Tag Archive: activism


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“COUNTRY UNDER RECONSTRUCTION. SORRY FOR THE INCONVENIENCE.” (from Ukrainian anarchist group Blackmaidan)

“It is as if, for a moment, the ‘projection’ of the outside world has stopped working; as if we have been confronted momentarily with the formless grey emptiness of the screen itself…”  (Slavoj Zizek, describing the scene outside a traveling couple’s window in Robert Heinlein’s “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag”)

 

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The Occupation

The metaphor of “occupation” strikes me as a provocative one not only for what the activists in Manhattan and elsewhere are doing, but for what they are struggling against.

Some, and perhaps many, of these are people without traditional “occupations,” so they are occupying themselves by re-occupying the public spaces that have been occupied for too long by the values, habits, and appeals of the Occupation Force — the whole industry of slogans, gestures, come-hither looks, sales pitches, jingles, hooks, nods and winks (backed up by policies, and ultimately by laws and policing) that keep us steered into the spectacle of Politics-as-Usual-and-Consumption-Above-All.

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Johann Hari’s article in The Nation on How to Build a Progressive Tea Party is one of the more exciting and inspiring pieces of news I’ve read recently. Hari recounts how a group of Twitter-linked citizens outraged by David Cameron’s £7 billion cuts to social programs when a single company, cellphone giant Vodafone, was allowed to get away without paying £6 billion in British taxes, organized to shut down Vodafone stores across the country.

All the cuts in housing subsidies, driving all those people out of their homes [200,000 in London alone, apparently], are part of a package of cuts to the poor, adding up to £7 billion. Yet the magazine Private Eye reported that one company alone—Vodafone, one of Britain’s leading cellphone firms—owed an outstanding bill of £6 billion to the British taxpayers. According to Private Eye, Vodaphone had been refusing to pay for years, claiming that a crucial part of its business ran through a post office box in ultra-low-tax Luxembourg. The last Labour government, for all its many flaws, had insisted it pay up. But when the Conservatives came to power, David Hartnett, head of the British equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service, apologized to rich people for being “too black and white about the law.” Soon after, Vodafone’s bill was reported to be largely canceled, with just over £1 billion paid in the end.

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The responses to the final COP-15 “deal” from the environmental and social justice communities seem, at this point, to be largely negative. It’s a start, some acknowledge, but it’s pretty late to be starting, and it’s really pretty vacuous — a lost opportunity. (See, e.g., Bill McKibben’s deeply disappointed take on it, and other NGO leaders’ views.)

My last blog post tried to put a positive spin on things by arguing that the events in Copenhagen reflect the tension between two models of democracy, and that there is hope for the future in the very crystallization of the second model. Let me expand on that a little.

The first model is a democracy of representative institutions based in the modern system of (in theory) sovereign territorial states. Many of those states don’t pretend to be democratic themselves (think, for instance, of China), and the system as a whole is far from democratic, as anyone familiar with the UN Security Council or the actual workings of the World Trade Organization knows. But many of the states are built in part on democratic principles.

The main strength of this model of democracy (in quotation marks or not) is that it exists, and it has plenty of institutional power to get things done. The main weakness is that it has been thoroughly “captured,” at every level, by capitalism’s “preference for wealth.” In a capitalist economy, to the extent that economy and politics are intertwined (as they almost always are), wealth confers a certain amount of power. The relationship between wealth and power has, of course, been around for millennia, long predating capitalism itself, but only in the last century or two has it become a global and self-referential speculative system — that is, not one grounded in ecological realities, where the generation of wealth depends, in the last instance, on some set of material conditions, but one that is now primarily grounded in self-reference, where a system of policies and rules allow wealth to generate more wealth from nothing but the creation of other policies and rules (think: the “derivatives” that brought about last year’s Wall Street collapse).

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