the march and vigil, not to show their support for Danny Chen’s family or the ongoing work on their case, but to provoke and garner attention for themselves and their brand, and then try to turn our strategic work and planning into a nonsensical, self-righteous tantrum. They acted like tourists on vacation in the social justice world, and our efforts and long-term goals were expendable in light of their self-interested pursuit of an interesting experience.

    The two paragraphs above manage to identify all of the significant criticisms that I have had with the "Occupy" movement in my fairly limited interactions with them.  The first paragraph lays out two common assumptions that occupy protestors fall into, a lack of recognition of other social movements, and within that context, a tendency to take over actions when other activists don't behave in the same manner as the "Occupy" encampments.  Through its very particular history, the "Occupy" movement has produced a number of tactical and organizational methods, some patchwork responses to necessity, some quite clever innovations that we'll probably be using for years whether the movement survives or not.  However, as the organizational model moved out of New York, there was a tendency to fetishize those methods, that is, to see a set of contingent practices as the only practices that one can use to organize successfully.  It's understandable when new "Occupy" activists lean to heavily upon these now familiar techniques to begin organizing.  After all, the social structures of the country don't exactly encourage the kinds of horizontal cooperation that are crucial to organizing.  But when those activist refuse or can't recognize that other situations may call for other techniques, or that other histories of organizing may exist that naivete quickly becomes a form of chauvinism, and when it ignores the needs and histories of activists of color, a form of racism.

      In addition to slipping into chauvinistic behavior, the commitment to one set of tactics also limits those movements abilities to respond to different situations.  For instance, as the "Occupy" movement moves away from the encampment model, different tactics and conversational styles are going to be required.  Additionally, the police and politicians are going to develop responses to these additionally successful responses.  The anti-globalization movement is an excellent example of this.  The action in Seattle was a spectacular success, but each following mass action in that model was less so.  Why? Because, the novel became the familiar, and the police were able to develop a set of responses to that model of protest.  Without an ability to adapt, we're going to see the movement quickly collapse in the same manner as the anti-globalization.  The movements that the "Occupy" protestors are all too often ignoring have dealt with issues of police violence, cooptation, and neutralization.  Moreover, they have come up with some pretty impressive new forms of protests themselves.  When movements engage in this sort of nonsense, they not only lose the important ability to grow in numbers, but they lose out on histories of counter-systemic movements.

     The second issue is the obsession that the movement has with the brand of occupy itself.  Rather than acting as allies for a variety of social movements, the "Occupy" movements have the uncanny ability to look like they are more interested in promoting themselves.  As a practical example, when the "Occupy LA" protestors showed up to labor protests in Los Angeles, their main slogans weren't focused on worker's issues, but were a continual drumbeat for the "Occupy" movement itself. This didn't offend anybody, but it effectively cut off any meaningful conversation between the public sector workers of ReFund movement and the "Occupy" movement.  "Occupy" wants to take a kind of vanguard role in social movements, but any vanguard role is created through a willingness to do hard work, to make sacrifices, and most of all, to take the responsibilities of mutual aid seriously.  If the groups took up those responsibilities, they would get a lot more traction, rather than the embrace of the brand model introduced by Adbusters at the beginning of the first "Occupy."  That model is going to translate into a very small and isolated movement.  I would prefer not seeing that.         

Sunday, January 1, 2012

A Discussion of ACT-UP and the ACT-UP Oral History Project

     Here's fairly interesting interview with Sarah Schulman and Jim Hubbard about ACT-UP, although it offers some critical thoughts about contemporary activism as well. Skip the first seventeen minutes because the video loops and replays that first section of the presentation.  Here's the link to the website.