Tracing the Contours of the Movement

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Tidal, a magazine that has grown out of Occupy, is a great website for movement discussion and strategic analysis.  We recommend you give it a good look. Below is an article by Pamela Brown one of the contributors to PopularResistance.org.

What is it that we mean when we say “the movement?”  Sometimes it seems that what we have come to call “the movement” has so many meanings that it has almost none.  The movement is everything that came out of the park, and also everything on the left that organizes in one way or another against neoliberal capitalism. And while there are overlaps, there are also important tensions.

As we continue to connect the dots and build alliances between Occupy and traditional left organizing nationally, it may be worth considering what it is we really mean when we say “the movement.” Where are its outlines and intersections? But also, where are the gaps and incompatibilities?

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Recently, Ear to the Ground Project published a report, More Than We Imagined: Activists Assessment of the Moment and the Way Forward. The report is based on 150 interviews with movement activists. It is chock full of helpful insights into how a broad array of organizers feel about the current state of left organizing. Important points are made about the language of anticapitalism and political identity, as well as about the need for grassroots base building and the desire for coherence. The report notes that 50% of participants found that the movement was fragmented and were confused as to why attempts at cohesion have failed.

The authors define “movement” broadly: “the sustained activism of various organizations and individuals toward a common goal of political, economic, cultural or social change.” And they also reference the concept of a “movement of movements,” defining it as the kind of movement that brings together “movements, organizations, activists from different issues, sectors and communities into a shared struggle against the intersecting systems that produce injustice and inequality.”

But even these definitions make biases and tensions between NGOs that use traditional organizing models and Occupy palpable. Not all of the basic assumptions over the need for coherence, the solidity of the boundaries of the nation-state, the operation of power and resistance in neoliberal capitalism, and the distinctions between political and social change seem fully shared. There is overlap, but also dissonance.

Occupy has ebbed and flowed, taken on a wide range of political and social issues, emerged through local and global struggles, and popped up in beautiful, but difficult to pinpoint, rhizomatic forms in which the roots are not visible, yet are nevertheless interconnected deep beneath the surface. In some ways Occupy has become a brand associated with specific identities, but more than anything else it is a way of being, and an aspirational community connected as a global network that understands itself as seeking a world beyond capitalist social relations – as unknowable and uncertain of a future as that is. Because Occupy is not so much a thing but a way, it can shift in ways that are frustratingly hard to grasp.

Frequently, tensions have been voiced as a demand to get over “no demands” and an insistence on bringing structure to the “lack of structure.” The answer that “we are the demands” or that “we are organized around human bonds” has proven unsatisfying for many with traditional leanings toward the political.  And of course, the idea that Occupy has not really been a “political” movement has been troubling for those who do not connect the end of capitalism with the end of politics – at least as we have known the political thus far.

Struggling to figure out new social relationships that rely on forms of democracy that cannot be limited, controlled and managed by the state can seem elusive and like pie-in-the-sky. What are they accomplishing? How are they working? Who’s in charge? Experimenting with prefiguring new ways to live has led to both moments of profound love and interconnectedness, but also revelations about how deeply imprinted neoliberalism is on our behaviors, intuitive understandings and sensibilities. The gaps generate the “movement of movements” that we see and experience today – something perceived as fragmented, when we look for and cannot find the forms of solidarity we have seen in the past.

But as Suzahn Ebrahimian points out in “First Note: On Solidarity”:

“Solidarity does not mean co-option, nor taking on another’s cause as a reflection of some constructed moral code.  It doesn’t mean that every person around the globe adopts the same causes, same slogans, same tactics as international signifiers of “authentic” revolution. That is not liberation, that is branding.

Solidarity does not seek to distill and unify global resonances within a singular global cause. For just as sure as an American occupier feels that they are in solidarity with Tahrir Square, they know little of the US history of intervention in the Middle East, and inherently perpetuate U.S. supremacy through their insistence on “one global movement” with the same goals.”

There is no reason for us to be attached to the forms of solidarity of the past. Power has changed, morphed and become imprinted on our bodies and ways of being, and does not manage us in the same ways as in the past – though it still constrains. Many identities are expressed publicly in ways that were limited in the past.

Solidarity is a feeling and cannot be forced – it is affective, and also liminal. Its liminal qualities flow across space and time in unexpected ways, as we refuse to be identified as a body that can be managed and moved in the old ways. We feel ourselves in solidarity with Occupy Gezi. They understand that while their political local struggle is distinct, our social struggle is united. We need to build on these emerging forms of solidarity and also challenge the ways that neoliberalism has divided us affectively, making it difficult to feel unified.

The age of print capitalism has already ended. Our “imagined communities” have shifted beyond the nation-state. Power now flows over networks, and coalesces in nodes. Solidarity also flows. As a result state boundaries may not hold in rigid and expected ways. Communication is complex, dynamic and often invisible. The boundaries of the state are being challenged, as bodies refuse to be bound by arbitrary borders, and demand to be bound by love. What it means to be human has grown beyond current walls and lines.

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We have witnessed the unthinkable before – the sudden collapse of great powers, when tensions bubble up and affects become unmanageable by the state, forming solidarities that are beyond language – expanding, superseding – pushing in instinctive ways.

The threat to humanity is far greater than ever before as we face a potentially evolutionary moment as our cognition becomes colonized by capitalism through a process of industrializing our memory such that our reference points are dominated by capitalism’s ideologies. It is our social relations that hold the current order in place. In order to change them, we have to refuse. Like the park, we have to write a new story without falling into the old patterns – we have to break the rules of the genre, yet our actions must resonate. To do this we have to keep trying, keep writing, and telling and finding spaces where we are able to struggle to share.

When we come together, find each other in a square, we strike a critical blow by collectively creating new relations. This requires enormous effort and we often fail, because of those invisible blind spots that demand that we rely on old ideas and repeat the narrative that has been set out.  We cannot assume that a global movement or even its national elements should be coherent as seeking similar goals; we cannot afford to believe that there are effective forms of resistance that fail to subvert old paradigms.

Yes, most of the time we are failing, but it’s not because we are not trying. The social system is as powerful as the air we breathe. We cannot think our way out. We have to think and do and create and refuse and think again and start all over again without stopping the flow.

But because our game plays out over the present forms of privilege, horizontal does not necessitate democracy – democracy requires an equitable distribution of power. There is no such thing as radical democracy where voices are excluded or marginalized. When the privilege to occupy a square comes without widely shared analysis of how to rectify structural inequalities, we fail to create new forms of solidarity and fail to cross the lines capitalism has drawn. What ways are there to protect the minority – even one that does not have the privilege to participate – from a tyranny of the majority? Have we collectively begun to think about what democracy really means in practice?

This tension exists in the demand for demands and the anger that circulates around Occupy’s structure as unintentional. Who has the privilege not to demand? Who has the privilege not to desire the protection of some state? As we trace the contours of the movement, we will need to start to trace these lines too. By turning a blind eye to the ways structural inequalities are affective and work liminally as shared sensibilities, we can only build a sociality that is as false, commodified, and exploitative as the one we have today. But just by looking at structures of oppression does not mean that democracy results. To do this we will need to share across the gaps, work through the tensions, practice radical compassion, and set aside attachments to a past narrative of what “the movement” means.