Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Further reflections on the occupy movement

I have spent the better part of two days at Occupy Sudbury, and two days before that at Occupy Toronto… that hardly makes me an expert, but I have heard some reoccurring questions that I want to address here.

What is it I think this movement can do?

First and foremost, in my opinion, is that it opens up space for dialogue. I often talk about politics in my everyday interactions with people, but I often read that talking about controversial things like politics is not polite in certain situations. I have friends that never talk about politics, which saddens me… politics are so much fun to talk about!

In my last post about the occupy movement, I talked about Weber, and in this one, I will discuss another theorist that I almost never use in my own academic work; Habermas! Hopefully I don't simplify this so much that I am not doing his work justice, but basically, what he said was that within the public sphere, which is a public space not controlled by the state, people could engage in conversation and exchange views and knowledge and that this undistorted communication could lead to liberation. However, through the mass media and mass consumption (as well is bureaucracy and excessive rationality among other things) we lose our ability to think critically about the state.

The space that has been created by the occupy movement, and how it has been used for political discussions, has reminded me of my third year sociological theory prof's lecture on Habermas. There are a lot of problems with his work - for instance, whereas Habermas thinks that opening up this space for communication could allow people to speak freely about politics, I would argue that we really need to put more emphasis on the social and economic hierarchies that shape how we view the world and how we can talk about it… speech, in a racialized, patriarchal, capitalist society will likely never be free from distorting influences such as social power, and this is something I keep bringing back into our conversations at the occupy sites (such as in my critique that most of the leaders-who-are-not seem to be young, charismatic, white men). Anyway, it just amuses me when every day experiences bring to mind lectures or readings that I haven't really thought of in years.

So, back to the question of what I want this movement to do. What I hope it is currently starting to do is expose some of the social relations involved in aspects of our economic and political system that have been reified to the point where they seem like naturally existing structures without any alternatives. We created capitalism. It is not a thing that has always existed... it hasn't even been around very long. We made it. We can end it or we can change it.

In order to want to do so, we have to expose so many of the ideas that we have come to think are true, but are really just ideologies that serve to uphold capitalism. Ideas like poverty being caused by individual flaws, we need to get rid of the language associated with "helping the poor" and "handouts" (which were used last weekend by some very progressive people in the group).

These imply that certain people deserve everything they have gotten within capitalism, but should help others who are less fortunate. This is problematic because it upholds the capitalist system.

The other question I hear a lot of is with regards to solutions… let's just say that the education part works, then what?

Here is where I come into problems... I simply don't know what the answer would be. But I think that is a good thing because I don't think that any one person has that answer. Nick Dyer-Witheford writes about using people's creative capacities to come up with something better - a new way of organizing. I like this idea, we can learn from previous movements - what has worked and what hasn't - and build from there.

I do think it has to be everyone working together. The workers movement was quieted by dividing us up into trade unions without the capacity to organize together and support all workers. It is difficult to frame this movement in a way that all people are being included, that reparations are being made to certain groups, that decisions are being made while considering the specific needs of groups, the ways that the current political, economic and social relations are affecting the ways that we are able to participate in this movement.

As a sidenote, also relating to Nick Dyer-Witheford's work, I love how we are using tools of capitalism against itself within this organizing. Using facebook, twitter, youtube, blogs, etc. to get the messages out to so many people.

It is very early in the organizing process. There are so many possibilities. And I believe that the problems within the movement are easier to talk about now, while it is still new, as opposed to later, when things become more entrenched and the social relations become hidden in routine processes.

Still, at the same time I am having trouble working in a movement with so many people with such diverse opinions. I enjoy the dialogue, and I am usually good at respecting the fact that people have different beliefs and ideas and that everyone's are just as valid as my own… but sometimes I hear things that make me cringe at just how problematic I think they are (granted, I'm sure there are people there who do the same when I speak)... I should add, are not reflective of the movement as a whole, just a few opinions that keep popping up either here or in Toronto, or both.

