The Triumph of Activism

Posted on May 19, 2013


 The last several decades have represented an extended period of decline for the idea of “activism”. Protest, which in its golden hey-days of pre-institutional labor, anti-war, and civil rights, was an organic powerhouse, using a flexible diversity of tactics. Movements were not tied to a single form of protest, but it was clear that the most effective method of any protest was to be intractable, to seize time and space and not let it go until the establishment began to buckle.

Protest has evolved over the years into institutionalized and funded shell of its former self, where large scale parades and pre-arranged civil disobedience have created toothless hours-long spectacles that scare the organizers—who spend significant energy policing their own protesters—far more than they do the targets of the protests.

No one who has been involved in political action over the past decade can have failed to notice this dynamic, because the Democratic party has made it all but impossible to ignore. The inability of the party to fulfill its former role and grant even the token requests that used to accompany symbolic protests from institutional organizations and unions has become pervasive.

Democrats have become abusive partners in this dysfunctional relationship, rubbing the left’s nose in its own failures as it increasingly courts a mythical center composed of depoliticized Americans disengaged from political concerns.

The constrained and commodified nature of “activism” is geared to produce events judged on their own merits: did the speakers show up? Was there enough water? Did the PA system work? Were participants manageable? Thus, the institutional left has one success after another as it evaluates its actions as events, and not protests.

The Occupy movement  grew as a response to this decades-long record of impotence. But there was nothing special about it. Indeed, Occupy elbowed its way in front of another action that had been in the planning and organizing stages for months, named simply “October 2011”. The coalition sought to use the same tactic in Washington D.C.–an open-ended civil disobedience action to decisively end US wars and curb militarism, with attendant social and economic demands [though one can gauge by the organizers involved just how far it would have went].

Something was bound to pop up from the ruins of “activism”–a dynamic, flexible, broad based movement that would capture the energetic revulsion that so many Americans felt at the reprehensible acts of their new Democratic President, almost from the beginning indistinguishable from his Republican predecessor.

It’s not surprising that the idea that popped was direct action occupation. The tactic has always been an almost autonomic strategy when groups are allowed to form organically and make their own decisions, rather than take orders from a national office. Sit down strikes and occupations were the order of the day in previous labor generations.

The fact that workers at Republic Windows and Doors occupied their factory to protest layoffs in 2008 is not surprising; the fact that such a strategy was not more widespread is. Chicago again is the scene for aggressive seizure of time and space this weekend for a coalition of the Chicago Teacher’s Union and parents beginning a three day protest against the closure of 54 city schools—but CTA’s actions over the past year have been the first in a quarter century.

Despite the obvious strength and long tradition of the tactic, Occupy faced much criticism–not from the depoliticized mainstream, you’d expect that. It was the very activists who had been crying for a movement to save them from the cul-de-sac of institutional politics who pronounced Occupy DOA. Despite the yearning of over a decade, activists themselves gave the Occupy movement bare months, and in most cases no more than weeks,–and sometimes not even hours– to bring decisive victories and copious change.

You’d have thought that the quickness to bring the Occupiers back into their former stables of “activism” would have been accompanied by a better idea—indeed, the “99 percent spring” started by Move On and SEIU, seemingly to undermine Occupy on May Day of last year, had promised a revived institutional activism. And yet, almost as soon as Occupy faded off the scene, so mysteriously followed the “99%” actions. Since then, the focus is once again on large, expensive events that announce their impotence by getting permits and fading away after just one day.

Forward on Climate, was the most tragi-comic exponent of this dynamic in February. The “biggest environmental protest” in history put on by a coalition of groups including Move On, the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, marched around the White House [while Obama was in Chicago] and then promptly departed to the dustbin of history. Meanwhile, the Obama administration sends every signal that it will approve Keystone.

The institutional left only seems to come to life when it’s in danger of losing the last shreds of its legitimacy. Last year’s Oakland immigration protests during May Day were envisioned as a response to the perceived hi-jacking of May Day by Occupy Oakland. But the reality was that the immigration events had ceded protest to legislative politics in 2006, and they had grown smaller yearly. Ironically, the decreasing turn-outs were a mirror-image of the increasing number of deportations that skyrocketed toward the end of the Bush administration and only increased through Obama’s first term.

Even the increased activity in Oakland in 2012 was trapped in the amber of “activism” and looked “more like a parade” [as Chip Johnson, conservative hater of protest in general, noted approvingly]. This year, rather than some creative form of escalation, the  same kind of “parade” as previous years has returned. Having completely handed over the responsibility for immigration reform to legislators once again, the May Day action seemed to have no goals other than fulfilling its annual mandate to exist.

