A Room of their Own
Michael Strom of OWS interviews Michael Albert of ZCom
Strom: In "Occupy to Self Manage," your most recent piece on the Occupy movement, you call occupations to engage issues of race, sex, gender, ecology, ability, age, etc. to the same degree as issues of economics and governance. A number of critiques of Occupy Wall Street have presented similar advice. It's clear to me that OWS needs to both understand and message itself as a holistic movement in order to bring about sustainable, worthwhile change. What could this look like?
I think being an authentically holistic movement means addressing at least four areas of focus - economics, kinship, culture, and polity - and two overarching contexts - ecology and international relations - all in their respective unique features as well as in their interrelations and entwinements.
It therefore means not presuming that any one area of concern is more important than the rest. Rather all four spheres of life emanate influences affecting people's options, affecting the defining relations of the other three, and affecting overall historical possibilities.
This implies, as well, paying attention to the hierarchies of privilege that each of the four spheres yields in society, not just one or the other - and thus also to the constituencies each defines and their interrelations.
This sounds like a lot, and therefore very hard, but actually, it is harder, assuming that we are talking about actually understanding society and unifying powerful movements, to focus on one sphere of life and make progress than it is to focus on all four and make progress.
Strom: How do you think we can transform OWS into an authentically holistic movement? How does a movement acquire and maintain that kind of holistic focus?
Honestly, I think it is pretty straight forward. To the extent the movement does internal education, discussion, exploration - it should address all four dimensions of life.
To the extent it reaches out to attract wider support and participation, it should address all four dimensions of life.
To the extent it protests and resists, it should be about all four spheres of life.
To the extent it builds alternatives, they should encompass all four spheres of life.
If a particular movement has a particular focus - let's say war and piece, or the state of the economy - that is fine, but then it should address these issues with attention, as well, to implications for the four spheres of life, and in particular, implications for the key constituencies from each sphere.
Beyond that, it depends on the movement, the people in it, etc., what makes sense.
For example, one thing that I think is very nearly always important is to welcome various constituencies developing "a room of their own" where they can meet, talk, and develop and share ideas and aspirations, and then bring out of that room, so to speak, proposals for the movement as a whole.
Strom: There seems to be tension between the idea of building autonomous movements (an autonomous feminist movement, for example) and the desire to make holism a fundamental part of OWS itself.
I think that this contradiction between autonomy and solidarity need not be a problem at all. The alternative to having the contradiction is to sincerely make our aim solidarity and autonomy, not solidarity or autonomy.
Thus, the idea that women or blacks or latinos or gays or workers ought to have a caucus or other structural means of developing its own views without having to constantly deal with folks with very different, and sometimes contrary circumstances and beliefs is very sensible. It should be part of our agenda.
Likewise, however, the idea that such constituencies should be entwined in a larger structure that brings to bear not just the power of one or the other constituency, or even of one or the other with proclamations of support from the rest, but that advances all together, with true solidarity, mutual aid, and understanding, is also very sensible.
So why shouldn't we be able to have both autonomy, and, on top of autonomy, giving it purpose, depth, and power, also solidarity?
Let me be a bit more forceful. We must have both solidarity and autonomy.
Without solidarity we lose because we are too weak. But without means for constituencies to develop their own priorities freely, we lose because sublimated differences destroy unity and even trust and ability to stay in proximity, much less to be fully creative and enjoy mutual aid.
In other words, there will be no lasting victory if constituencies must only sublimate themselves without having room to find their own priorities. But there will also be no victory if constituencies operate only separately from one another in ways that preclude their being together, in one larger whole.
Strom: What permits or facilitates both solidarity and autonomy occurring?
Mostly, new experiences will have to reveal new answers. But I think some useful and not so obvious insights may be gleaned from past experiences, as well.
First, people in oppressed constituencies often focus overwhelmingly on their own conditions and the key factors in society afflicting them. This is understandable, but it also tends to mean, for example, that a woman focusing on gender issues doesn't bother much with understanding class relations - and vice versa, a worker focusing on class doesn't give nearly the same attention to becoming aware of, understanding, and being able to reason about gender issues.
And the same holds for all the permutations. If one is experientially most attuned to cultural, political, kinship, or economic issues one tends to naturally, focus mostly on becoming even more learned about and adept at thinking about the already most familiar matters.
