Chris Hedges fears that Black Block Anarchists may seek to destroy the Occupy movement, as he elaborates in a column he wrote for truthdig. Now, my readers may forgive me if my perspective is decidedly European in nature, but I nevertheless believe that such transcontinental exchange can benefit a debate. I'll begin by asking a rather heretical question:
What would be so bad about that?
As a movement, Occupy has achieved decidedly little compared to the excessive praise and attention that was given to it by media, authorities and the organized left. Especially the latter flocked to it in a vague hope for importance and the longing to be part of a mass movement, while college kids and businesspeople were united under a motto that was a naive as it was wrong: "We are the 99%" We are the amorphous mass, the many versus the few. Our will is the will of so many that there can not possibly be any argument against it. - Occupy is thoroughly populist in the worst meaning of the word. If Chris Hedges wants to look for mob mentality, he is ill advised to seek it amongst the Black Block.
Indeed, there have been rather disgusting pictures provided to us by the Occupy movement, including the repeated call to google "jewish billionaires". Implications of these placards were left to the reader, but it was clear that it was meant to express a supposed link between judaism and wealth and that, consequentially, the 1% that was to be opposed was the jews. It's too much of a reflex to discard these antisemitic stereotypes as mere "infiltration" by outsiders from the right. The very premise upon which Occupy began was not one of progressive anti-capitalism, but of a personalization of economic and power relationships, an analysis that implies that we merely need to remove part of society to change its ills: the ominous 1 percent who supposedly control the banks and ruin an otherwise productive economy out of moral vice.
Given this premise, that leans towards the reactionary, it was perhaps more of a surprise how much progressive politics nevertheless condensed within the broad Occupy movement. Oakland always stood out as a place of inspiration within a movement, that hoovered somewhere between a joke and a nightmarish vision of things to come wherever left to its own, or was marginalized by stronger, established movements wherever they existed and decided to operate under the label of Occupy.
To give an example for each of these developements: the German cities of Hamburg and Berlin had attempts at Occupy camps of their own, which attracted a lukewarm response by the deeply rooted autonomist movement in these cities. Organized groups of the left quickly turned away their attention towards their usual fields of activity - currently mainly fights against gentrification and a general lack of housing - while Occupy crumbled in these cities to the point that there was no camp in Hamburg and the one in Berlin consisted of a whooping ten (!) people upon its eviction. Who nevertheless weren't too ashamed of using the 99% slogan nonetheless.
Occupy in Rome coincided with a time of protests against Berlusconi in general and the social cuts of his government in specific. The international events around Occupy arguably gave the demonstration additional momentum, but the actors remained the ones that had been in the center of social protests for not merely the past months, but years, the continuity of their work giving them credibility and a powerbase. Consequentially, the protests were big, but short and overshadowed by the usual arguments and differences between the participating groups. The different goals of parliamentary groups, orthodox marxists, single-goal movements and autonomist radicals could not be brought in accordance. Occupy was washed away by the usual debates and could not provide any insight or unifying factor.
I have not heard, read or seen anything about Occupy in Greece, the hotbed of revolutionary activity in Europe. It's not surprising either, since the disenfranchised as well as the frightened middle class are already organized within their individual political leanings. The situation in the country is so thoroughly heated that no one could ignore it at that point and not make a decision as to where he or she stands.
In the US, meanwhile, it was Oakland where Occupy met an established and locally rooted radical left movement and the fruits of years of political labor quickly found their way into the local offspring of the global movement. It made Oakland the most sympathetic of all Occupy sections. When Chris Hedges claims that the Anarchists of Oakland loathe organization, he is confusing organization with institutionalization. Yes, these Anarchists loathe the rigid structures of parties or Leninist cadre-groups and political sects. But it is naive to assume they could rally people, influence debates or initiate direct action without some form of organization. However, since it is an informal, sporadic organization, often overlapping with personal relationships and built upon strong bonds of trust, it is hard to detect the connections amongst the groups and individuals that appear as a Black Bloc during the protests. In this, we may forgive Chris Hedges. Even national intelligence agencies purposefully directing their work towards infiltrating and uncovering these structures have often found it impossible to do so. For a militant and radically anti-state movement, the rejection of formal institutions has proven to be a rather effective protection from repression.
