Friday, October 21, 2011

Occupy Everything: The Streets Are Alive with the Sound of Anarchism

The headlines from recent weeks can be paraphrased like something out of an anarchist’s dream: “Leaderless Movement Confronts Powers-That-Be.” The Occupy movement has spread across the U.S. and around the world in rapid fashion, and while it would be an overstatement to proclaim that it is an exercise in anarchism through-and-through, there is no doubt that the basic framework of decentralized solidarity strongly recalls previous episodes of anarchy breaking out.

Indeed, the spontaneous, emergent, and self-determined nature of the Occupy demonstrations falls within the ambit of anarchism—from the “people’s assemblies” model of governance to the general refusal to engage in the “politics of demand” that often characterizes social movements. The anarchist anthropologist David Graeber, one of the initial organizers of the catalyzing Occupy Wall Street effort, expressly analyzed the phenomenon in a Washington Post interview in terms that anarchists will find quite familiar:

“It’s pre-figurative, so to speak. You’re creating a vision of the sort of society you want to have in miniature. And it’s a way of juxtaposing yourself against these powerful, undemocratic forces you’re protesting. If you make demands, you’re saying, in a way, that you’re asking the people in power and the existing institutions to do something different. And one reason people have been hesitant to do that is they see these institutions as the problem.”
While this bears a resemblance to precursor mobilizations in which an anarchist ethos has helped set the tone for widespread actions and organizing tactics—as prominently seen in the anti-globalization movement, for instance—this is also something completely new and different. We would be hard-pressed to identify another example of a movement that has caught hold so broadly and quickly, without a central charismatic figure or even a concrete set of unified demands. Instead, this movement taps into a deep well of accumulated resentment while at the same time retaining a celebratory feel, yielding a combined effect of “love and rage” that mirrors contemporary anarchist praxis.

The panoply of slogans in the movement tells the story. “The Beginning Is Near.” “Lost My Job But Found an Occupation.” “Yes We Camp.” “Don’t Feed the Greed.” “I Can’t Afford My Own Politician So I Made This Sign.” “Tear Down This Wall St.” “Born-Again American.” “The People: Too Big to Fail.” After seeing a photo of a young woman holding a sign that read “I Care About You,” author Naomi Klein visited Occupy Wall Street and declared it “the most important thing in the world” right now.

The power of the moment plainly excuses the resort to hyperbole. We have been waiting a long time for this resurgence of people power, here in the “belly of the beast.” While the world has been witnessing popular uprisings and throwing off tyrants, Americans have largely been insulated through our relative privilege, subsidized creature comforts, and a palpable cultural echo-chamber of self-aggrandizement.

No more. Occupy Wall Street has morphed into Occupy Main Street. It coheres as Occupy Together and decenters itself anew as Occupy Everything. Ultimately, it asks us to once again Occupy Earth—which sets a high bar toward changing the paradigm, since the consumptive one we’ve been living in has been steadily rendering the biosphere inhospitable if not outright uninhabitable

Interestingly, the Occupy movement sprang up in full force right after I finished writing Anarchism Today. Yet the seeds of the movement’s cosmology are eminently present throughout the text, and the strands of anarchist organizing from the past and present that are described in the book read like a how-to manual for the cutting-edge movements in the streets today. The spirit of anarchy is alive and well, and is apparently coming soon to an everything near you…

About the Author:

Randall Amster holds a J.D. from Brooklyn Law School and a Ph.D. in Justice Studies from Arizona State University. He teaches Peace Studies and is the Graduate Chair of Humanities at Prescott College, and serves as the Executive Director of the Peace & Justice Studies Association. He publishes widely in areas including anarchism, ecology, nonviolence, war and peace, social movements, homelessness, immigration, and sustainable communities. Dr. Amster is a member of the editorial advisory boards for the Contemporary Justice Review and the Journal of Sustainability Education. In addition, he is a regular columnist for the Daily Courier and a frequent contributor to numerous online publications, and is also the founder and editor of the news and commentary website, New Clear Vision. His forthcoming book Anarchism Today will be published by Praeger/ABC-CLIO in March 2012.

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