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The Occupy movement: three months on

Laurie Penny, New Statesman
The protest has become a network of mutual support for the lost and destitute.

… Three months on, this is what the Occupy movement looks like: a network of mutual support for the lost and destitute, with anti-capitalist overtones. The Bank of Ideas, an abandoned building owned by the Swiss banking giant UBS and transformed into a space for art sessions, lectures and late-night discussion on the future of the free market, is one of four sites squatted by London’s branch of the movement. The occupations began with the encampment on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, which has just lost its battle against eviction at the Royal Courts of Justice, and branched out to Finsbury Square, and an empty magistrate’s court on Old Street. As other world cities have seen similar protests violently evicted by local police, the occupiers of London have clung on through a winter that has seen the nature of the camps change profoundly.

“I came here for the community,” says Declan, 29. “Before this I was living in Galway, essentially trying to get together enough weed to get through the day. It’s better here.” He passes a glowing spliff around the other roof-dwellers. The tranquility group, with its strict policy against drugs and drunkenness, would not approve this gesture of friendship. Muriel, a french artist in her forties, is excited and a little stoned, examining the walls daubed with murals, slogans and lovingly pasted pamphlets. “If bird catcher comes, occupy the sky,” she says, reading off the brickwork. “That is truly beautiful. I feel that something beautiful is happening here.”

As the winter drags on, many of those who have stayed are those, like Spiral and his cat, who can’t or won’t go home. They are the waifs and strays and nuts and eccentrics, the wide-eyed young men with theories about how computers can calculate the perfect democracy, the straggle-haired women with bags full of paintbrushes and dirt in the creases of their cheeks. For the more media-savvy organisers of Occupy London, this has created something of a public relations dilemma.

The people who live full or part-time in the camps can now be divided into roughly three categories: those who were homeless before the occupations, those who will shortly be homeless, and those who merely look homeless. Three months of sleeping in tents, washing in the bathrooms of nearby cafes and working around-the-clock to run a kitchen feeding thousands with no running water and little electricity will transform even the most fresh-faced student into a jittering bundle of aching limbs and paranoia. Even those who haven’t been living here full-time have an air of righteous exhaustion about them.

This is the part where the noble adventure of political resistance becomes a straightforward slog.

… Nice, however, has rarely trembled the walls of power.

It should be noted that no amount of scrupulous cleaning stopped the police in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle and other major cities from using the excuse of “unsanitary conditions” to evict protest camps calling for banking regulation — it’s infectious ideas, not infectious diseases, that really have the authorities worried. (18 January 2012)

Occupy Wall Street’s Next Phase: Avoid Cooptation in Election Season

Glen Ford, Black Agenda Report
… What does Occupy The Dream’s virtual merger with OWS portend? Lots more Black people, for one thing. The clergy-centered group held demonstrations at Federal Reserve Bank locations in 16 cities on January 16, Martin Luther King’s federal holiday, leaving behind walkers and crutches to symbolize the central bank’s role in “crippling America.” At the Fed’s Washington headquarters, the call-and-response was nothing like the usual OWS mic-check. “We pray for a Robin Hood revolution, where there will be more for the poor and less for the rich,” Rev. Bryant preached to the crowd. “Instead of saying Amen, shout Occupy. [Occupy!] The revolution begins today. What do we want? [Justice!] No Justice? [No Peace!] What we gonna do? [Occupy!].”

Both Rev. Bryant and Occupy The Dream co-founder Dr. Ben Chavis were vocal Barack Obama supporters up to the minute they vowed to work in “lock-step” with OWS, at a press conference in Washington, December 14 – and Bryant was still urging his congregation to work hard for the president’s re-election, the following Sunday. (See BAR, January 11, “Occupy Wall Street joins Occupy The Dream: Is It Cooptation, or Growing the Movement?”) Bryant and Chavis are now publicly non-partisan, in the sense that they no longer directly advocate for Obama. Occupy Washington DC activist and AcronymTV reporter Dennis Trainor asked Bryant if he was serious about holding “both parties accountable” on the same terms. “Oh yes,” said the minister. But, what if Obama doesn’t give in to your demands? “He’s going to have to. Power concedes nothing without a demand.” But, what if? “Then we’re going to have to speak truth to power, hold him accountable. He can’t be president if he doesn’t have our vote. November 6 is going to be a day of destiny, when Occupy is gonna get up from the tent and go into the polling stations.”

Clearly, Rev. Bryant isn’t about to abandon his electoral power broker persona. The real “phase two” of Occupy Wall Street’s young career is a perilous period of greatly increased interaction of OWS with local Democratic politicians at the height of the election season. Although the presence of Occupy the Dream, comprised of political preachers, will surely accelerate the movement’s immersion in Democratic politics (which are embedded in the African American polity), the mostly white national leadership of OWS chose this path on its own.

It has been forty years since a presidential campaign took place in the presence of a grassroots movement – or, the remnants of a movement, back in 1972. Except for some older heads, OWS has little experience in avoiding – or even detecting – the Democratic Party’s cooptive machinery, as is becoming obvious.
(18 January 2012)

2002-2012: Remembering the Social Movements that Reimagined Argentina

Francesca Fiorentini,
If 2011 was any indicator, 2012 will be a year of further popular resistance to government austerity and a finance sector spun out of control. Whether it’s the occupy movements in the U.S. that have spread to the U.K., the indignados of Spain, or the general strikes in Greece and Italy, the people of the world when faced with economic crisis and tired fixit schemes are saying in near unison: Now it’s our turn.

Though refreshingly new, these movements have a South American predecessor: Argentina 2001, when popular protest put an end to destructive neoliberal policies and forever changed the political terrain of the country.

