October 29, 2011

Fragments from an Occupation

Posted below is a collection of concerns, questions, and reflections generated by a recent round-table on the global occupy movement that took place at the University of Alberta. I was involved in planning the event and I'm still hoping that I'll be able to post a recording of the discussion on this site; for now, I've assembled some thoughts (my own, as well as those of other participants) both on the movement more generally and on its current manifestation in Edmonton.

Although a significant action took place today (a march calling for governments to introduce what's been nicknamed "the Robin Hood tax") and our camp at the corner of Jasper Ave and 102 Street is still functional after nearly two weeks of occupation, there has a noticeable decline in participation, both at a day-to-day level (a small number of volunteers are doing all the work to maintain camp infrustructure) and at our regularly held general assemblies. There are ongoing discussions about the future of the downtown camp: none of us are so naive that we think this can continue (at least in its current form) through an Edmonton winter. There have been also been an increasing amount of concerns regarding the homeless individuals who frequent the camp, many of whom are intoxicated or seeking a fix. Thankfully, most of us are of the opinion that the participation of the disenfranchised is just as (if not more) important to this occupation as our own, not least because they had been "occupying" this harsh and unwelcoming environment well before we arrived with our tents. However, many of the problems that currently plague the camp are due to decreased involvement and attendance, and so it is all the more imperative that we think through ways of continuing what we've started that don't sacrifice momentum but are still realistic about the movements material limitations.

It's with those immediate concerns in mind that I turn to some reflections that emerged from last week's discussion at U of A.

First, the global occupy movement is based around local attempts to build permanent zones of autonomy that stand in contradiction to the processes of capitalism that determine our lived condition. Proof of this contradiction can be seen in the violent responses from the state in places like Oakland, Rome and elsewhere.

Unlike the many institutions of collectivity that have become complicit with or have developed out of Western capitalism, the occupy movement is not interested simply in the performance of community and actively resists its commodification. As has been noted, the movement is characterized by a strong negative impulse which draws it into opposition with the political-economic apparatus as it functions today; people are increasingly recognizing that our system has enabled the consolidation of wealth and power by an indifferent upper-class. Despite the reactionary criticism perpetuated by mainstream media outlets, the movement has a clear target in its aim.

There is a conscious effort to privilege local struggle while recognizing its relationship to and solidarity with the larger global struggle. Here in Edmonton, we have begun most of our meetings with an acknowledgment that we are living on Treaty 6 land: once a place of flourishing for the Cree, now a place of alienation and embarrassment for many indigenous peoples due to the first occupation of this land by British settlers. Can we understand our current occupation as a conscious effort to reorient ourselves to a land that was never ours to begin with? Are we participating in the prolongation of colonial structures, or opposing them with and on behalf of the disenfranchised? Does the language of occupation (which has drawn fire from numerous participants) not reflect and produce the very logic of private ownership that we oppose? In addition to the creation of new forms of social relation (not premised on capital), it is also up to us to imagine new possibilities for discourse and representation.

Perhaps one of the most important characteristics of this movement is that it has proceeded without any serious acknowledgment of what today falls under the name “politics.” Our choices in the political establishment offer no substantial choice or change, but instead give us slightly different ways of maintaining untenable lifestyles. In short, the official institutions that claim to embody our democracy have been treated as the ineffective sideshow that they are.

It has been pointed out repeatedly that there is a frustrating lack of collective demands. Our unwillingness to identify or hand over specific demands arises from a fear that those demands will be perverted and co-opted by the powers we seek to oppose. This is certainly a weakness of the movement, but it is also one of its great strengths. Many of the social movements of the late twentieth century had their basis in identity-politics and, consequently, were grounded by an axiom of equilibrium that sought to establish a basic equality of rights among exclusive groups. Such movements were therefore mobilized by a certain degree of self-interest that could easily be put into the service of capital; it seems, in contrast, that the global occupy movement is mobilized by a collective hunger for justice that looks beyond individual needs, not to some universal projection of identity, but to a universal that is necessarily open, but is equally opposed to privatization.

October 24, 2011

Terry Eagleton on Milton, Paradise Lost and Revolution

From Terry Eagleton. "The God that Failed." Re-membering Milton, eds. Mary Nyquist and Margaret W. Ferguson. New York: Methuen, Inc., 1987. 345, 349.
Throwing history into reverse, the left wing retreats to an origin in order to keep alive a future beyond the shabby sell-outs of the bourgeoisie. Their mythologies glean the trace of the revolution within the revolution, a submerged subtext within the dispiriting narratives of official bourgeois history, whether this subtext is, as with Milton, the salvific history of the godly remnant or, as with Walter Benjamin, the tradition of the oppressed that haunts ruling-class history as its silenced underside. Blake knew that only a revolution which penetrated to the body itself could finally be victorious; Milton, as Christopher Hill remarks, believed that “the desire for reformation did not sink deeply enough into the consciences of supporters of the Revolution, did not transform their lives.” Thus Hill reads Paradise Lost not as the expression of political defeat but as the urging of a new political phase: “the foundations must be dug deeper, into the hearts of individual believers, in order to build more securely.”