The involvement of the local Anarchists in Oakland had benefits that are quick to evade the eye, yet become all the clearer if we compare Oakland to New York in selected occurences. Whereas Occupy in New York rallied its activists to the banking district - expressing the fundamentally flawed seperation between a good, productive industrial capital and a bad, greedy banker capital supposedly destroying an otherwise flawless society - Oakland rallied to the port, a vital nexus of capitalist distribution and a place far removed from the false dichotomy that was established when the call was made to occupy Wall Street. Whereas in New York, evictions and foreclosures of homes were mere cause to stand by idle and give yourself the good feeling of having at least done "something" - when in reality, nothing has changed and the brutal violence of business as usual proceeded uninterrupted - Oakland rallies to actually prevent these. Whereas, following the eviction of camps, New Yorks goal was to occupy a building for a party, Oakland sought to occupy it for permanent use as social center.
Not that there were no uplifting or progressive elements in other american cities, such as the commendable work of the Anarchist Black Cross in NY, nor that Oakland did not have its own flaws. But the spirit of Oakland has been taken into another direction. It is Chris Hedges most fundamental error that he is unable to see these fine details and his seemingly only desire is to be as many as possible with as white a coat as possible. Occupy is turned into a laundry for the bad conscience of the middle class or, perhaps a speculation that's a lot darker, the place where the middle class can go to demand back the status quo and mourn the material losses they've had to endure in the crisis. A giant tribunal on the profiteers of a specific phase of capitalism by those who were nowhere as lucky, but not a trial on capitalism itself.
After all, the petit-bourgeoise staunchly believes: if I worked hard and nonetheless the American Dream did not come true for me, then SOMEONE must be responsible. That crisis and expropration and poverty are intrinsic elements of capitalism is unthinkable to these characters. Conversely, Occupy had little to offer to those who had been poor to begin with, those who had been disenfranchised by society, evicted from their homes, pushed to the end of the welfare lines long before the stock markets collapsed. This movement can repeat its mantra of being 99% all they want - a tent-town full of people more concerned with the media reception rather than their actual achievements will do little to convince them of their goals.
Speaking of goals - what goals? Occupy has evaded this question time and time again and even a Slavoj Žižek can not honor this stance by attributing a revolutionary purpose of non-conformity to it. Occupies silence is a mere expression of its inability to formulate any form of common stance in between its broad membership that includes the strangest of Trotzkyte sects full of themselves and their delusions of being able to steer the movement, or the freaks from Zeitgeist and their visions of an authoritarian technocracy, not to forget the antisemites and the tourists, who merely want a good story to brag about during college. Trying to formulate a common stance would, indeed, blow Occupy apart - and Occupy has long lost its purpose and become one on itself. The movement is everything, the movement is holy, whoever voices criticism is shut down. The so called "People's Mic" does an excellent job at this. Initially a way to bypass a ban on megaphones, this little tool has been blown so out of proportions by Occupy-activists seemingly proud to finally have made a genuinely independent invention (the idea to occupy public spaces was, after all, taken from the Spanish "Indignados") that it had to be applied to uses it was not fit for. Debates with a Peoples Mic are impossible to follow, critical voices are often not carried on by the crowd and the experience of a peoples' mic has been described as "indoctrinating" more than once. Repeat the words, don't think about them.
As I mentioned, Occupy has little to offer to the working poor and the declassed. It is a movement of the middle class and their fear of no longer having the place they were once promised in the social contract of America. Perhaps that's why Chris Hedges decries, with honest indignation, that the Black Bloc "smashed the windows of a locally owned coffee shop in November in Oakland and looted it." One can only wonder why it was important to mention this shop was "locally owned". Hedges already draws a line between different enterpreneurs, dividing their business into good (because "local") and bad (because "foreign") to which my only reply can be to shake my head in disbelief as to this notion that apparently, capitalism gets better if it is done by people from the same town.
Gold, however, Chris Hedges struck in this utterly hilarious notion that the Black Block was "criminal".
