Wall Street under occupation: anarchism and the alternatives to power

I like anarchists. I always have. Victor Serge is one of my heroes.  (Go read his memoirs, one of the great books of the last century.) And almost everywhere I’ve seen a struggle for human rights — in Budapest, Moscow, Cairo — the anarchists are the ones who keep the faith, who are willing to go on the streets and march for the causes that are unpopular and despised. They’ll stand up, sit in, and get arrested for the issues none of the respectable human rights activists would want to be associated with.   I might trust the fellow with the business card and the Hugo Boss suit to argue for me in court. But it’s the guy in the ragged black T-shirt with the swirling tattoos, clutching his copy of Alexander Berkman, I’d want standing with me when the riot police charge.

My doubts — and this has to do both with Occupy Wall Street, and with the huge but evanescent victories of Midan Tahrir — are about where the project leads. We are seeing an era of what some pundits call “postmodern” revolutions, which don’t aim to seize the levers of state power but to create alternative spaces where a different kind of politics can be generated or imagined.  Changing the government was so 1789, or 1989. This is the age of Lennon, not Lenin. (OK, of Radiohead, but you get the idea.) That was what almost everybody who was in Tahrir seems to remember ecstatically about the experience: the sense they had created a model society radically unlike the one outside, a different kind of community, an embodied challenge to the divide-and-conquer hierarchies of the old state. (Of course, the revolution overthrew the dictator. But the protesters in Tahrir, refraining from violence, also refrained from claiming power for themselves. The result was that when the apparatus of rule slipped from Mubarak’s hands, not the popular movement but the military stepped in to claim it.  The history of the coming years will show whether this was a beautiful affirmation of the revolution’s purity of spirit, or a missed opportunity and an abnegation.) The ensuing months have not depleted that dream, but they’ve shown that only a few rubber bullets are needed to sweep the alternative space away.

The aspiration not to capture power, but to find another way of living altogether beyond its insidious dominion, is not particularly postmodern at all. Its roots are in the old anarchist tradition and its deep skepticism of all authority, its awareness of how dissent can mimic the domination it opposes.  But without power, how can you change anything — instead of just cultivating a private garden that will get bulldozed whenever the powers-that-be assert their eminent domain?  Without power, how can you even hope to safeguard and preserve the changes you’ve accomplished in your own life and self?

The NY Times recently published an article on young activists who reject the idea that voting changes things. As always, the Times is palpably unnerved by people whose demands would be difficult to fit in an editorial.

[F]rom South Asia to the heartland of Europe and now even to Wall Street, these protesters share something else: wariness, even contempt, toward traditional politicians and the democratic political process they preside over. They are taking to the streets, in part, because they have little faith in the ballot box.

The vague, anarchism-inflected ideas of participatory democracy that drive the spreading protests of 2011 seem to give the Times the willies. Voting behind drawn curtains is quieter and doesn’t break things.

I don’t agree. Making democracy more participatory, against its current colonization by mass media and corporate money, is vital.  And participation starts with the local and immediate, with needs and not abstractions, neighbors and not anonymous citizens. But it’s still the state that has final deciding power over who profits and who loses, who gets ahead and who gets screwed; in some cases, who belongs or who doesn’t, or who lives and who dies.   Really to change things surely means wresting that power away from the amoral entities controlling it now.

A participatory democracy in Midan Tahrir or Dewey Square may be an ideal or model, but it will take more than mere mimesis to make the rest of the world resemble it.  It’s very possible that, out of these inchoate protests, a new kind of politics is being born. But these are the hard questions it needs to ask itself if it’s going to grow, and succeed.

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