1. The national anthem.

I was not there when they sang this in Toronto, but I was shocked when I heard about it. Indigenous communities were torn apart by European settlers and that these communities are still struggling in a variety of ways. The national anthem is a colonial song - it celebrates a colonial nation. There were indigenous peoples present objecting to it, but it was sung anyway.

Then, in the local occupy movement, it was played in a youtube video right before an indigenous drumming circle, which fostered more than a few discussions yesterday afternoon at the occupy site about whether this is a sign of "solidarity and friendship" or whether it is colonial and disrespectful. Neither side won, but the people advocating for fostering friendship and solidarity agreed to check with elders in the community.

And, on top of colonial implications, nationalism does nothing to help support what should be viewed as a global movement.

2. "The police are our friends."

The police are not our friends. Individual officers do make up the 99% in that they do not have huge sums of money that influence decision making on a legislative level, but, as a group, they do have a considerable amount of power. Yes, they smile and act friendly towards us, and I am not necessarily opposed to us doing the same, but remember, when they get their orders to arrest us, the power they have will become very evident. This also has other implications, where certain groups are more likely to have problems with the police than others (such as indigenous people).

Still, the local police have told us that they support us, and we don't exactly have large numbers of people at the occupy site at the moment, so I wouldn't advocate for anything that is is too anti-police. But don't think of them as friends or allies.

3. The word "violence" is thrown around.

"No using violence... like yelling at police officers or breaking things". Now, I agree that the protest is probably best off being peaceful, especially because we are trying to build public support, but I object to using the word "violence" when referring to damaging property or speaking loudly. For police actions to be considered violent, there has to be bodily harm inflicted... why do we not have the same standard. I'm not saying that we should damage property... I think that doing so would likely halt the movement through mass arrests and outrage against the 'violent' and 'threatening' protesters. I just think we should reframe how we are conceiving of violence and use different language when we are talking about these issues. Property damage is not violence (unless someone is likely to get hurt).

4. Lastly was the phrase "the most important thing is..." at facilitation/organizing meetings. To me, the most important thing for a facilitating meeting is to work out the logistics to create a space that will foster discussion and allow occupiers to have necessary amenities (bathrooms, food, shelter, warmth, etc.). If you are coming to the facilitation meetings to talk about how the most important thing is promoting electoral reform or climate change or whatever else you think it is, then I believe we are going about this the wrong way. What makes the occupy movement so amazing is that it can bring in so many people with diverse experiences. Your specific soap box argument is not the point of a facilitation meeting (and yes, I understand that using my soap box - this blog - as a means to convey this statement can be seen as ironic, or even somewhat hypocritical, but my point stands).

And now I will set aside some of this cynicism, make a few more kick ass signs (thus far, I have carried a sign with a Marx quote "What the bourgeoisie produces, above all, is its own grave-diggers" and one I have carried before in Toronto "there's no war like class war"- which I would love to nuance, but a sign does not allow for that). I will be back at the occupy site this afternoon for the rush hour road-side demonstration I can't wait until we have enough people to have a march like in Toronto.


  1. Thanks for this -- thoughtful and perceptive as always! :)

    And you should consider cross-posting here:

  2. Thanks Scott, I have tried before, but I may need to get your help with that. I can only post in Toronto, can't figure out how to get posts to work in Sudbury's site, and when I do post, the formatting is often so messed up that I just delete it.... I'm not good with computers at all.

  3. Great to finally read your assessment! Since the group I'm involved with has been going back and forth to the occupy site in Toronto (but unable to sleepover because most of us work, though we are trying to figure out how to maybe coordinate rotational sleeping shifts in a single tent), in twos or threes or fours, whatever we can manage at a given moment, we've generally encountered the same frustrations. Combined with the leadership-that-claims-its-not-a-leadership, these frustrations are compounded.