To blame Marxism for [the conditions of Stalinism] is then somewhat akin to blaming God for the failure of seventeenth-century revolutionary hopes. To blame God in this way, Milton sees, can only mean one thing: that the Puritan bureaucrats, opportunists and careerists are then let comfortably off the moral and political hook. It was destiny after all; nothing to feel guilty about. But the failure of revolutionary hopes was not of course predestined and neither was Stalinism. . . . There are always those who, like the Koestlers and the Orwells, find it convenient and persuasive to blame the God that failed; but if we wanted a more accurate analogue of Paradise Lost in the twentieth century, we might do worse than looking at Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed.

October 21, 2011

New Music: Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks

The latest record from the former Pavement frontman has been out for several months now, and I've been putting off writing about it, perhaps because, like previous releases by Stephen Malkmus, it's acquired a rather personal significance--I'm cringing as I write this. I should also mention that it took some time to warm up to Mirror Traffic, perhaps because the first few tracks just aren't very good.

In my opinion, aside from a few duds (always par for the course with Malkmus), it's right up there with his best solo work, and constitutes a real step forward after 2008's less-than-spectacular Real Emotional Trash. The guitars are still prominent but the riffs are better and the poppier fare on Mirror Traffic makes better use of them. Somehow, the Malkmus continues to be juvenile and mature at the same time--he's that crazy uncle you idolized as a kid; the man who now earns your qualified appreciation as an adult. You may at times cringe at his wordplay, but (as with Real Emotional Trash) much of the sentiment comes from an archive of experiences that can only be amassed by middle-age. Malkmus is a family-man, a beloved veteran of indie rock, a recreational drug-user, an emotional screw-up, a witty comedian, and, of course, a guitar god. That compelling mess is all on display here: from the frenetic pulse of a song like "Tune Grief" to the laid-back, tender style of "Share the Red," it could be said that Malkmus calls it in. Indeed, none of this is new for fans of Pavement, even with Beck (another veteran of the nineties) lending his name to the production. Be that as it may, if Mirror Traffic is one of my favourite albums of the year, it's because Malkmus' penchant for melody is still unmatched in guitar-based indie rock, and wherever I'm at in my life, his songs continue to resonate, connect and, ultimately, illuminate the aspects of my life that require a soundtrack, if not a roadmap.

Here's "Stick Figures in Love," one of several tracks from Mirror Traffic that fit that somewhat personal (and embarrassing) description.

October 20, 2011

Milton on Interpretation and Crisis

In words which admitt of various sense, the libertie is ours to choose that interpretation which may best minde us of what our restless enemies endeavor, and what wee are timely to prevent.   
(Eikonoklastes, Preface. 1649)

October 11, 2011

Zizek at Occupy Wall Street

This past weekend, I came across a set of videos from the ongoing demonstration that began in New York, and is now gathering steam across North America. Amid the celebrities flocking to Wall Street for a photo opp and the indie heart-throbs busting out their acoustic guitars, there was Zizek offering protesters some well-considered words. What struck me about Zizek's speech was not simply its content (however, there were several highlights, especially the terse reminder to conservative fundamentalists of subversive nature of Christianity--here, with regard to the Holy Spirit), but it's strange, rather liturgical process of delivery. While some might see this as no more than a high profile power grab, or might criticize Zizek for assuming and inculcating the voice of the people, I see an intellectual actually doing something useful: lending his words and giving protesters an opportunity to speak collectively in ways they otherwise wouldn't: here, it seems to me, Zizek is less a dictator than a worship leader (though, I'm sure he'd prefer the former designation to the latter).

See for yourself. If you can't tolerate the low-grade videos,  Verso has provided a transcript, also reposted below.

Don't fall in love with yourselves, with the nice time we are having here. Carnivals come cheap—the true test of their worth is what remains the day after, how our normal daily life will be changed. Fall in love with hard and patient work—we are the beginning, not the end. Our basic message is: the taboo is broken, we do not live in the best possible world, we are allowed and obliged even to think about alternatives. There is a long road ahead, and soon we will have to address the truly difficult questions—questions not about what we do not want, but about what we DO want. What social organization can replace the existing capitalism? What type of new leaders we need? The XXth century alternatives obviously did not work.

