Sparked by a recent conversation I have decided to finally get around to an OccupyLSX debrief that I wish I had read elsewhere. This is Part 1 of 2, and they are the lessons I personally see in Occupy LSX, not some outline of what ‘really’ happened or an attempt to shut down other debates. If they seem a bit critical, it is only from a position of wanting future actions to be better than the actions we have seen so far.
Politics in the rich Western countries still lives in the shadow of 1968, and when it comes to the rhetoric and tactics of ‘radical’ political activists, the shadow of the situationists in particular. I can understand why: the situationists are cool. They were cool at the time and they are still great to read.
“People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have a corpse in their mouth”
― Raoul Vaneigem
Cool huh? Hakim Bey, a successor to the situationsts, wrote things with titles like “Against the Reproduction of Death,” which is way better than any title by George Monbiot. He also wrote about the Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ), a joyous space of liberation created among the hostile forces of the world. He said this about it: “Despite its synthesizing force for my own thinking, however, I don’t intend the TAZ to be taken as more than an essay (“attempt”), a suggestion, almost a poetic fancy. Despite the occasional Ranterish enthusiasm of my language I am not trying to construct political dogma.”
Which is great. I just wish people took him at his word there. His writings on TAZs are very inspiring in places but there is one problem: there is a constant, gaping inability to unite the joyous moments of liberation in a TAZ with long term liberation. He flits between saying the TAZ can only exist for a moment, and saying it is all we can expect in the face of the power of the state, to apparently talking about it as a long term tactic. The term Permanent Autonomous Zone appeared later, but if you’re looking for a real way to bridge the gulf between moments of liberation and a liberated society Hakim Bey will never provide it.
This shouldn’t surprise us so much. Peter Lamborn Wilson, as his parents knew him, is somewhat mystically inclined and has probably spent too much time at the knees of Sufi and Hindu masters to focus properly on the nitty-gritty of long-term organising. Some of his writing definitely projects the TAZ as something almost mystical, and the step between the TAZ and a liberated society is as obscured as you would expect of a mystic. I’ve nothing against mysticism per se. If all we ever get from a Temporary Autonomous Zone is a Temporary Autonomous Zone we shouldn’t blame Wilson but ourselves for taking him too seriously. And you know who else never provided a bridge between moments of liberation and a transformed society? Most of the rest of the situationists whose tactics greatly influence activism to this day, even amongst those who’ve never read them. They grappled with it to vary degrees but their tactics never evolved to create long term liberation.
That’s the theoretical stuff, and I know autonomous zones appear without participants ever knowing about the idea of the TAZ, so the point here is not to have a purely theoretical debate. Here’s the practical stuff that led me to go on about this: I’ve now seen two (2) surges of political activism, both of which brought lots of new people into unmediated anti-establishment politics for the first time. The first was about ten years ago in the form of the anti-capitalist, alter-globalisation [insert preferred name here] movement. The second was a mixture of student activity and Occupy (there was also anti-cuts activity going on around the country but my experience of this was that it was mostly seasoned activists and established groups).
As new people come into political activism they are inducted into particular ways of doing things by older activists, much of it derived (possibly unknown to both pupils and teachers) from the activists and writers of 1968 and from their descendants. One of the results of this is that we get some fantastic (and that’s not sarcastic – I really do like them) situationist-inspired action and beautiful Temporary Autonomous Zones in the form of occupations – of streets, squares, classrooms, libraries – and what happens then? Well, not much. They end. Nothing long-term comes out of them. If anything, as Occupy LSX progressed it became less, not more likely that something long-term would come out of it. Momentum was lost to the needs of maintaining the space and keeping together a bunch of people so diverse in views that it became a weakness as well as a strength.
It is important to emphasise that the maintenance of these spaces sucks up a huge amount of energy. It is obvious why: you are trying to hold back the forces of society and economics around you in every moment. These spaces are by their nature intense and people happily throw themselves into the task of keeping them alive. And then they burn out. Because it isn’t sustainable. You can’t defend against the police and bailiffs forever. You can’t feed and clothe the homeless, try to cure all the ills of capitalism while plotting the downfall of capitalism, for very long. People burn out really quite quickly, and then what?
Meanwhile there are all those people with full time jobs or caring roles who simply cannot offer the level of energy necessary to begin with. What about them? Can they not be part of our revolution? People often talk about these spaces as a microcosm of a future liberated world, yet this microcosm appears not to include people who have major duties besides politics. That doesn’t even sound like a great future world to me. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life hanging around with political geeks like myself.
It was difficult to discern anything long term that came out of the anti-capitalist movement – some writings and relationships aside – and it is difficult now to discern anything long-term that has come from Occupy or from the surge in student activity. Sure, some friendships were made, some networks formed or strengthened – and who knows what might come of that? – but mostly the autonomous zones collapsed and that was that. This is really sad. But I think the saddest thing is that if people don’t talk about this and try to think of different ways of acting – possibly not involving the 68 crew and Peter Lamborn Wilson – then I think the same thing will happen again next time.
I may have sounded a bit mean to the situationists so far, but now I’m going to be even meaner. This is so mean that I’m going to have to whisper it to you: the sixties revolution failed. We should probably stop obsessing over the literature and tactics of failed revolutionaries and get on with writing and doing our own shit. Sure it’s mean, but at some point surely we have to think that what is really radical is creating change. We haven’t done it yet so we need to come up with some new ideas and new strategies, not get hung up on ideas framed as ‘radical’ but with proven inability to translate into long-term liberatory action.
In particular we need to think about long-term organising, substantial new networks, permanent organisations. We should think about large-scale membership organisations again, which in the form of trade unions have achieved much over time (Not that I am suggesting unions are the only worthwhile form, on the contrary I think we absolutely have to organise beyond as well as in the workplace right now). We should think about internet-enabled networks with nodes in the real world. We should think about how to resource campaigns – skipping food and benefit gigs are great but they are not practical across a large-scale movement.
Above all, we need to stop putting so much energy into things that are manifestly temporary. If we don’t shift our energies into more permanent tactics then I fear the next surge of political activity will give us the same results as this one: memories of a few glorious moments together, and a few individual transformations, amidst banditry and exploitation by those in power, entirely uninterrupted by our moments of autonomy.