    I think maybe the main frustration we have, and I'm not sure if you've encountered the same in Sudbury so far (and want to hear your thoughts on this), that is connected to the other frustrations, is the utter blanquism of the self-proclaimed communists involved. I don't blame a lot of the people who are new to activism for being confused about the national anthem, the pigs, political violence, etc., because I know that they are knew to politics (and also that this is, as you mentioned, a space that is explosive with the potential to talk about politics), which is pretty cool considering that so many of the people we've encountered have never talked about this sort of thing until now. But I do blame the self-proclaimed "serious leftists" for not intervening or starting critical discussions in these moments. One supposed "communist" group I know even *endorsed* the national anthem singing, claiming that it was an expression of "working class youth" (without, for all that, even doing a social investigation regarding the class composition of the singers).

    My partner recently visited the Occupy Wallstreet site, when she was in NYC last weekend, and she was surprised to discover a general anti-communism amongst the occupy rank-and-file. But when she picked up the free "Occupied Wallstreet Journal" paper, she was surprised to discover that the editors were part of a well-known communist group (at least amongst activists in the US), and even more surprised to discover that this paper, even those articles written by the editors, just aped a very social democratic line with the nebulous discourse of the 99%.

    If these are spaces where anti-capitalists can intervene because people *want* to talk about anti-capitalism, then we have to ask ourselves why so many anti-capitalists are being the most inveterate tailists. People who have never had the chance to interact with the typical left activist spaces until now are finally coming out and, in my opinion and experience, are hungry to engage with analysis. And these are the same people who are under the impression that communists don't exist anymore because they're largely unaware that: a) communists never went away as a public and mass movement in the peripheries of capitalism; b) communists in their own countries are pretty serious organizers within the boundaries of the established left. So why aren't the communists in this country, who spend so much time with train unionists and student activists, reaching out to people who want to engage? Why are we letting them think we don't exist even when we go so far as to be part of organizational outlets in the #occupy movement (i.e. the paper mentioned above)? These are the questions the group I work for is trying to deal with... Wonder if you had any thoughts on the matter.

  4. JMP, just reading your posts I learn so much. I often find that I am reading your posts or comments with Wikipedia open, and normally that would annoy me, but you aren’t needlessly using complicated language, these are words that don’t really have a simpler term. Just thought I’d point that out - insightful and educational or something like that.

    As for whether I have encountered this in Sudbury – not to my knowledge (however, I gather that could be part of the point)! There do not appear to be many communists here, other than 2 other students and a few university professors, which brings up an entirely different problem of academic elitism within communist circles. There is a rather large contingent of leftist-anarchists, some social democrats/environmentalist/political reformists, a few libertarians… other people that cannot really be categorized so nicely into boxes (and these would be my favorite people to talk to, for the most part). And, like you said, a lot of people who are coming into activism for the first time and may still be developing their political stance at the moment.

    I’ve had long discussions with a self-proclaimed “liberal anarchist” about why liberalism doesn’t push things far enough to combat systemic hierarchies (using liberal feminism as an example)… I have also been told by a libertarian that it doesn’t matter that straight white men are running the show in Toronto because you have to look at each person on a case by case basis, when I brought up the wage gap, I was told that people make specific individual choices! But I have also talked to people about Marx and Lenin… carrying a sign with Marx quotes on it is asking for these kinds of conversations. And some of them have been fantastic!

    I haven’t really spoke to people who call themselves communists outside of academia, and this is a problem. When I have had these conversations with people, I have realized that a lot of the language currently used to describe the problems inherent with capitalism as well as how communism actually could work is academic jargon, and it is hard for some people to separate Russia, Cuba, China – even North Korea – from what Marx was talking about – especially when they are not given the words to do so.