So do not blame people and their attitudes: the problem is not corruption or greed, the problem is the system that pushes you to be corrupt. The solution is not “Main street, not Wall street,” but to change the system where main street cannot function without Wall street. Beware not only of enemies, but also of false friends who pretend to support us, but are already working hard to dilute our protest. In the same way we get coffee without caffeine, beer without alcohol, ice-cream without fat, they will try to make us into a harmless moral protest. But the reason we are here is that we had enough of the world where to recycle your Coke cans, to give a couple of dollars for charity, or to buy Starbucks cappuccino where 1% goes for the Third World troubles is enough to make us feel good. After outsourcing work and torture, after the marriage agencies started to outsource even our dating, we see that for a long time we were allowing our political engagements also to be outsourced—we want them back.

They will tell us we are un-American. But when conservative fundamentalists tell you that America is a Christian nation, remember what Christianity is: the Holy Spirit, the free egalitarian community of believers united by love. We here are the Holy Spirit, while on Wall Street they are pagans worshipping false idols.

They will tell us we are violent, that our very language is violent: occupation, and so on. Yes we are violent, but only in the sense in which Mahathma Gandhi was violent. We are violent because we want to put a stop on the way things go—but what is this purely symbolic violence compared to the violence needed to sustain the smooth functioning of the global capitalist system?

We were called losers—but are the true losers not there on the Wall Street, and were they not bailed out by hundreds of billions of your money? You are called socialists—but in the US, there already is socialism for the rich. They will tell you that you don't respect private property—but the Wall Street speculations that led to the crash of 2008 erased more hard-earned private property than if we were to be destroying it here night and day—just think of thousands of homes foreclosed...

We are not Communists, if Communism means the system which deservedly collapsed in 1990—and remember that Communists who are still in power run today the most ruthless capitalism (in China). The success of Chinese Communist-run capitalism is an ominous sign that the marriage between capitalism and democracy is approaching a divorce. The only sense in which we are Communists is that we care for the commons—the commons of nature, of knowledge—which are threatened by the system.

They will tell you that you are dreaming, but the true dreamers are those who think that things can go on indefinitely they way they are, just with some cosmetic changes. We are not dreamers, we are the awakening from a dream which is turning into a nightmare. We are not destroying anything, we are merely witness how the system is gradually destroying itself. We all know the classic scene from cartoons: the cat reaches a precipice, but it goes on walking, ignoring the fact that there is no ground under its feet; it starts to fall only when it looks down and notices the abyss. What we are doing is just reminding those in power to look down...

So is the change really possible? Today, the possible and the impossible are distributed in a strange way. In the domains of personal freedoms and scientific technology, the impossible is becoming increasingly possible (or so we are told): “nothing is impossible,” we can enjoy sex in all its perverse versions; entire archives of music, films, and TV series are available for downloading; space travel is available to everyone (with the money...); we can enhance our physical and psychic abilities through interventions into the genome, right up to the techno-gnostic dream of achieving immortality by transforming our identity into a software program. On the other hand, in the domain of social and economic relations, we are bombarded all the time by a You cannot ... engage in collective political acts (which necessarily end in totalitarian terror), or cling to the old Welfare State (it makes you non-competitive and leads to economic crisis), or isolate yourself from the global market, and so on.

When austerity measures are imposed, we are repeatedly told that this is simply what has to be done. Maybe, the time has come to turn around these coordinates of what is possible and what is impossible; maybe, we cannot become immortal, but we can have more solidarity and healthcare?

In mid-April 2011, the media reported that Chinese government has prohibited showing on TV and in theatres films which deal with time travel and alternate history, with the argument that such stories introduce frivolity into serious historical matters—even the fictional escape into alternate reality is considered too dangerous. We in the liberal West do not need such an explicit prohibition: ideology exerts enough material power to prevent alternate history narratives being taken with a minimum of seriousness. It is easy for us to imagine the end of the world—see numerous apocalyptic films -, but not end of capitalism.

In an old joke from the defunct German Democratic Republic, a German worker gets a job in Siberia; aware of how all mail will be read by censors, he tells his friends: “Let's establish a code: if a letter you will get from me is written in ordinary blue ink, it is true; if it is written in red ink, it is false.” After a month, his friends get the first letter written in blue ink: “Everything is wonderful here: stores are full, food is abundant, apartments are large and properly heated, movie theatres show films from the West, there are many beautiful girls ready for an affair—the only thing unavailable is red ink.” And is this not our situation till now? We have all the freedoms one wants—the only thing missing is the red ink: we feel free because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom. What this lack of red ink means is that, today, all the main terms we use to designate the present conflict—'war on terror,' "democracy and freedom,' 'human rights,' etc—are FALSE terms, mystifying our perception of the situation instead of allowing us to think it. You, here, you are giving to all of us red ink.

October 4, 2011

Why should I not confess that earth was then
To me, what an inheritance, new-fallen,
Seems, when the first time visited, to one
Who thither comes to find in it his home?
He walks about and looks upon the spot
With cordial transport, moulds it and remoulds,
And is half pleased with things that are amiss,
'Twill be such joy to see them disappear.
William Wordsworth, The Prelude