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Uncritical Zeal

Since the "occupy" zeitgeist is manifesting in my city this Saturday, and since I'm going to be part of an anti-imperialist contingent that will enter the site of occupation with red flags flying, I have been following the left debates of the movement, and speaking with comrades across the border who are involved in said movement, with critical interest.  Indeed, the reason for my earlier post about the petty bourgeois boundaries of #occupy was the result of digesting innumerable interventions and polemical exchanges, as well as discussing the politics and practice of those most enthralled by the "occupy" movement with more sober and critical activists who were still involved.

As much as I still think it's important to get involved, and am excited at the possibilities this critical mass might produce in Toronto, I have been utterly unimpressed by the uncritical zeal evinced by #occupy's strongest supporters and [informal] organizers.  In my previous post, cited above, I briefly complained about the reactionary discourse of returning the US or Canada to the "good old days" that was becoming commonplace amongst some of the #occupy ideologues.  Even worse is the inability of many of these organizers and most active supporters to accept criticism; for me, one of the important ways to gauge the political worth of any movement is to examine the willingness or unwillingness to be self-critical, open to learning and change, and conscious of one's social position.

Lack of self-awareness, refusal to grow, means a lack in consciousness raising––means a lack in developing the type of revolutionary consciousness that is required to be a truly radical movement that will be able to actually transgress the limits of capital.  And if the backbone of the #occupy movement is currently comprised of people unwilling to accept criticism, who seem to be unable to admit that they can learn from those who have suffered the worse exploitation and oppression under capitalism, then it is going to be nothing more than the next movementist street party.  People will get arrested––just as they did in the G20 in 2010 and just as they did during the hey-day of the anti-globalization movement––because it's the pigs' job to put down anything that even resembles an uprising, but what are they get arrested for?  Again: capitalism is not going to fall (as some of the more rabid #occupiers, along with the most mindless tailist groups, are proclaiming) because of this movement and so the question, that I have been asking in multiple ways and in multiple contexts, is what can the left get out of this movement for future revolutionary goals.

A paradigm example of this refusal to accept criticism can be found on the People of Color Organize! website's critical coverage of the #occupy movement.  Since the movement began, POCO has been running critical assessments of the movement from the perspective of racialized people and the predominant whiteness of the movement.  The point of these articles were not to dismiss the #occupy movement in a "more-radical-than-thou" kind of way, but to bring a much needed sober analysis to a movement that, at least when these critiques began, only had the most simplistic analysis of what was at stake.  Every one of these articles resulted in comments from extremely uncritical #occupiers who wrote what uncritical activists have been saying for decades: "you're being divisive by bringing up these issues."  In the case of the POCO articles the issues of critique surrounded racism and colonialism, but so many of us know that in these movementist spaces, where the myth of spontaneity is prized, that all talk of a politics with content is despised.  You are being divisive when you speak of the need to address structural oppression amongst a movement and its organizers; you are being sectarian when you talk, even in the most non-sectarian way, about political principles that go beyond movementist spectacle.

Any movement requires criticism if it is to become something more than just a petty bourgeois street party that the pigs find bothersome but not truly threatening.  Yes, this criticism has to be well-meaning for the interest of growth, but my issue is that I'm wary of people who cannot even accept well-meaning criticism.  Ernesto's article, Seven Occupy Wall Street Racial Justice Roadblocks, for example, is a very well-meaning article that examines what is standing in the way of activist people of color in the US from getting involved with the #occupy movement.  If anything it is arguing that the #occupy movement can grow and become stronger if it engages with these issues; it was trying to explain, to the movement's most excited members, why a lot of people of color in the US were skeptical.

Unfortunately, Ernesto's sober critique produced some of the most asinine and uncritical comments from the #occupy zealots.  The usual refrain is that the basic discourse of the 99% versus the 1% is a discourse of unity, and that any division or critical discussion amongst the 99% empowers the 1% even further.  Gone is any understanding that the ninety-nine is further divided, both globally and locally, and that those currently claiming to speak for the ninety-nine do not actually have a real revolutionary class understanding since they refuse to examine the hard core of this ninety-nine––the proletariat.  And the proletariat, as I have been arguing since I began this blog, is strongly determined by racialization, gender, and other sites of oppression.  As Dustin from The Hong Se Sun has excellently put it:
"The top twenty percent of the population in the US owns around 83% of all the wealth.  Leaving the bottom 80% of the population with only 17% of the nation's wealth.  I must reiterate the lack of class analysis.  The next 19% are no better than the top 1%.  I'm sure most of those 19% would love to be the 1%."
Which of course led Dustin to make the very accurate and political deduction that this was not necessarily a movement of class warfare but a movement of populism.  That is, this is a movement currently led by the more left-inclined members of the petty bourgeoisie that, in some ways, is rejecting a proper class analysis in favour of the kind of populism that sees no difference between the petty bourgeois and proletariat of the ninety-nine.  I already complained about this, but it bears repeating: the majority of the petty bourgeois, once they get what they want, will sell out the lower classes.  So when uncritical defenders of #occupy respond to every well-meaning critique with invectives to "cooperate", and that any critique is a lack of cooperation, they ignore the fact that the idea of radical cooperation that their critics actually represent must also take into account the barriers standing in the way of this cooperation.  And there are barriers: simply imagining they don't exist doesn't make them go away.

