Occupations as human mic

Process is politics at Occupy Wall Street – Salon

I have recently become aware of the so-called ‘human microphone’, a tactic adopted by the Wall Street occupiers when their use of megaphones was banned. A great description of how this works can be found on the excellent Literary Kicks blog Occupy Wall Street: How the People’s Mic Works. I think the human mic is a powerful metaphor for the growing number of occupations spreading around the world, about 2000 I think at the last count. One of the complaints about the occupations that is becoming increasingly common is that there are no clear objectives or set of alternative policies. This is entirely unreasonable. Who these days can claim (truthfully  and realistically) to have clear objectives or a well thought out and realistic strategy for getting there?  Our government, the US government, the EC Commissioners? The only clear and thought-out strategy there is any evidence for at the moment seems to be Goldman Sachs’ strategy, by a combination of recruiting influential politicians as advisers and consultants and taking over governments’ economic policies via their (unelected)  place men and alumni ‘technocrats’. (See What price the new democracy? Goldman Sachs conquers Europe for an account of the Goldman Sachs Project).

For a number of years now there has been much hand wringing and regret about the atrophy of civil society and the demise of public spaces for open and democratic discussion. The pervading acceptance that the current system is the least bad and that there is no alternative (TINA) – the basis of the argument that we are now in a ‘post political’ era – leads to and legitimates the conclusion that all that remains to be done is the find the most efficient and managerialist methods of administrating capitalism and consumer society. Life’s shit and the best we can do is to make it a bit less smelly for the docile and deserving. The importance of the occupations, at this stage of the game at least, is to open up and re-politicise spaces in civil society, to develop both a negative critique and exposure of the lies, corruption, injustice,  hypocrisy and inhumanity, to make visible the human face and experience of those that suffer as the ‘collateral damage’ of the system, and (although I am rather ambivalent about some aspects of this) to smoke out and make visible to all the links between corporate power, political complicity and the state ideological and material apparatuses of repression.  At the same time, and more positively, the occupations are fantastic experiments and demonstrations of citizens ‘doing it for themselves’ – providing tentative intimations of different sorts of non-hierarchical and consensual organisation, of alternative values and forms of sociality and conviviality. It is through networks of city occupations, alternative educational spaces like the Social Science Centre in Lincoln and the Space Project in Leeds, through initiatives like the Really Open University, and more recently Tent City University and the Bank of Ideas (to name but a few) that the critiques, ideas and values are transmitted and amplified  into and throughout the public domain through mainstream, citizen and social media, coalescing into an ever widening and deepening public awareness and debate about the state we are in, and the systems of interest, power and irresponsibility that  got us here. Where we are denied the ‘megaphone’ of meaningful and effective representation in our defective, subservient and co-opted political system the human microphone of the new and growing radical and critical spaces is becoming a formidable weapon.


What do we want? What is possible?

The right leaning media have been criticising the occupation at St Paul’s  in London for not being able to specify an alternative to the system they are against and, specifically, that their demands are poorly and inconsistently articulated. One possible response to this is that their objective is to keep the focus on the issues around the bankers’ responsibility for the economic collapse and the apparent immunity of the top 1% and their hangers-on and immediate collaborators to the consequences of their actions while the remaining 99% are bearing the financial and ideological brunt.  The occupiers’ actions provide a rallying point for discussion and further action and is drawing in ever larger numbers and organisations. The TUs are getting involved and there is even the possibility that Christians will form a defensive ring of prayer around the occupation to shield it from violent eviction!  The movement may not yet have a coherent set of ideas about an alternative society and how to get there but it is at the very least enabling and encouraging a space of dissent and resistance that leaves open a range of possibilities.

None-the-less, that discussion will sooner or later have to coalesce into a reasonably concrete vision of objectives and how to achieve them, in practice. It is difficult to over emphasise the considerable obstacles to doing this. I am currently working on some ideas about how to think about this and what the practical and political possibilities are. For the moment I will just list the conceptual resources I am starting to work with, in no particular order.

John Holloway’s ideas on Crack Capitalism and the possibilities for developing alternative modes of behaviour and ways of doing that resist reproducing the social relations of capital. Part of what I am doing is building on a critique of these ideas.

Zygmunt Bauman’s take on ‘liquid modernity’, the fact of irreducable uncertainty and what the role of sociology and socilogists should be.  This relates directly to his ideas on freedom ‘from’ and freedom ‘to’ and the possibilities of going beyond the naturalisation of the current system and promoting a dialogue, even a poly-logue, that makes thinking about and enabling alternatives that are emancipatory.

Slavoj Zizek’s view of what is possible as laid out in the Afterword –  Welcome to Interesting Times – of the paperback edition of Living in the End Times.

Norbert Elias’s ontology of ‘levels of integration’ and how, in a social developmental context, this creates increasingly far flung and dense networks of dependency and interdependency that help explain the relative lack of opportunity and power chances at the lower levels of integration (limited in autonomy, opportunity and mobility) and the relative autonomy and immunity of the higher levels of integration including, in Baumans’ terms, the free floating, trans-state and seemingly immune highly mobile global elites. It is difficult to see how much progress can be made towards a radical restructuring of society without taking these far flung networks of dependency into account.

