Occupy: Catalepsy/Multitude/Consensus/Crisis

I’d like to offer some brief notes, consisting of four titles, on the recent occupation movement. many are incomplete ideas born of frustration and joy, but It’s best to strike while the iron is hot than mourn mistakes later, or both

Catalepsy/Seizure

cat·a·lep·sy (ktl-ps)

n. A condition that occurs in a variety of physical and psychological disorders and is characterized by lack of response to external stimuli and by muscular rigidity, so that the limbs remain in whatever position they are placed

Katalipsi‘- the term the current Greek movement uses to describe ‘occupation’ is perhaps better thought of through the term ‘catalepsy’ or ‘seizure’. Seizure has two meanings- the first implies capture- of the enemy base, of a hostage, of government, or indeed of Power itself. But it also carries this second meaning- a seizure as a fit, a convulsion of the body politic, a form of violent immobility in which muscles seem to wrench away from each other. It is this second sense that gets lost in the anglophone concept of ‘occupation’- the notion of a ‘catalepsy’ itself. Its already been pointed out that while UK movements try to copy the ‘memetic form’ of a social movement, they certainly lack any of the radical withdrawal of labour or disruptive capacity of the Greek occupations or Egyptian uprisings. A square outside St. Pauls might be occupied, but the Greek Finance Ministry is seized. Note what David Graeber says here; “reclaim it [non-public space], camp out, and use it as a base to start doing other things. The ‘occupation’ as used here; basically just sitting in a space, be it public or private, is to a certain extent an irrelevance- the space is being used as an organizing place to plan other activities which pose the real threat to hegemonic power relationships.  Not simply being in a space, but the active organization of a space as a tactical device- occupation or seizure need to be, and can be, so much more. They can be the catalepsy of the body politic. In this short clip from the 1969 occupation of Tokyo university, this logic is taken to an extreme (indeed, one to which to which it is questionable whether today’s occupations need go), but the effect is powerful- the entire political system and the life support of the city itself is fastened to the fate of a few hundred square meters in one city, a catalepsy of the metropolis as its organs seize up: 

The Multitude?

There has been a lot of playing fast-and-loose with the concept of the multitude since the term was developed, but it has intensified a lot in recent weeks. Hardt and Negri have their own tentative take on the process in relation to the occupation movement, and refer to a ‘multitude form’ (though perhaps not yet a multitude function?) to organizing in these spaces. They’re absolutely right to hold back on making too many assertions. However their ideas about the multitude have been latched on to by mainstream-liberal media sources in order to avoid the fundamental class-content of the contemporary occupy movements. Of course, this sets up a dichotomy of multitude vs. working class which is utterly facetious. Here’s Paolo Virno, author of “Grammar of the Multitude” on the topic:

I would like to dispel an optical illusion. It is said: the multitude signals the end of the working class. It is said: in the universe of the ‘many’ there is no longer a place for blue overalls, that are all the same and constitute a body that is insensitive to the kaleidoscope of ‘differences’. Whoever says this is wrong… Working class is a theoretical concept, not a souvenir photo: it indicates the subject that produces absolute and relative surplus value. The notion of ‘multitude’ is counterpoised to that of ‘people’ rather than to that of the ‘working class’. Being multitude does not impede the production of surplus value. On the other hand, producing surplus value does not at all entail the need to be politically a ‘people’.


Of course the moment the working class ceases to be a people and becomes a multitude many things change: starting from the forms of organisation and of conflict. All becomes complicated and gets paradoxical. How easier it would be to tell ourselves that now we have the multitude rather than the working class…but if simplicity is desired at all costs, we might as well down a bottle of red wine.”

Which brings up a second point: for all of the talk of a “multitude” it is clear that the concept of organizing as a ‘people’ remains deeply entrenched within occupations like Occupy Wall Street. The slogan of “we are the 99%”  is a slogan of a ‘people’- one only need cast a brief eye over this structure to see the amount of people asking “America” as a mass. Speaking broadly, for thinkers like Hobbes, Rousseau and Locke, a ‘people’ opposes itself to a ‘multitude’ by virtue of its coherence, and its ability to avert conflict by management by a sovereign power. Appeals like “what happened, America?” and the emerging left-liberal call for a “new social contract”- like in this frankly odd Elizabeth Warren video (aren’t these the people who always accuse more revolutionary leftists of wanting ‘year zero’?), show that while the basic element of constituent power is understood- that the sovereign is the product of their subjects, the call seems to be for a rebirth of the concept of the ‘people’ itself- the 99% slogan places agency in a very small group of people, a narrative that has strengths, but very clear limitations. In many ways this is, I suspect, part of its attraction for libertarian activists of Ron Paul, Assange and Zeitgeist breeds- the emphasis in social contract theory which opposes the individual and the collective will that can be resolved through the establishment of a ‘people’ (as per Rousseau and Locke) appeals to both libertarians and social democrats in their various guises.

The ‘occupy x’ movement, then, carries the tension between a ‘multitude’ and a ‘people’ as the subject of resistance. I would argue that, given the alignment of those who want a ‘new social contract’; who fairly explicitly desire a return to a Keynsian state-market configuration, in comparison to those who are railing against the old social contract model, the multitude is the truly insurgent subject of the occupy movement, the one that is most likely to raise the critique of capital. Catalepsy is the weapon proper to a radically-oriented multitude; to plunder Alinsky, a catalepsy can “pick the target, freeze it, personalize it and polarize it” in a way ‘occupation’ cannot. In this case the target may be the body politic itself.