A movement that can be truly radical must have revolutionary political content and a revolutionary structure.  We know this from history; we have seen the successes and the failures.  Critique and discussion provides political content and if people are scared of critique, no matter how well-meaning this critique might be, then the politics they represent will be worthless.  Political critique was deemed essential to this century's most revolutionary movements––both in the moment of revolution and later, when the revolution failed, to understand what went wrong.  Revolutionary ideology did not appear magically because the utopic 99% are going to invent them out of thin air; it has been won through historical struggle.

Moreover, when critiques about an informal [usually white male] leadership are raised, simply denying that an informal leadership exists, perhaps with statements like "everyone is a leader", is not an argument.  Those of us who have spent years wandering the "consensus" and "affinity group" labyrinth know that the whole "everyone is a leader" claim is bullshit.  Structural oppression and individual privilege results in certain people emerging as recognized leaders amongst the people involved in the movement (though maybe not the cops), and since we all like to pretend that there is no leadership, the people who have the most influence are not held to any formal structures of accountability.  These spaces are frustrating for people who are unaware of the consensus and affinity games that promote informal leadership cliques; they often wonder why all their ideas are being rejected, unaware that it might be because they are seen as a threat by the informal leader clique or that their ideas run counter to the set politics of said clique.  And usually the people who are frustrated are people who come from a site of heavy exploitation and oppression, just as the people in the informal clique are generally privileged and petty bourgeois––if not white men, then people with a lot of economic autonomy.

In light of this context, and the politics being promoted by the "no leaders" of the #occupy movement, criticism is necessary.  If the end of capitalism is our goal––and we know that this movement is not in itself going to end capitalism––then it is necessary to engage with well-meaning critique and learn.  Moreover, it is necessary to enter these spaces with a desire to help and engage in the movement but not as mindless tailist robots who do not talk about the required revolutionary ideology and structure or kow-tow to an invisible college of organizers.

Some of critiques (such as the one by Ernesto, cited above) have argued for the need for people who are wary of the political boundaries of the #occupy movement to enter these sites with their own community organizations.  And though Ernesto's critique concerned people of color, I think his point is relevant in a broader sense.  I plan to enter the #occupy site as a member of an organization that will work diligently in a coalition but will not, because of its political content and ideology, mindlessly accept the strictures of whatever informal leadership emerges: we have our own structures, or own responsibilities to each other, and it is better to be involved in unity as a group than to be involved in alienation as a single individual.


  1. Great post -
    I feel like this really articulates a lot of what I've been thinking. As I mentioned to you, it's so frustrating because these are debates that just keep repeating themselves (reading about almost the same debates in the 1970s, except in the context of a different movement).

    We've already seen some of the problems with non-leaders in this movement - There has been collaboration with the cops and with CSIS by at least one non-leader.

    I think another issues with the idea of a movement of populism rather than a movement based on class warfare or on a particular political lines means that we are left with fragmentation. I think the implicit statement of this fragmentation is that revolution is not possible, - or if it is possible, it will simply emerge out of nowhere.

    My sense of the occupy movement is that the overall demand is not an end to capitalism, but rather a capitalism that is more "fair" and "democratic". If it's more fair and democratic, we have to ask our selves who this is for. And looking at who is present at the occupy site (largely white men with some kind of economic privilege) it's clear who this will benefit. And looking at who is not present (I did not notice a great number of people of colour, homeless people, immigrant/migrant workers, etc.) I think it's pretty clear at whose expense this will be.

  2. I share your sense about the overall demand of the #occupy movement, especially when I hear people talking about the "good old days" of Canada or, as mentioned in a later post, when I encounter proud social democrats who see the movement as their property. I think a lot of people of colour were at the occupy site, and even a lot of people from different economic positions, on the opening day but I agree it was, as you point out, "largely white men with some kind of economic privilege" who were dominating the general assembly by the end of the day. Also, camping out (unless you're homeless) requires a certain level of economic privilege: those of us who have jobs can't commit to camping out indefinitely, and the jobless poor (rather than the privileged student jobless) are not exactly present.

    Although I heard that some of the [non]leaders were trying to get permits and not piss off the police (a problem, obviously, if you're actually going to do an occupation), I hadn't heard about direct collaboration with the pigs and CSIS. Not that I'm entirely shocked: this movement, with its multiple and strange trajectories, lends itself to this problem.

  3. First, thanks for the comments on my piece. This is hands-down one of my favorite sites and I genuinely appreciate your thoughts.

    I tried to approach some questions in my piece assuming positives, though frankly I tend to agree with your and Xtina's assessments of the Occupy movement as one that seems to want a kinder capitalism.

    I am deeply inspired by your efforts and courage. It is incredibly important that revolutionaries come into these circles as an independent, organized force. The level of political disorganization (no agendas, the number of people actively blocking agendas, etc.) *will* create opportunities for those with vision and solutions. People are angry with the social order -- marching and campouts aren't going to cut it after awhile.

    Keep up the great work!

  4. Thanks ernesto: I could say the same about People of Color Organize which I read regularly. I did read your piece as "assuming positives", an possessing a corrective approach but from a position of an organizer rather than someone who just sits back and complains about every non-perfect movement––which is why I found some of the comments extremely telling.

    The folks we work with in Quebec have the same position that you made in the last paragraph of your comment: the disorganization of the informalized structures can provide an opportunity for those of us who want to organize with a revolutionary agenda.


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