Ten years later, with the country’s unparalleled economic growth since 2003 and President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s landslide re-election victory, it is easy to forget just how the country climbed out of those difficult days. Though many attribute former President Néstor Kirchner with creating a new economic model that reigned in a private sector run wild, it was the people whose unyielding protests during the 1990s and through the turn of the century would ultimately bring about change.

As historian Ezequiel Adamovsky writes in Le Monde Diplomatique, “It was the constant threat of looting, targeting of politicians, of rebellion, of occupations, of roadblocks, and those assemblies that disciplined both management and local and international financial sectors, opening an unimagined space for politics.”

This unimagined space included the unemployed, labor unions, and the middle classes alike, who took to the streets in the final months of 2001, uniting under the slogan “Que se vayan todos” (They all must go). It was a powerful indicator that the entire political system was broken, and that not just the president and the economic minister, but all of Congress had abandoned and sold out its people. In less than two weeks the country saw the popular ousting of five presidents. For a people who not long before had lived under a military dictatorship in which any inkling of social protest could cost one their life, it was a moment of political reconstitution and reclamation of popular power.

From a vacuum of political power and severe economic necessity, grew new political formations outside of traditional party politics. Hundreds of neighborhood assemblies came together to meet peoples’ most basic needs and create a space for local dialogue. Bartering clubs (with their own forms of currency) experimented in alternative economics, and workers of bankrupt businesses began to occupy and run enterprises on their own.

But ten years on, with fewer street protests and U.S. trademarks like Starbucks and Subway encroaching on the capital, what remains of this anti-neoliberal angst? How have the political formations whose “horizontal” nature inspired not just Argentina but the entire world, faded into the background of political landscape? Which projects have survived? Though the country may be far from the chaos of economic collapse, is the economic model the Kirchner governments have so exalted crisis-proof?

[ …. ]

With the economies of Europe and the U.S. in turmoil thanks to some of the same runaway financial practices that so hurt Argentina, it’s no wonder that people around the world have looked to the country’s vibrant social movements for inspiration. Though weakened, these movements have imprinted the culture and consciousness of the Argentine people with an irreplaceable spirit of solidarity and possibility. That same spirit may be the foundation upon which future movements will build and, perhaps, move beyond.
(17 January 2012)
Also posted at ZNet.

Goodbye Lenin?

Daphne Lawless, Unity Aotearoa (New Zealand)
… This paper is an exploration of ten years experience as a member of a revolutionary socialist organisation, and a question about what happens next.

… The political is personal…

I have often talked to people about why I cannot simply do the kinds of things that I could do in my first years as a political activist. I used to be able to sell a socialist newspaper to my workmates, or at least try to; man a political stall and hold discussions with passers-by; participate in demonstrations; even recruit to the organisation. I castigated myself for a long time, blaming myself for “cowardice”, “lack of will”, etc. Any Marxist or feminist would recognize the effects of internalised oppression if this were in the capitalist workplace; it seems very wrong that we tend to resort to blaming of individuals for feelings that arise from our own movement.

But finally, and most simply, the thought struck me: I no longer believe. I no longer see, in other words, the essential relationship between these kinds of actions and bringing about the kind of social revolution that we need to preserve human civilisation and the integrity of the biosphere.

And let me be more precise. I still believe in “revolutionary politics”. Marxian political economy still seems to me to be the only intelligent way to describe the off-the-cliff trajectory of today’s financial capitalism, and the effects of alienated labour and oppression on the collective social and mental health of working people are clearly obvious. It’s also clearly obvious that the only way out is a social revolution which expropriates the ruling classes and their media/ideological enablers and puts real decision-making power and cultural capital into the hands of the working masses.

What don’t I believe? Well, I don’t believe in “Leninism” as it is usually understood today – or what Louis Proyect more accurately refers to as “Zinovievism”, after the 1920s leader of the Communist International who obliged foreign communist parties to adhere to a particularly narrow interpretation of how the Russian Bolsheviks worked.

… my own personal, Quixotic quest has been to reconcile being an effective political activist with personal healing, a way to come to terms in one’s own life with the effects of exploitation, alienation and oppression. I have always believed that the kind of political organisation that could really make a difference would make a difference for its own members as well as in the real world of the class struggle. Being a member of such an organisation would not be a comfortable escape from reality (as is the real motive behind sectarian decomposition), but would help comrades to live their lives in the world of exploitation, alienation and expression better, more healthily, as well as giving them the tools to change it in fundamental ways.

… There is simply no point to building sect-type socialist organisations, around one particular “political line”, in the current era. That sort of behaviour will guarantee that the audience for socialist ideas remain tiny.

… I propose we throw ourselves into building a broad eco-socialist website, including both posted articles and a moderated forum, through which networking of broad-left activists for theory and practice can organically grow into existence. The “collapse analysis” can and should be promoted there by those who find it convincing, without any expectation that there is a membership organisation based around “believing” it which must “uphold it in public”. I have no interest in belonging to such an organisation. We should call for volunteers as quickly as possible for an initial Editorial Board of such a website.

We should commit ourselves to starting eco-socialist local groups, with a perspective of eventually federating into a national Eco-socialist network. These should unite theoretical discussion and practical action around ecosocialist politics, between the existing socialist and anarchist Left, those sympathetic to such politics within Mana, the Greens or even Labour, and ordinary people who are increasingly aware that something’s got to “give”. This would not just be a “climate” group, in that it would treat the ecological crisis and the financial and legitimacy crises of capitalism as part and parcel of one another. Hopefully, such a group would have the kind of flexibility and internal culture which I have discussed above.
(16 January 2012)
A number of people from the small Marxist-Leninist groups have been dropping away, as Daphne has, and looking for a model that is more human, less intense and sectarian.