The holy law, meanwhile, is always upheld by the good people of Occupy and all it takes for a revolution, at least according to Hedges, is to nevertheless get beaten up by cops. Who are also part of the 99%. But do so because Occupy threatens the injust system. By not being criminals. Not only does this show an understanding of state and society that the progressive left, one would expect, had left behind in the 19th century - one where the state rules solely by authority of force and something like cultural hegemony is non-existant. (to which I merely would like to point Chris Hedges to comments on police brutality that cheer on the pepperspraying of the explicitely non-violent "smelly hippies".) It is also a pretty hilarious thought that the bankers and government officials would have sat in their office upon hearing of the arrest of some protestors in a minor march, then call them to order the pepperspraying of the detained "because they are such a threat." Finally, Chris Hedges also expresses his own fundamentally petit-bourgeoise thinking when he implies that the Black Block is somehow consisting of outsiders, people not actually part of the Occupy movement and, most notably, Agent Provocateurs. It is the same sentiment that people in the suburbs express whenever a crime occurs within their midst. Someone from outside must have done it! Some alien, some stranger.
Indeed, the looting of a store, this spontaneous seizing of opportunity for the sake of direct gain from an act that defies law and property, has more revolutionary pontential than most of what Occupy has achieved elsewhere. It has actual, positive effects for the actors involved. It is an act of redistribution and empowerment that bypasses the need for years of tiresome campaigning and reforming within a fundamentally flawed system and against the rising tide of objective necessities immanent to capitalism itself. It is the implosion of structural violence that chains people to their place in society and releases them into a spontaneous moment of opportunity.
Chris Hedges is not all wrong, though. Militarist and sexist tendencies and implications are an important point of critique that ought to be debated - not just once, but permanently - within the Anarchist, no, within the general left movement. A debate on militance should be the permanent standard of a radical left. Militance can not justify itself and I'm not particularily fond of an insurrectionism that puts the insurrection itself into the focus of attention, rather than concrete political goals. But they aren't the core of militance, not the fundamental truth behind the acts of self-defense against a violence that sometimes appears direct, in the shape of a police baton, and sometimes indirect, in the silent threat of poverty, unemployment, disenfranchisement. What Chris Hedges is asking of these people is not to defend themselves, to bear the stroke of the baton, the burn of the pepperspray, the sting of the taser and the impact of the rubberbullet for a vague promise that sometime then, people will realize that Occupy was right all along! (but about what, exactly?) That even the police will come down, reach them their hands and say "yes, non-violence is the way". A thought that is even more absurd when considering that the police has to utilize violence every day, has internalized the logic of violence and has put aside their conscience to enforce a law that's necessarily impersonal and demanding strict adherence regardless of personal opinion. Even more absurd to think a greater amount of officers would break with this logic, with their jobs, in a time where having a job in the first place is a blessing in itself.
This debate, I think, is far from over. There are many points that still need to be raised, many of which need to be discussed in more detail. However, Occupy, that much is clear, needs to transcend its own beginnings, its own premise and own established institutions if it wants to progress. Refusal to do so out of sentimentality for a project that granted a shortlived time of optimism will lead to the death of Occupy as a project, whether wanted or not.
As protests against the ACTA treaty gain increasing public attention, the complete lack of a critical understanding of the matter of so called internet piracy by many of the actors of the protest becomes painfully obvious.
There can be little doubt that the protests against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement ("ACTA") are largely motivated by a diffuse fear of persecution for filesharing - perhaps the most common crime of the present day - or at least a dedication to maintaining the ability to copy music, movies, art , books and software without a valid fear of reprisals. Evidence to this is not merely subjective perception, but both public appearance of the protestors (including a youtube video protesting ACTA by depicting German special forces hunting down filesharers in a most gruesome manner - a video that was later linked on the website of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission by the web-group Anitsec) and, perhaps more importantly, the context of ACTA and its protests. It is revealing that the public statements generated by the crackdown on megaupload are almost identical to the ones expressing their fear from ACTA.
Alas, in the real world of respectable politics, few would march the streets demanding the government to respect their right to make unlicensed copies as they please. For a succesful protest that desires to be heard by the state - and the scope of these protests does not go beyond appealing to political decision makers - the demands must be articulated within the existing framework of politics. That means within the framework of private property. Instead of the free access to culture, the ACTA protestors instead challenge an idealized view on parliamentary politics, imagining their civil rights to be threatened by ACTA and phantasizing about a sinister "spirit" of the agreement. That the argumentation reaches the realm of the mythical at this point is not mere coincidence, but rather an expression of the shallow nature of their reasoning. It is, after all, a mere front to ideologically mask their fundamentally economic desire and hide the underlying, very fundamental conflict.