I think to way forward for me will to be to produce a summary and critique of these thinkers ideas and then see to what extent some sort of synthesis may be of possible that is conceptually, empirically and politically useful. Maybe this is a project that could be conducted collaboratively in some way – perhaps via presentations, discussion and workshops in the sorts of spaces for resistance that are opening up?

 


The Resilient University

Had a great day in Lincoln yesterday, Friday 29th October, to discuss the Resilient University project with Mike Neary, Joss Winn and a great team putting together a cunning plan, more of which in due course. A lot of discussion revolved around notions of what ‘resilience’ means in the context of the existing crisis ridden university system and in the context of a re-visioning of what a ‘university’ could and should be. There is clearly a mainstream language of resilience that is all about shoring up the structures and institutions of the status quo. But if the status quo is seen as the cause of the various crises and conditions it needs to become resilient with respect to, then striving for the status quo’s resilience creates a negative trajectory double bind – strategies for resilience that are doomed to make the system ever less resilient.  If this is correct the system is unsustainable and cannot be made resilient in its own terms and will eventually fail and, by necessity, become something else, for good or ill, for progress or extinction.

My view is that the sort of education system we have now, including HE, is a significant part of the problem. It is itself in crisis and is a major component of the broader crises that it is a part of, political and cultural crises (legitimacy crisis), health and well-being crises, economic and financial crises, and military crises. If this is so, how can education be conceived of and organised differently? And what does resilience mean for this re-visioned form of education? What is needed is a new, or at least different, language and conceptualisation of resilience. Perhaps the focus of resilience should not be on the current system but what it is degrading and destroying. A good starting point would be a look at how the concept is currently used and defined in practice.

“Resilience is the property of a material to absorb energy when it is deformed elastically and then, upon unloading to have this energy recovered.” So, absorbing, recycling and exploiting the changes that impact.

“Resilience in psychology is the positive capacity of people to cope with stress and adversity. This coping may result in the individual “bouncing back” to a previous state of normal functioning, or using the experience of exposure to adversity to produce a “steeling effect” and function better than expected” Or, what hurts us only makes us stronger.

“The Government’s aim is to reduce the risk from emergencies so that people can go about their business freely and with confidence”. With the object of being prepared for emergencies and to ensure “continuity of business”.  http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/ukresilience.aspx

“Resilience is the ability to absorb disturbances, to be changed and then to re-organise and still have the same identity (retain the same basic structure and ways of functioning).” http://www.resalliance.org/564.php


The ‘new’ sociology of Zygmunt Bauman

I am writing ans article on Zygmunt Bauman’s view of what sociology could and should be, its value and function, in conditions of liquid modernity.  Zygmunt sees sociology’s role today, in conditions of liquid modernity,  as supporting civic society and servicing a continuous dialogue, a dialogue with no predetermined outcome, that clarifies issues and accommodates multiple voices. Our job is to “defamiliarise the familiar and make the familiar unfamilar”, to make visible the invisible links and connections that lie behind the life world and to keep the conversation going. However  “we cannot stay neutral or indifferent when the future of humanity is at stake”. See post at http://sociology.leeds.ac.uk/blogs/zbi/2010/09/08/conference-day-two-%E2%80%93-first-reflections/

Where does this leave socialism as a valid project? Is it just one set of ideas and a vision that some voices can bring to the discussion but without any claim to legislative privilege? Socialisms project to legislate and administer a particular sort of society (no doubt a good and egalitarian society)? I think the answer is to see socialism as a establishing a set of conditions for the conversation rather than an end point itself in a particular society. Socialism is a process rather than a fixed goal or outcome – the project of socialism should be development and the nurturing of the conversation, perhaps the creation of the sociality of the  social state (not necessarily in conflict with elements of the bureaucratic and market state).

Great description of what the conversation should be like in the last paragraph of page xxi in the introduction to Intimations of Postmodernity.


Corporations have the same rights as individuals

There is an interesting article published by Yes! magazine Real People v. Corporate “People”: The Fight Is On reproduced on the CommonDreams.org web site. It refers to the dispute over major corporations in the US having the same constitutional rights as individuals to freedom of speech. Under a recent Supreme Court ruling this means that they can spend unlimited money promoting an economic interest or political position. According to the Court, if human beings are allowed an unrestricted right to free speech, then corporations must have the same right. According to David Harvey in his book A brief History of Neoliberalism this obviously undemocratic principle was consolidated during the period of the consolidation of neoliberal hegemony and the triumph of the related ‘business ontology’ back in the 1970s.

A crucial set of Supreme Court decisions began in 1976 when it was first established that the right of a corporation to make unlimited money contributions to political parties and political action committees was protected under the First Amendment guaranteeing the rights of individuals (in this instance corporations) to freedom of speech. Political action committees (PACs) could thereafter ensure the financial domination of both political parties by corporate, moneyed, and professional association interests (page 49).