Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Nicholas Smaligo's "The Occupy Movement Explained": Book Review

Correcting misconceptions that the Occupy Movement suddenly erupted and just as rapidly fizzled, Nicholas Smaligo argues in this brisk, short survey that what started as Occupy Wall Street in the late summer of 2011 finds rugged roots in anti-capitalist dissent. This foundation enables Occupy's critique to endure. Aimed at a wide audience, Smaligo's own explication remains accessible and opinionated, for he promotes his own understanding as a participant in Carbondale, Illinois, and in St. Louis, to widen the relevance of how Occupy inspired student and worker-led local campaigns to act.

Action dominates. Smaligo begins by connecting anti-capitalist forms of mutual aid and labor to anti-authoritarian politics. This has often been defined as anarchism, which he accepts in general application, but Smaligo broadens those who swelled the ranks of Occupy to include many more who were simply "fed up with the whole process" (48) and who were motivated to camp out, march, donate, and participate over a duration, so as to settle a practical protest set firmly in place and space.

This reclaiming of a commons Smaligo promotes as a fundamental achievement. Symbolically, a commons becomes a place and space over time where people can forge bonds, establish communities, and advance particular causes. Smaligo explains how four "threads" twined to connect Occupiers so gathered. First, he reminds readers of a pioneering if tellingly overlooked activist, Ella Baker. Half a century ago, she and other grassroots organizers did not seek the spotlight or podium, but worked away from camera or microphone, minimizing hierarchy or grandstanding. Second, Baker and her comrades favored direct action rather than appealing to party politics, or police and legal cooperation.

Voltairine de Cleyre (1866-1912) is a name likely as unfamiliar as Baker's for most present-day activists. Smaligo rightfully revives de Cleyre's reputation as a proponent of direct action. Third, he segues into the prefigurative politics advocated by David Graeber: act as if the future has already arrived, and one is already free. Jo Freeman's caution to feminists, taken from her 1970 essay "The Tyranny of Structurelessness," remains valid: no planning such as Graeber and his colleagues engaged in as they sparked OWS can mask its own power dynamics, so these are best first articulated. This range, as this array of activists and theorists demonstrates, shows how Smaligo strives to present Occupy material within a larger anarchist tradition, and its left-libertarian lessons.

A fourth aspect emerges. The Quaker example of reaching a formal consensus by process and the early-1980s anti-nuclear protests of the Clamshell Alliance in New Hampshire suggest frameworks which Occupiers took up, perhaps often by those oblivious to these predecessors. Zapatistas and the Global Justice Network, by contrast, may have been by their own media-savvy presence in a wired age more visible influences, for some from anti-WTO actions a decade or so earlier entered OWS.

Compared or contrasted with the mass demonstrations which rocked Seattle or Athens a few years before, Occupy has been often mocked for its lack of a single demand, or maybe a slickly marketed, news-friendly soundbite beyond the catchphrase "We are the 99%." Smaligo strives to correct this misnomer. On September 29, 2001, a Declaration of Occupation of New York City with a clearly listed set of grievances received little attention from the mass media or from most OWS naysayers.

(Before and then during my participation at Occupy L.A. which solidified about a month later, I cited this document within a circle which surrounded me in cyberspace and in real life of Occupy skeptics; it met with a marked lack of interest from many. Admittedly, the online forum registers its flurry of interest rising and falling over OWS' short span, as well as spam posts and the usual rants or trolls.)

Rachel Schragis shaped a flowchart of that Declaration, insisting "all our grievances are connected" (98); their common foe was an oppressive corporate force, and its politically complicit institutions. Smaligo distinguishes civil from political disobedience to separate recognition of the law from a defiance of a judicial and police system which imposes injustice on those who oppose corporate and state control. Representative democracy cannot speak for those disenfranchised and distant; only participatory democracy, as the General Assemblies tried to model at Occupy, can speak for the 99%. This is one more reason why a space and a place were needed for Occupy to take back, to reclaim.