The trouble is, what is actually needed most is not for a black man who is incredibly attuned to matters of race to become ever more attuned to race issues, while largely ignoring issues of kinship, class, or polity except those bearing on race - or for a white worker addressing the state of the economy to become ever more attuned to already deeply felt class issues, while largely ignoring issues of race, kinship, or polity except those bearing on class - again, in every permutation.
What is needed most, instead, and contrary to most peoples’ natural inclinations, is almost the reverse.
If I am highly attuned to one or two spheres of social life by my upbringing, personal history, current position, prior practices, and so on, then my participating really effectively in a holistic movement, my trusting others and being able to respect the lead provided by others for areas I am less familiar with, or exemplary regarding, depends on my enriching my understanding not so much of my priority area(s) of concern, but of the other area(s) that I am not so naturally focused on and aware of. This priority runs contrary to natural inclination, I think, but is pretty obvious once you think about it.
Second, as just one more example among many that could be explored, the inclination to want everyone to be perfect, or nearly so, in all respects, regarding issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, classism, and authoritarianism, all now, immediately, is an enemy of progress, not an ally of it. The reason is very simple.
We aren't perfect. No debates, we simply aren't perfect. And we are not going to be, overnight. Indeed, it is pointless and self contradictory to say that society has incredibly powerful pressures to be racist, sexist, classist, and authoritarian - or, for that matter - to become acclimated to each of these types of oppressions even while suffering them - and to simultaneously say we should all be immune to those pressures.
What is warranted and what does make sense is that we should all be making progress on the various axes. We should be trying. Becoming more knowledgeable about the areas we are ignorant of. Becoming more attuned and insightful to the dynamics we contribute to. Not perfect, but moving in the right direction - with some starting further away from perfection than others, and therefore receiving more understanding and patience than others, not less.
So what would a holistic movement look like. It would, I think, have caucuses for women, various cultural constituencies, gays, workers, and more - and an overarching structure embodying and combining the insights and strengths of all of them - bringing them all to bear on internal education and creation, and on external outreach, protest, and resistance.
Strom: It seems like no conversation about OWS can happen without some discussion of demands. In "Occupy to Self Manage," you talk about demands giving people something to fight for and discuss several successful examples from other occupations you've visited. In relation to OWS, many people--including me--have pointed to the lack of demands as a strength, a vital position that's kept the movement open to the diverse struggles and imaginations of a constantly growing base. Do you think OWS can escalate and evolve as we need to--building concrete, viable alternatives and meeting people's real needs--without articulating "official" demands?
I wrote, I think, that not having demands has certain benefits. So we agree on that. It keeps things open as there is nothing one has to agree to support to be involved. It does not settle prematurely on aims, before being ready to actually seriously pursue them. It allows for more people to participate in determining aims when aims are finally determined. It does not limit its activism to seeking some list of gains, but makes clear that it is about something much larger - systemic change.
But not having demands also has certain debits, or, conversely, having demands has certain benefits. To not have demands means that people joining have not, in fact, agreed to anything and can join pretty much without having enunciated much affinity for what is really going on. It means it is hard to appeal to audiences based on on an affinity of desires, since the desires are hard to enunciate. It obviously makes it hard to win specific gains - as specific gains are not being sought. It leaves the systemic aims, also largely unspoken, floating without roots in the present, which is to say, divorced from specific goals rooted in current possibilities.
But, there is another dimension. Without shared aims - typically enunciated as demands - (a) it is hard to undertake campaigns that have clear focus and can be replicated across states and even countries, and (b) it is hard to see what one can do when one is not at an encampment. When you are off in your workplace or your neighborhood, how do you enlist others to participate? Is the only route through the encampment?
My guess is that there is another false dichotomy at work in this debate. Having some immediate demands doesn’t imply not having broader and deeper aims. Demands needn’t be written in stone. Demands don’t mean if one is seeking x, one can’t seek y, as well.
My own guess would be if the occupations can persist and grow - and to my thinking, to persist and grow all over the country and world is by far the hardest and most important task - demands will emerge that are tiered, or layered.
Some demands will cross national boundaries and inform and guide international campaigns. Some demands will be national, suited to the contours and needs of one country, but not others. Some demands will be local, suited to a city, or even a neighborhood, but not more widely.
And all that is fine, it seems to me, and appropriate. Here is something we can hope for, though, that would be incredibly powerful and innovative. Imagine that the occupations internationally supported all countries’ demands - and that each country supported all cities demands inside it - and that each city supported all neighborhood’s demands - still deeper inside. That would be bringing to bear the power of the whole on behalf of each part. That would be truly powerful.