While the multitude has always been a certain element of resistance to capitalism, it has never before encountered such a intense period. This is as-near-as-damn-it as we are ever likely to get to a ‘Negriist’ political moment- much of what he and many of his fellow autonomists have argued for is to some degree coming to pass (or at the very least, no-one has come up with a better set of descriptive tools). Of course, this doesn’t mean that the class critiques implicit and explicit in Empire are present on the ground at every occupation, but rather that its particular take manages to account for what is happening now in a way few other texts have. The upshot of this is that things like the occupation movement should be watched closely not so much for confirmation of the Hardt & Negri hypothesis (there is never such confirmation for any political thought) but for the critique of the very concept of ‘multitude’ that uncovers its limits and its new possibilities.

The furies of Consensus

I’d like to deal with a few of the more pointless critiques of the occupy movement- frankly because they annoy me so. The most infuriating for me is the criticism of ‘leaderless organization’. This post points out the recurrent narrative of the ‘anarcho-liberal’ in certain parts of leftist media.

While consensus decision making is prevalent amongst these groups, to confuse it as the essence of anarchist philosophy is a disingenuous move. Anarchism seeks non-hierarchical movements, but it also looks to a world without hierarchy. Movements which call for social democracy but then use these methods of organization are using anarchist tools but are not de facto anarchist- any more than they are de facto Tory because they talk about government. 

Its also important to remember why consensus decision making is used and emerged as an organizing method on the left. It emerged as a response to forms of organization that excluded a whole set of minor politics from its form. Robert’s Rules of Order and other methods of organizing tended to favour political grandstanding and those with the insider knowledge to manipulate process. Consensus is an attempt to create a structure that means that privileged people have to let people who don’t enjoy the same privileges speak. Few who have taken part in a movement that uses a consensus structure in meetings for a long period of time thinks its a perfect model, or that it has eliminated all the problems it set out to challenge. I, personally, would like to see it developed and altered beyond its present form. But I have to say, many of those making criticisms of consensus seem to be able to offer little if no progression on a Leninist vanguard- indeed, some seem to be making a critique that has the specific intent of propping this model of organizing up.

When consensus fails, the consequences can often be violent, traumatic, and upsetting. Yes, there is such a thing as the ‘tyranny of structurelessness’ (and my god aren’t we told about it an awful lot), but the vanguard party model simply proposes a tyranny of tyrannies to resolve this. Just because there may be unacknowledged leaders, and just because there may be an implicit vanguard, does not mean that, when they are recognised, they should be lauded or replaced with a more intense form. There is a part of me that jumps up and down in my belly, shouting:

“No, I will not turn to the byzantine central committees or the pathetic splits, I don’t want a ‘correct revolutionary path’ given to me by someone else. I don’t want some cuts-but-slower Labour Party ‘alternative’. It upsets me to see good people who I often count as friends and comrades, and have worked with effectively on other campaigns, falling for this crap. I would actually like to be challenged in organizing, to encounter views, and to have a process that includes voices I haven’t yet heard. Consensus is being used by thousands, maybe millions, of people across the globe right now. It isn’t a perfect system, but it has captured imaginations and appealed to people in a way no mass-produced placard handed out at the latest a to b march or party-line chant ever could.”

Its important to play around with decision making, to grab the time to work on issues of process outside of organizing immediate needs and pressures. I’ll write more about this soon, I hope. But its important to keep in mind that while consensus isn’t great, it contains the seeds of a positive step forwards. Perhaps we can move forward with the hope and aim that “one day humanity will play with law just as children play with disused objects, not in order to restore them to their canonical use but to free them from it for good”(viz.).

Capitalism and Final Crisis

It has come to the point where we must entertain a real and frightening possibility: that the present crisis of capitalism may be the last, even if nothing better comes along to replace it. The great hope of certain economists right now seems to be China. The problem is that China’s internal economy is actually a maze of confusion, and seems to be slowing. France looks like Italy 2 months ago, Italy is increasingly looking like Greece, as Greece begins to look like civil war.

In Octavia Butler’s book The Parable of The Sower Californian society faces crises which are merely those of today, intensified. An economic recession has put paid to the dream of space travel. Resource scarcity has limited access to communications networks. Police protection will cost you, and the middle class is swiftly disappearing to be replaced by a vagrancy crisis like that of the 14th century. Indentured servitude reappears. Environmental catastrophe makes food scarce. While Butler’s work has often been termed post-apocalyptic, many have pointed out that these are already the conditions of living for the bottom billion human beings on the planet. In Butlers book we get a description of capitalism effectively coming to an end as wealth concentrates to the point where power must once again be protected by naked force, not employed consent, and a new feudalism emerges. This vision is just one possibility, but it does provide a believable scenario in which capitalism might come to an end without improvement; The Marxist defining feature of capitalism, the bourgeoisie, divides itself into a lordly class and a serf class. This is not the only way that capitalism might come to an end, but at some point the cost of maintaining an economic system may be more than simply extracting surplus labour through direct force (rather than wage labour), or by some other diabolical means.

This is only one possibility, of course. But the continuing crises of the resources (soil and oil), finance, and environment may have passed beyond a ‘tipping point’ where economic and social growth and expansion is simply no longer possible. At this point capitalism as we know it becomes a liability, not a strength. It is enlightenment-based magical thinking to assume that this means an improvement in the conditions of life (though it may not mean a faster rate of decline in those conditions either), or the end of oppressions, but it might mean an opening of new potentialities, while others close.

Capitalism as we recognise it today has only been around 500 years.  What is commonly called neoliberalism is 60 years old at most. The paintings in the Chauvet Cave are 32,000 years old. There are no guarantees that anything will last. A crucial moment is upon us. Capitalism may yet trick the world into saving it. It may vanish into the very forces it has generated. Or we might win this time, and initiate a new set of possibilities for being.



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