This year’s “Fight for 15’ series of one day strikes sponsored by SEIU and local nonprofits seems to fit a similar profile. It’s not a coincidence that most of these one day strikes take place in states where “right to work” laws have passed or are considered to be likely in a near-future. And though “right to work” laws are dishonestly pushed by conservative politicians doing the work of greedy capitalists, it’s not surprising that such laws have passed in state’s teeming with low wage workers.

For years, the national leadership of large institutional unions like SEIU have focused their efforts mostly on increasing their revenue through membership growth and maintaining national power. They deprive locals of autonomy while they hand their member’s dues over to the Democrats in exchange for little to nothing.

Even when big institutional actors like national unions are pushed into action as a last restort, it’s of the most cautious sort. It can certainly be argued that so far Fight for 15’s one-day strikes seem more of a plea to states to raise minimum wage–with the knowledge that such efforts can lead to meager increases—than an actual low-wage worker’s movement. The future of an SEIU-fronted Fight for 15 remains dubious.

What made an idea like Occupy engaging in the first place, was its power to scare governments and corporations into listening. Likely every “activist” whoever marched in a circle, then stood around in an air of impotent confusion when the mc told everyone that the event was over and that it was time to go home, has dreamed of a sustained and aggressive protest action. That’s why it’s surprising that when the left finally got its hands on something like that in the form of the unexpectedly popular Occupy movement, it had to be born perfect, crawl, and then walk a tightrope in less than a month.

It’s true that something of a mythology grew up around Occupy. The frequently fetishized tropes of “process” and “transparency”; the iconography of tents and Guy Fawkes masks; and the mantra of “mic-check” became vehicles of their own leading nowhere. While pleasing on some aesthetic level, the idea of prefigurative politics and of horizontal strategizing in a completely open space with absolute strangers has perhaps reached the end of its usefulness. The first generation of the Occupation movement needs to be re-evaluated, obviously

That re-evaluation should not become an opportunity to redeem vertical leadership, nor to indulge in the kind of natal regression that we’ve seen in Zizek’s recent call for a “Thatcher of the left”. The failures of top down organizing are plentiful; the reason people keep going back to the paternal comfort of vertical leadership is because it promises participants limited paths and a bigger return on their investment than their efforts would merit alone, with a concurrent lack of responsibility for [ubiquitous] failure. Vertical leadership makes good on only the latter half of that promise, but it seems to be enough to keep bringing people back.

Nor should the new Occupy be seen as an excuse to continue to hover only in the realm of middle class concerns, nor to play at being “grown up” with service-oriented, crowd-funded actions that mirror the work of large NGO’s in every meaningful way.

The beta test for an Occupy strategy will require small committed groups and networks to strategize and organize. Luckily, many of these groups already exist from the initial  Occupy of 2011-12. Public assemblies that go to the streets with concrete local targets and goals will be necessary—expecting a depoliticized nation to suddenly appear out of the ether with plans and strategy intact is unrealistic to say the least, given the lack of active support over the past two years.

But within the originating groups, leadership can remain consensus based and horizontal. The new Occupy must subsequently call on those same originating mobilizers to create structures that can be readily usurped if mass mobilizations begin.

The organizing that follows must be focused, relevant and capable of yielding both short and long term victories. Beta Occupy can evolve in myriad ways. It could be a new labor movement, based predominantly on wildcat walk outs and work stoppages in key sectors or geographical locations. As with the rhetoric [but not practice] of Fight for 15, a new vibrant labor movement could organize outside the workplace for a sectoral, wage or geographic polity.

The new Occupy could be in the occupation of closed and closing factories, schools, libraries. It can be in protection of vulnerable individuals, those facing eviction not just from owned properties, but from rentals and homeless encampments. It can be in the liberation of blighted public lands for the bolstering of besieged communities.

It can be all or any of these things, but all of these actions should have a few things in common if they want to reclaim efficacy again. They should stake tenacious claim over time and space. They should lead to leadership being transferred from originating cadres into the hands of the people most affected by harmful policies, policing, austerity and capitalism.

Perhaps just as important as any of these, they should have an antagonistic analysis of local police—because in every Occupy, local police all on their own with no assistance prompting from the federal government have worked like anti-bodies of the corporate and institutional powers that protesters threatened.

And in every locality, police drain vital resources from embattled communities, contributing to insecurity and violence, not ameliorating them. Police are the local equivalent of the federal security/prison industrial complex. As such, constant critique of the police offer new ways of changing local paradigmatic politics.

Nothing is guaranteed. But the antidote to the failure of the first iteration of Occupy can’t possibly be the tactics that led to consistent failure for the previous two to three decades. Occupy should at least get one more chance. Those who are impatient for change, at least owe it to themselves to reject the triumph of ‘activism’ and move on from there.