Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Imagining Radical Democracy, in progress

Last year at WisCon, Alexis Lothian moderated a panel titled "Imagining Radical Democracy," that Andrea Hairston, Liz Henry, and I participated in. For most of the panel, we talked about examples of people creating radically democratic spaces-- in real life today, in fiction, and in history. It was one of the most exhilarating panels I've ever participated in (and that's saying something).

 Lately, I've been hearing and reading about "Occupy Sandy"-- in which Occupiers (whom the media had dismissed as done and over) have been bringing relief to areas ravaged by Sandy two weeks ago. The Occupiers, it turns out, have a much clearer notion of how to accomplish relief than the best-funded aid corporations (you know, the ones with high-paid executives that collect big bucks from people who'd like to help) do. (The Occupys are, you might say, a "do-ocracy.")

All of this reminds me of one of the aspects of radically democratic spaces we discussed during the panel-- the problem that such spaces frequently face of being required to fix everything for everyone all at once (which of course can't be done)-- and the potential for such demands to wreck the space. I myself remarked, anent this, that little drops of water evaporate in a desert; they need a humid environment to survive. The Occupys are like single drops of water. They--along, of course, with discrete other single drops--  inhabit a massive desert capable of evaporating every bit of precipitation that comes its way .

And yet, how welcome they are! Here's John Knefel, in his account at Truthout:
As the full extent of Superstorm Sandy's destruction begins to set in, Occupy Sandy continues to expand its effort to provide relief to ravaged areas in Staten Island, Coney Island, Red Hook, and the Rockaways. The work can roughly be divided into two categories: the primary distribution hubs at St. Jacobi Church on Fourth Avenue and 520 Clinton Ave., and the field, where organizers often go intersection by intersection, sometimes door to door to assess needs of the community.
What I've found, observing these efforts and increasingly participating in them, is that Occupy Sandy has provided the public with a concrete example of the virtue of Occupy's sometimes abstract ideals. One of Occupy's defining features is horizontalism, or non-hierarchical organization, which replaces traditional methods of control with, in theory, mutual affinity and respect. The media often refers to this as "leaderlessness" and calls it a weakness, and when trying to interpret Occupy through the narrow lens of corporate-captured electoral politics that may be a fair criticism. But the premise is completely incorrect. The establishment media never intended to understand Occupy on its own terms when it was in Zuccotti Park or in the streets, but now they are forced to. The fact that volunteers can be trained and assigned to tasks quickly - tasks they aren't compelled by any strict authority to do and so therefore take ownership of almost immediately - is a virtue rather than a fatal flaw. Likewise, emerging narratives of Occupy "refocusing," "reincarnating," or "resurrecting" similarly miss the point and instead rely on lazy, often condescending framing.
More interesting is Yotam Marom's post Occupy Sandy: From Relief to Resistance, written by a Hoboken resident who's been facilitating training for hundreds of people who've volunteered to help with the relief effort.
All along, I’ve been coming to terms with the fact that this is what climate change looks like; but it’s also what the beginning of a climate justice movement might look like.
Hurricane Sandy is a crisis in itself; it flooded homes, turned off power, kept people from work, made families cold — it even took lives and put families on the street. And of course it’s more complicated than just bad weather. This hurricane is one more expression of the erratic weather patterns that we can expect more and more as a result of global warming, which is the product of our society’s dependency on fossil fuels, driven by multinational fossil fuel companies. Hurricane Sandy is a reminder that the climate crisis sets off a whole set of other crises, based on social, economic and political systems that are already in place, and that those things land on top of crises already in play. Many of the communities hardest hit by the hurricane are the same ones hardest hit by foreclosure, debt, austerity and mass incarceration. The flood didn’t create those things, but it made them worse and washed away all the crap that made them hard to see.
At the same time, Hurricane Sandy has brought new networks to life and put thousands of people in the streets to rebuild communities with an explicitly political framing. It’s now widely agreed that, despite setbacks, Occupy Sandy’s organizing has put the official agencies to shame. Equity, solidarity and mass participation have been at the center of the effort from the get-go, driven forward by committed organizers with deep politics and foresight. All along the intention has been to see this as an organizing project rather than just a volunteer effort. Still, the question remains of whether those networks in motion now can rise to the occasion and begin to address the underlying crises.
Marom sees success for the effort for as long as it's focused on the immediate crisis-- but worries that once the immediate crisis is past, involvement will decline, and all the problems exposed by the crisis will be allowed to slide, back to business as usual. (That is how such spaces usually work, I know...)
Flexible networks like Occupy Sandy are incredible machines — more fluid than big organizations, more dynamic than government agencies. But they rely on having people or strong communities to network. Networks connect dots, but you still need the dots themselves to be ready. Crises and opportunities — like Hurricane Sandy or Occupy Wall Street last fall — put people in motion, but they only become part of a movement beyond those moments when participants are grounded in stable frameworks to keep them going.
We have to build infrastructure and create the institutional frameworks that can sustain a struggle over the long haul. Every movement needs them. The civil rights movement had SNCC and the Highlander School, among countless other organizations, schools, training institutes, churches and foundations. Even Occupy has had institutions all along, from the occupations themselves to the many groups that rose to the occasion to support it; part of the reason Occupy Sandy could mobilize so quickly and effectively is that the Occupy movement already had enough building blocks in place, enough experience with alternative structures, enough relationships built and enough organizing being done behind the scenes to leap into action when it was needed.
If we want to last, we need to create the frameworks, processes and systems that keep us in motion — that keep the windows open — for long enough to win.
The rest of his post muses on the problem and what can be done to address it. Definitely worth our while thinking on, especially given that only a week after the election President Obama is already warning progressives that he's soon going to be making them swallow more bitter pills (just in case anyone might have gotten the wild, foolish idea that the elections themselves actually changed anything).

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