Day 31, Occupy Wall Street October 16, 2011. Photo by David Shankbone
Occupy Wall Street
From November 13-15 at Wedding’s Supermarkt complex, the Berliner Gazette’s Slow Politics Symposium invites us to tackle the Big Issues facing Europe today, from post-Snowden societies to immigration to Bitcoin, in a series of talks and workshops with luminaries, digital techies and activists from New York to Zagreb to Amsterdam. (Don’t miss media theorist Geert Lovink’s public appearance on Saturday, November 15 – Publics In Peril: Snowden Files For All? at 3:15pm.)
Author and activist Marina Sitrin will be on a panel on Saturday to discuss solidarity during the Euro-Crisis in The Big We (2pm). We caught up with her beforehand. Check out the full programme here.
Grassroots movements like Occupy seem to have fizzled out, but Sitrin hasn't given up. In her June 2014 book They can't represent us: Reinventing democracy from Greece to Occupy, Sitrin and co-author Dario Azzellini focus on similarities between outcries from around the globe, showing that survival communities and economies have grown out of crises.
In your book, you compare seemingly different movements – Occupy in the US, protests against austerity measures in Greece, the 15-M in Spain, and uprisings incited by economic crises in Latin America such as the 2001 riots in Argentina. What do they have in common?
Whether in the United States, Greece or Spain, Portugal, Moscow or Bosnia, Brazil, people are organising around the same idea of rejecting representative democracy, which is part of why we did the book. People around the world feel that they've been completely excluded from formal politics and from institutions of power. Out of that comes this “they can't represent us”, or in Moscow they said “they can't even imagine us”. Slogans used in these movements are so similar. It's not a “no, we're against this”, it's a “we've had it.” The Zapatistas started with the “Ya basta!”, “Enough is enough”. In Portugal it was “Screw the troika”, and in Greece they actually said “Ya basta!” In Argentina in 2001, it was a chant, “Que se vayan todos”, “They all must go”.
Do they organise in similar ways?
One thing that's happened across the world in these newer movements is the assembly form. Instead of electing leadership, people look to one another and use varying forms of consensus. And they don't immediately, or even a year or two later, look to some kind of hierarchical form of a union or political party to do the work of democracy; they continue to focus on it themselves. That kind of exercising democracy muscles is really new on this kind of scale.
But it's not just about the democratic process; people are concerned with ways of taking care of each other, from healthcare to childcare to libraries. In Hong Kong right now they were having free haircuts, which is something that had been in Tahrir Square in Egypt. In Greece, the crisis is really deep – people now have to pay to get healthcare. So people in the assemblies decided they would make healthcare accessible. They block the cashiers when people go into a health clinic; together with talking to the healthcare professionals, they agreed that they can do this. And they make it so healthcare is free.
This is the “horizontalism” you talk about in your book.
It comes from the Argentinian movements in 2001 [which led to the greatest sovereign debt default in the world], when people used the language of horizontalidad to talk about how they were looking to one another in these assemblies, standing in a circle and making sure that everybody's voice is heard.
Many people point to social media and technology as a key player in this type of organisation. What do you think?
I'm in a minority here, but I don't think [the self-organisation] is because of technology at all. I mean, in Chiapas, Mexico, forget it. Though it was the use of technology around the world that helped people learn about the Zapatistas and come to their defence. The horizontalism comes from a political climate and a desire to be heard and acknowledged. Technology has been really helpful, but this organisational form would have been and has been developed otherwise.
You say that the Western world should look to Latin America as an example for dealing with austerity crises. How does this work?
There are a few cases where you can see direct lines from Latin America to the rest of the world and one is recuperated workplaces: health clinics, newspapers, schools, restaurants, generally abandoned by the owners for not being profitable enough. That's something that started in Argentina after 2001. The workers form horizontal assemblies and decide that rather than being unemployed in a time of economic crisis, they'll continue doing what they know how to do. Now there are 350 such workplaces in Argentina and there are some in Brazil and some in Uruguay. And this has started to happen in Europe. I was in Greece in 2011, talking about my book [Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina], and in Thessaloniki, they really wanted to figure out how, in the context of a crisis, what the Argentines did might be helpful. Then, at the end of 2012, workers in a workplace called Vio.Me right outside Thessaloniki had started meeting to talk about whether they were going to try to reopen their workplace. We – some Greeks, Argentines, and Americans – fundraised so workers from Argentina could go to Greece and meet with these workers. And they decided to do it. They took over their workplace and now it's being run by the workers.
In your book you have examples of how recuperated workplaces develop a new kind of relationship with the community. Do you think this is something that's typical right now?
Workplaces in Europe have become dedicated to a different kind of production that is environmental and ecological. Fralib, in Marseilles, makes tea now that is all-organic. In Greece as well, they've [recuperated workplaces] have started to talk with the community about what they'd like to see the workplace doing. Here's a similar example: In so many places of crisis, people organise direct producer/consumer networks, so people from the countryside grow products, bring them directly into the city and sell them directly, cutting out the intermediary. What's starting to happen, also in Greece, is that political activists have invited anyone who lives nearby to be a part of the discussion on what they plan to consume for the next year. And then the growers can plant based on this conversation. So it's a kind of future-looking thinking about re-organisation of society. You start to think about an economy really, a whole different conception of society.
To what extent can we say that these movements have re-invented democracy? How can you measure their success?
We sometimes get stuck in the question of results because we're still measuring them with a traditional standard of “well, have they shifted elections? Have they won things that we measure with traditional measuring sticks?” The movements are acknowledging one another and talking about things like dignity, which isn't as measurable. In the United States, people said, especially after Occupy, that what changed was the conversation, because of the 99%. But what does that mean? What does it mean to live in the United States, lose your job and potentially lose your home? What that meant before Occupy is that you would feel shame. You'd hide it, you'd probably move in with your relatives and pretend that was your choice because you wanted to save money. Or, you know, you'd live in your car because it's the bohemian thing to do. In the US, we live in such a culture of shame and everything is your fault, where to then have that shift with the 99%, and people say “No, wait a minute, actually, it's not my fault! It's the bank's.” And they organise around that. And I think we're going to continue to see the results of that.
These are the kinds of things that are happening under the radar, that people don't know about...
Like Strike Debt, we don't know yet if people are actually going to refuse to pay student debt or what's happening, but people are talking about it and not feeling ashamed of having to borrow money to go to school. Even me. I've been an activist since I was a young teen, but then I went to law school, and I borrowed a lot of freakin' money, and then graduate school, and I continued to borrow money, but before Occupy, even I felt like I wouldn't tell people how much I owed because it felt like I must have done something wrong. And now, I'll say it out loud. People's jaws drop when I'm outside of the United States and I say I have more than $100,000 debt, but in the US, that's totally normal. The banks just make money off of the fact that we got a higher education. I mean, that's crazy.
Aside from changing the conversation, are there tangible results?
Absolutely. A lot of people think “oh, there are these big takeovers of plazas and now I don't see them anymore, so nothing's happening”, but there's so much more happening. In the United States, Occupy Our Homes, or some sort of spin-off where people have been doing anti-foreclosure and anti-eviction organising, looks the same as at the plataforma in Spain. They do things like surround homes on the day of eviction and don't allow the police to evict the people. People also disrupt foreclosure proceedings in courts, often by singing, and because there's such a backlog in court cases, it can mean you give them six months to to live in the house, to figure out what they're going to do. Also in Chicago, people have been organising and taking over abandoned homes, helping homeless families move in. There's got to be so many more things that are happening, even activists don't necessarily know about them.