    What I try to talk about, personally, is a more Foucauldian notion of discourse to then open up communism as a possibility. I talk to people about how language used within the media and in schools has created an “us” (capitalism) and “them” (communism) and linking that to the cold war. I also talk about how capitalism is not naturally existing, but is relatively new and was created by people and can be changed by people… this is a good conversation piece. I try to bring the word “communism” back into conversations without the baggage associated with totalitarian states that proclaimed to be communist. But, as I said before, we are a very small group – what is possible to do with 30 people at a site might have an entirely different dynamic when you are dealing with 500 or tens of thousands.

    Have I sensed anti-communism at the Sudbury occupation site? Not blatantly, however, facilitation discussions have gone as far as to discuss electing a person to represent us in a leadership-like role (which I said was exactly what got us into this position).

    What I think is happening, and this is based only on my own random thoughts, is that people who are communists are so afraid to call themselves such, so afraid of scaring people away, that they hide it. They try to blend in with social democratic crowds, which were arguably more accepting of communist ideas a decade ago than they are now. My problem with this strategy is how we can bring communism back into mainstream discussions, how can we detach it from notions of totalitarianism, if we cannot even talk about it or call ourselves communists without immediately discrediting everything we say afterwards. Maybe I am just pretty much repeating what you have said using different words…

  5. Thanks for your thoughts: I always want to learn about different strategies especially since, as you point out, it's difficult to bring what might be an alienating discourse (especially for those of us who are trained as academics) to people unfamiliar with that discourse. I think what you said in the last paragraph, about communists being afraid, is key but for reasons that should not be key... Communists seem to be afraid here because of coldwar propaganda, failures of actually existing socialism, and just general "people aren't going to like me" phobia – which is not at all like the fear communists fear in other countries, where the ideology is still seen as vital and there are revolutionary mass movements: you can be killed for being a communist in many places, because the state recognizes it as a threat, which is a much more legitimate reason for being afraid. I think Sakai talks about this in Settlers when he looks at the mainstream Communist Party in the USA in the 1950s and examines how it really had no reason to be afraid of McCarthyism, at least not if it was an actually committed communist party: they weren't being hunted down and murdered as people of colour communists in the USA would be in the 1960s and 1970s, just demonized... Anyhow, something I've been thinking about a lot.

  6. Ms. Marx,

    I would like to hear your thoughts on this.

    Thank you for sharing your experience.It seems that Occupy Toronto was started by a few people. I have a recent very unfortunate encounter with this 'democratic consensus process'.

    There has been one recent protest which is a controversial issue for it impacts an ethnic community group under the name of enviorn. jargon. While I do support many envrionmental initiatives, I also believe in respect and thoughfulness towards each other's culture. Despite I have posted our concerns, the group did not post online their hidden protest action only after it was taken place (since all actions have been posted ahead of time). After this action, the announcement described a consensus vote of 43-3 (I was not at GA for this discussion and vote). The real issue is that because of the group went ahead and tell later on an action potentially impact on a people of colour community, it should have more discussions or dialogues, or at least held off until dissents are understood ie. why there is a this concerns), or this defeats this 'democratic consensus process'.

    How? As the matter evolved, this announcement even made excuses as to why they were at the City Hall that day, and it was sort of just happened that they were there and since they all agreed on this matter the day before, so they protested. It became even crazier, they refuse to post my comment/response to this action in their announcement section. I have used livestreams and emails to ask them to rectify this undemocratic action. They did not.

    What concerns me is that, there are something not quite right about this movement, although we have supported them by contributing many encouragement and ideas to them.

    1) Clearly there is a team behind who are at liberty to exercise their veto power to censor voices. Not leaderless.

    2) They seems to be very much interested in their perception in the public, politicians and media.

    3) There are already classes being set up, the posters serious concerns are not taken into consideration despite it risks its own legitmacy. Even the issues of First Nation is still to be acknowledged (who consider Canada is already occupied). Homeless people around were a late consideration. Issues of whiteness/racism was brought up in a post and apparently at the GA - was ignored.

    4) By hiding behind these "leaderless" 99%, there is no discipline, nor accountability.