Subsequent chapters delve into related issues about the legitimacy of the movement. Why it attracted so many who would previously have simply voted (more likely for Obama and the standard Democratic ticket claiming liberal credentials) and done little else, Smaligo suggests, may lie in the catalyst for wider resentment and discontent the past few years. Obama was elected, but too little changed for many. Alienated labor, after all, cannot compete against the powers that be who buy out such politicians, who in turn, whatever party, back those bankers. Slavery may have ended, but we rent ourselves for a day's pay, Smaligo avers. Liberals delight in assuring everyday folks they have their interests in mind, but no less than conservatives, politicians and the wealthy connive to construct the conditions of coercion which force workers to be driven into debt, for fear of losing the freedom supposedly granted all who must seek shelter, eat, and pay bills. Many of us endure what one graphic designer turned Occupier terms "a pit of emptiness" where no meaning rewards us, only a paycheck.

Kicking back against this alienation, Smaligo acclaims the reclaimed commons. Instead of resigning ourselves to "capitalist realism," which accepts no other alternative exists to the current economic and cultural hegemony, he wants to widen the "crack" wedged apart by anti-capitalist mobilization. How much force must be used to kick down doors and jimmy open cracks, however, leads to a lack of consensus among Occupiers. He narrates how even in the comparatively far more radical Oakland encampment, "diversity of tactics" as asserted by those who comprised its black bloc found less than unanimous support. Smaligo deftly takes the reader through a well-chosen history lesson. Nonviolent proponents King and Gandhi advanced by an advantage in negotiating with those whom they opposed, all the while bolstered by the pressure of those ready to act more violently. Dissidents loomed as the alternative the state or empire did not wish to face, vs. those marching peacefully.

From such precedents, the police also learned a lesson, as Smaligo cites Kristian Williams' framework. For law and order, escalated force tactics of the Civil Rights era gave way to negotiated management, with softer responses seen as less confrontational by participants in the 1980s and 1990s. But the 1999 anti-WTO protests, with black-bloc disruption, catalyzed a counter-reaction of strategic incapacitation. This, bolstered by post-9/11 "Fusion Centers" coordinating federal data with local surveillance, heightens the odds against those who protest, in turn perhaps necessitating more adaption of masks and hoods to obscure the faces of those whom cameras and film seek to identify.

The circle of violence within a nonviolent paradigm promoted by many Occupiers widens. Chris Hedges, a prominent critic of the corporate-political syndrome and the two-party structure, in an essay "The Cancer of Occupy" singled out the black-bloc as a counter-productive "faction." Smaligo examines in depth if not Hedges' original claim (oddly, only a phrase is cited directly and Hedges' February 6, 2012 Truthdig essay does not appear in Smaligo's bibliography) but the collective CrimethInc.'s articulate defense of "diversity of tactics." Against what the Obama Administration has enacted on December 31, 2011 as the National Defense Authorization Act to theoretically prosecute Occupy-type protests as if "low-level terrorism," Smaligo rallies support for what the movement has contributed to common conversation since then. Income inequality turns everyday lingo; the police state, as subsequent revelations after this book was published continue to affirm, relentlessly gains funding and materiel from federal post-9/11 entities under the guise of homeland security or defense.

Looking ahead, these sit-ins, occupations, and black blocs, as Smaligo concludes, may themselves give way to innovation, a vast uprising to oppose capitalism. Given the odds and the forces of arms and data arrayed against those who protest, some caution this is futile. Meanwhile, foreclosures are battled, post-Sandy victims are helped, students and workers and patients burdened by debt are promised relief. In such varied methods, even if the name does not carry on, the spirit of Occupy continues, underground or on the ground around us. It frees these shared resources from ecological meltdown, corporate stranglehold, and political corruption becomes a campaign for all. This book compliments two of its many sources, Graeber's The Democracy Project and Nathan Schneider's Thank You, Anarchy, in combining personal testimony with informed advocacy. Together, may such participant-observers guide the rest of us, whether we participated at an Occupy camp or not, in ways to continue resisting any power which takes away the common wealth which is our birthright. 

Amazon US 2-2-15. Scheduled for New Clear Vision. See also at that site my review of earlier books on Occupy: Sept 20, 2013 "Lifting the Tent Flap"

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