Strom: When should demands, with or without maximal mutual aid and solidarity, emerge?
To my thinking, it should happen when their existence will make it easier to grow larger at the level in question, and easier to increase commitment among existing participants at that level.
Do I think that it needs to happen at some point? Probably, yes. But perhaps not. We need to see.
But the overriding issue in deciding is aiding movement growth and sustainability - and not only of the encampments per se, but of organized and persistent movements rooted in but extending beyond the encampments.
Strom: How do your experiences with popular movements of the past inform your perspective on OWS? Are there lessons from the past that you'd like OWS to take note of? What sets OWS apart from those movements?
All that is said above is about lessons from the past, I think. But let me try the last part first, and then add just one more old timer’s lesson.
OWS is very different than movements from the sixties and after, even as it certainly also has many things in common with them.
If you remember Woodstock - the giant gathering in update New York - which was internally called Woodstock Nation - that was an instance of the broad opposition of those days trying to not only express itself and assemble, but also to create a kind of alternative way of living. But it lasted just a few days. And it never even remotely approached the level of and breadth of creativity of, say, the occupation that is now perched on Wall Street, nor the diversity, particularly in ages, and it never managed to so tightly entwine creatively defining new structures and also sustaining protest and resistance.
The gains should not surprise anyone. What is going on now has been built on what was done in the sixties, taking and expanding insights, and in anti war movements, and no nukes movements, and labor movements, and women’s movements, and gay movements, and green movements, and others - since. And it has added to that tumultuous mix a level of creative commitment that just keeps climbing.
So that’s one big difference. There is another, among many, that I want to mention. I think that in the current uprising there is almost no problem whatever communicating to potential allies the horror of the system. Everyone knows that everything is broken. Virtually no one turns away from the movements, I would wager, on grounds that they are lying about injustice because things are really all right. That is the kind of confusion activists in the sixties had to overcome. Nowadays average people’s resistance to participating is rooted not in thinking that things are okay in society, but rather in doubts that any better world is possible, and in doubts that normal people can do anything that would move toward and eventually win a better world.
I think understanding the power and importance of this obstacle is fueling the occupation efforts. Occupiers are seeking to discover and display better approaches to life, albeit in embryo, albeit lacking resources and space. Occupiers are seeking to counter reasoned (but wrong) doubts about the efficacy of activism and the possibility of a better world, with actual examples of each, and this is miles ahead of the past.
What it means is that now on the agenda, perhaps for the first time in so global a way, is not just holding the most egregious rich and powerful people to accounts - but, far more important - making a case against the institutions that spawn all that inequality and injustice in the first place, and a case for alternatives that would meet needs and develop potentials without imposing hierarchies of privilege and power - and that would instead foster solidarity, diversity, equity and justice, and self management - cleanly, and peacefully.
Finally, regarding lessons, well here are two. There are, I think, three primary reasons for not using violence in the effort to create better societies that emerged from the experience of past movements even against contrary beliefs espoused by others in those movements.
(1) The use of violence will alienate potential constituencies hurting growth of opposition and even causing people to leave.
(2) The use of violence will distort our own thoughts and choices and actions in internally harmful ways.
(3) The use of violence is a gift to elites, violence is their forte, the place they most want to reside, the turf on which they win.
In light of these reasons - I would urge that there should be a very high onus of proof on arguments for violence. The default choice ought to be non violence, to avoid likely catastrophes due to being violent. Only when a very good case can be made, in some unusual situation, should violence be employed.
A critic comes along and says, hold on. I think there is some evidence that the use of violence will actually appeal to various constituencies. Look, working people are often violent, they must be, in fact. And they respect it. They go off to wars. They know violence and don't fear it. They relate, even admire, being strong. They will join. And more, the other side is terminally and endlessly violent, and hears violence, loud and clear. And I feel violent, to boot. Therefore, violence should be a priority in our tool box of options, and, indeed, the onus should be on arguing for non violence, with the default that we gravitate toward being violent.
My reply, and I think this can be said to be a lesson of past movement experiences, would be that the critic has ignored point two and point three, not least because those two points are quite obviously correct. And they are, regardless of point one, more than enough to sustain the conclusion.
The critic has also given and can give no serious reason to think non violence will be disastrous and has said nothing to counter two out of three arguments that violence would be disastrous - yet the critic says we should be violent by default.