    5) In Canada today, due to is make up, we really need to forge alliances across cultures but respect each others' practices. For the least to have true dialogue. The all white or middle class movement would simply fail miserably.

    6) For a leaderless movement to have leaders who are want-to-be activists does not sit well with people.

    To state the least, my friends and I are very disappointed, but again, who is behind this movement (which I have seen some posts), we can never be really sure. We decided to withdraw our support for Occupy Toronto at this point.

    Perhaps as you all seems to indicate, the consensus model is never really useful for a movement does not know its own history (ie. all the work activists have done already) or knows its nature (of no sure political alliance), therefore no ck point.

    What truly disturbs us is that: since the dubious protest/action took place October 25, 2011, there have been many hate speeches flying around the main stream media in regards to the issue. On cultural group in our society is again demonized. This leads us to wonder who these people really are? They seem to function no different than right and neo-liberalists.

    I hope you can accept this post, as a critique of this strategy of (swarm of people vs. alpha dog leading the pack) with true intentions of leaders obscured. This can be its own demise, and may be this is part of the capitalistic scheme.

    Thank you and I wish you the best. And my friends and I share your concerns. We will come back and visit your post again

  7. Levi, I share some of your concerns... I haven't heard of this specific issue, however. Can you explain or post a link of how this impacts the community of colour, as you mentioned? I'm just curious as to what exactly is going on and how it is playing out. I am working hard in Sudbury to make sure that these things are dealt with, but it is easier in a small group i think.

    Toronto is continuing to use the people's mic, despite being told by several people that it presents accessibility issues, because they got their 90% consensus on the decision. Which, I guess, if less than 10% of people make up that community and they cannot effectively argue thier point, that presents problems.

    But I absolutely agree with you on the issue of leaders (in a supposedly leader-less system), and on not being respectful of marginalized or oppressed groups.

    Still, I think there is a lot of really great stuff going on in the movement, and I still believe that we can work to fix these issues if we keep bringing them to the attention of those involved in the movement. If the leaders-who-are-not-leaders remain unquestioned, I see us ending up with a system not all that different from what we have right now.. potentially more dangerous because at least right now we can see where the power lies.

  8. Dear Ms. Marx,
    Thank you for your response. I am happy you are still working within the occupy movement for a better world. I am all for working together, treating each other with respects. Just sometimes, we do not all share same core values and understanding of respects. This, I believe pose barriers for us connecting together. For example, an “abled” body never can imagine the sufferings of immobility or other symptoms. I only recently find this out myself. The same, it also seems apply to racism. Any suggestion of it would meet with strong defensive Questions: how can you tell me that I am a racist? If I may suggest, in both cases, our experiences of oppression and prevented accesses tell us so, often they become our bodily experiences, being a feminist myself. They come from visceral reactions first, and second, from careful analysis. Perhaps as much as racism does not know itself as so, an abled body is equally blind to others’ experiences. We bodily feel the pain of continue prejudices. Yet, yes I agree with you, we must strive towards a better world regardlessly.

    Here are the links of the article, just a warning, the topic as portrayed in the media is biased (the belief of my friends and I), since real stories are always spinned by those in power.


    There are many hate comments posted, some were deleted since they were reported abuse.

  9. Dear Ms. Max,

    I would love to give you more information, but I do not feel safe to do so under watching eyes. My friends and I think that shark fishing should be stopped, especially for those ones are endangered, but not shark fins alone. The sharks still die, shark steaks still end up on the tables. But there are other medical use(anticancer), and naturalpathy uses the livers to make medicine which need to be evaluated.

    There are also quota fishing practices as options. But as whole society, we should all stop consume shark meat until the marine life regenerates itself.

    I do not want to go into debate about this shark issue. It is painful as you can understand, there seems to be a very strong push for demonizing Chinese in the main stream politics and it is somehow picked up by some others normally I think are different. Instead of dialogue, it seems to be a back-lash sentiment brewing against the Chinese-Canadian. This is quite scary.