A fundamental conflict indeed - and one that can not be resolved within the logic of a capitalist system. The desire, no, need of the music/movie/software business to reap a profit from their economic activity conflicts with the desire of the consumer to pay as little as possible. That is, after all, the sole motivation behind a companies existence in the first place and failure to do so would mean imminent death for these economic actors, as capital would flow to profitable avenues of business. Technological progress has made the multiplication and distribution of these products - movies, music, books etc. - an almost effortless endeavour. Sure, to record a song you still need to account for the work of the musician, the time he spent writing the song, the time needed to record it, plus all the effort that went into the production of the equipment necessary to produce it. But once that has been done, the labor condensed within this music is distributed on a technically infinite amount of goods - copies of the song - with merely the effort of a mouseclick. The trade-value of a song is distributed on so many copies, that even a single cent would be a horrible ripoff. While there is still labor condensed within the product, it has split into mere trace amounts, impossible to quantify even with the approximate tools of the market - supply and demand.
What's more, the means of production in this sector have become commonly available. Once the song/movie/book is out there in the public, anyone with so much as a computer can reproduce it. There is no need for a massive capital investment to begin production of these copies, nor does quality suffer from the tools available to classes usually without ownership of means of production. It should be little surprising at this point that internet "piracy" is a mass phenomena. It's an economically sound practice from the perspective of the consumer and not only does it take less effort than going to the store to buy e.g. a CD - it is even less effort than registering on iTunes and arranging for the payment.
It is nevertheless utterly unsurprising that there is little empathy for the actions of filesharers by the challengers of market freedom. This can not be explained solely by the threat to profits of the affected companies this poses - at this point it may be worth noting how utterly ridiculous complaints about "backroom deals" and "lobbyism" in the context of ACTA are. As if there had ever been legislature in bourgeoise democracies that was not influenced by interest groups. As if this wasn't the very fundamental modus operandi of parliaments in the first place!
No, the idea that ACTA compromises an otherwise acceptable status quo is at the very least an appalling lack of critical thinking. The historical precedent to ACTA are copyright laws and patents. Let's repeat that. The historical precedent to ACTA are copyright laws and patents. They enforce a claim on an immaterial good through the authority of the state and tax anyone who utilizes the thoughts of another person for his or her own production. It is important to understand at this point that, within a capitalist environment, purely theoretical products (inventions, stories, ideas etc.) have NO VALUE. To avoid misunderstandings, I am talking value here in the sense of trade-value. Sure, the invention of the wheel (yes, it predates capitalist societies, but it is an easy example) was of great use to humanity, but once the idea was out there, anyone with at least a little bit of eyesight could easily figure out how to copy it. Maybe it took the inventor hundreds of hours of intensive thinking, of intellectual work to come up with the idea - but this effort did not translate into an income, nor did it appear in any way within the finished wheels. Those were worth as much as it took on average to produce them in terms of human labor - not how much it took to >invent< them.
Perhaps it stands to reason that those within this sphere of intellectual labor are so steadfast to defend their own monopolies. The spread of digital technology has, after all, created a situation where it is increasingly difficult to enforce the foundation upon which their entire economic existence has been built. Increased repression is one side of the coin, the other is the creation of an ideological stigma (sometimes less succesful as the infamous "you wouldn't download a car" campaign shows) for filesharers. Some of these stigmatization attempts are quite blunt, but many are more subtle, creeping and surely not introduced into the general public through a nefarious plot by the cultural industry (this article wouldn't be complete if I did not at least mention the possibility of antisemitic stereotypes associated with such an idea of a business conspiracy) but rather individual developements, sometimes in direct defiance of the cultural industry - as if to prove that they were wrong about the threat that filesharing poses to the economic survival of artists as independent actors on the market.
These tropes are little more than stalwart reinforcements of market logic. Everything must have a price, everything must be traded on the global market, everything must reap a revenue. Support the artist! Anyone can afford it! Most propagandists of this ideology are probably not even aware of the implicit harassment of those who, in fact, can't. They are perhaps not overly present in the public - and shaming them into silence is part of the reason for this - but there is an undeniably large strata even within western society who has to watch out for every little expense. And this strate is growing.
Perhaps the people protesting ACTA would be well advised to not waste their time appealing to the government - any success reached this way can only be a superficial one. The need to maintain the ability to capitalize on intellectual labor is too urgent as long as we operate in a capitalist system. Developing and providing tools for the masses to evade state attempts to repress the unhindered multiplication of cultural wealth may have a more lasting effect in the long run.