So the rejection of point one, however well meaning, starts to feel like trying to find a way to argue for violence, even if not very fully, even without being serious about the implications, just because one personally happens to feel violent, honestly.
More, in addressing point one, the critic has marshaled evidence, some false and some true, that is in any event largely beside the point, except in some very particular situations - say, protecting a strike against scabs, perhaps. So even part of the critic’s case isn’t compelling. And so, I would finally say, I have to disagree.
Okay, the point of the story - not really fictitious as this was the stance of many in weatherman and the Panthers, forty years ago, and of many who advocate violence now, too - is that if the non violence view were to be predominant, those who favor violence in any situation should have a very high burden of proof to convince others.
More, the idea that favoring multi tactics, which we all should, justifies all tactics, is utter nonsense - as is easy to perceive. So, if most people say no to violence - say most at some encampment do, or in some movement - then those who favor violence, just have to keep trying to make their case. They should not, at risk of violating their encampment and movement, simply act on their own desires, because the implications are immense not just for themselves, but for others, as well. It is not remotely an act of solidarity or self management to act in ways that impact others without those others having an appropriate level of say.
So, that said, if we opt for non violence, as i suspect every encampment would overwhelmingly do, how do we counter the violence of the state? The answer also emerged from the past, but has also been highly evident in the recent events.
There is only one way. One cannot out violence the state. That is impossible. What one can do, however, is create conditions in which the state faces a problem. It wants to use its main tool, police repression and violence, to crush its movement opponent. But the movement opponent has created a context of social support and understanding and awareness such that if the state does so, the result will be gains for the movement, rather than its defeat. This is precisely what has prevented the New York authorities - and those of the state, and the country - from deciding that Occupy Wall Street should be invaded and terminated. For OWS to act violently will bring down violence and defeat. For OWS to build widespread sympathy and support, will protect it against the violence of the state.
There is another similarly important to prospect lesson from the past. Process matters greatly, but not to the exclusion of reason and the inducement of lethargic boredom. As but one example, consensus is not a matter of principle. No one in their right mind would think all decision should be subject to veto by all involved, much less by anyone who happens to show up, nor even be addressed, necessarily, by more than just a few people.
The real principle is that people should have a say in decisions in proportion as they are affected. Sometimes consensus is a good procedure for that. Other times, majority rule better accomplishes the principled aim - or three quarters, or attention to strong minorities, and so on. Similarly, the character of debate and discussion should vary, sometimes more is warranted, sometimes less. Straw polls can be a very useful tool, plus having minority views then speak.
Another point is, there is nothing wrong with persistent disagreement and dissent. In fact, this should be welcomed, not frowned on. It is precisely our ability to embody diversity, to respect dissent, and for dissenters to respect those siding with decisions, that ought to distinguish us from many political approaches of the past, with their authoritarianism and splits. These are all hard learned lessons of the past.
Strom: You've travelled to a number of occupations around the country and world. Where do you see all of this going on a national and international level? What are your hopes for the movement's expansion?
One possibility is that it dissipates. This could happen in many ways. One, for example, is a combination of cold in some places, and simple boredom in other places, plus tensions and pressures, and the changing composition of encampments including lots of people who don’t share the underlying values of the occupations, not least infiltrators, leading to escalating drug and sexual and generalized violence issues.
This is real, and quite possible. Indeed, it would be an incredible achievement is this didn’t interrupt the gatherings, especially those that are smaller, in the next month or two - since it would entail that while fighting for change, while having nearly no resources, and while being under pressure and attack, the encampments reduce such problems way below their levels in society per se so that they can be addressed humanely even without much in the way of needed resources.
At any rate, people should not despair if dissipation happens. It is not defeat unless we allow it to be. Much will have been learned, has already been learned. Many will have been touched and inspired in ways that transcend normal education, and normal experiences, and lead to life long commitments. You lose, you lose, you lose, you win. The losses are not, in fact, losses, if they are made learning experiences upon which future victories are built. The smiles on the faces of the old troopers from past movements attest to the observations. They are starting to anticipate their losses contributing to a new generation’s victories.
Another possibility, however, is very different. I am not saying this will happen - but we should certainly try for it and I think it is quite possible.
In this optimistic scenario whether by reducing the emphasis on the occupations, or by occupying housing and buildings and having at least some clarifying and unifying conditions on participation, or at least on diverse kinds of participation, and more generally by finding ways to generate sustainable involvement that lasts and grows not just in encampments but where people live and work in the broader society - the occupations begin to morph into manifestations of local populations and constituencies. They become models and implementations of assembly rule - however fledging and experimental - a new kind of politics. And they also link with struggles for changes in existing institutions, both in government and in economic and social policies, all yielding not only better life conditions for people, but also new life circumstances conducive to further growth of support and escalating activism.
If all this happens - if occupations start to become more varied and diverse and sustainable. If they focus not only Wall Street but Fleet Street and Times Square and Hollywood - the media - and if they focus business, in the form of specific workplaces, and chambers of commerce, and the like, then all bets are off as to where this outpouring of creative resistance can eventually lead.
Imagine that occupations all over the world spawn and sustain mass movements, again all over the world. And imagine that they start to make generalized demands - full employment with serious income redistribution and shorter work weeks, serious public participation in political, economic, and social life, media reconstruction including inclusion of activists voices and, for those new sections, decision mechanism, and so on - leading to overarching international ties - and, then, of course, also, to expanding focus on matters of war and peace, of intervention, of military bases, etc., on climate policies, and on ecology in general, and on and on. And then, nationally, imagine there are focuses that make sense country by country, and then more locally, city by city, but with all at the lower levels supported at the broader and more inclusive levels.
Imagine that, to take one example, Occupy Wall Street morphs into being a compendium of occupations in each borough, and then in more local neighborhoods - so that, in time, organizing is happening in apartment complexes all over the city and demands are about daily life relations and governance, and start to be won. Imagine as well that Occupy Wall Street, which has way more resources - albeit way less than warranted - starts to support efforts not only in the boroughs and neighborhoods of New York, but upstate - in Albany say, or Buffalo, and then even in other states - with the larger other occupations doing likewise. Solidarity and mutual aid. Growth.
This is admittedly a very optimistic picture. I think it is conceivable, though I suspect it requires far more attention to building more diverse, family welcoming, worker welcoming, woman welcoming, projects, all over the country and world, as well as their becoming far better able to offer real description of how society might be transformed into something truly just and worthy, both in the short run, and in a comprehensive make over.
Strom: In almost two months of existence, OWS has been characterized by constant growth and escalation. We now find ourselves turning from "the symbolic" (civil disobedience that spreads our message) to "the real" (taking of space, disruption of business as usual, creation of alternatives) in order to keep up this escalation and make our actions more meaningful. You've cautioned against stagnating and becoming boring, noting a participation bubble of sorts in occupations elsewhere. Specifically in terms of OWS, what type of growth and/or escalation do you think is necessary to avoid these pitfalls and stay relevant and engaging?
Outreach and more outreach. From everything I can see the creativity on site is incredible. I don’t know how one could sensibly ask for more, not only from a distance - but even right there. Amazing.
The attention to constantly simultaneously focusing on building the encampment, struggling to keep it safe, struggling to have it empowering and engaging, and, at the same time, reaching out virtually every day to do creative actions and projects around the city, making the political points that add to the motive and meaning of the efforts, is also incredible. Again, how could one ask for more, not only from a distance, but even right there. Amazing.
So, is there room for improvement? Of course there always is, and very hesitantly, I would suggest that perhaps the key thing to do to increase success is arguably the simplest, at least conceptually. To talk. To write. To video. To let people know.
To talk...and to do it not just to people who come to the encampment, or even to people who are along the roads when occupiers march and demonstrate. Rather, over time, those occupying and those committed who cannot occupy, can talk. They can do it with friends, with neighbors, with workmates. They can do it door to door, with people who they don’t know.
Imagine if each morning and evening, teams of two or three folks - perhaps hundreds of such teams, left the encampment, took a subway into a working class community, and knocked on doors to conduct discussions explaining OWS, conveying its desires, showing its realities, inviting participation. It wouldn’t be easy, but I suspect the reception would often be very positive indeed.
That might be one big task that could be undertaken. A movement that isn’t growing - is shrinking. And a movement that is shrinking is not a threat. So OWS must grow - and to grow means to communicate, partly by display of actions and the information and inspiration they convey, sure, by all means, but also partly by the harder and less dramatic but arguably even more important work of talking to people, addressing their worries and concerns, correcting their mistaken impressions, and hearing their desires and incorporating them into movement agendas.