Fw: (en) Reclaim the Cities: From Protest to Popular Power

Joe R. Golowka joegolowka at earthlink.net
Thu Aug 17 17:49:31 PDT 2000

Joe R. Golowka JoeG at ieee.org

"Candidates say "vote for me, and I will do so-and-so for you." Few believe them, but more important, a different process is unthinkable: that in their unions, political clubs, and other popular organizations people should formulate their own plans and projects and put forth candidates to represent them. Even more unthinkable is that the general public should have a voice in decisions about investment, production, the character of work, and other basic aspects of life. The minimal conditions for functioning democracy have been removed far beyond thought, a remarkable victory of the doctrinal system." -- Noam Chomsky ----- Original Message ----- From: "Institute For Social Ecology" <ise at tao.ca> To: <a-infos-en at tao.ca> Sent: Thursday, August 17, 2000 5:05 PM Subject: (en) Reclaim the Cities: From Protest to Popular Power

> ________________________________________________
> A - I N F O S N E W S S E R V I C E
> http://www.ainfos.ca/
> ________________________________________________
> > by Cindy Milstein
> "Direct action gets the goods," proclaimed the Industrial Workers of the
> World nearly a century ago. And in the short time since Seattle, this has
> certainly proven to be the case. Indeed, "the goods" reaped by the new
> direct action movement here in North America have included creating doubt
> to the scope and nature of globalization, shedding light on the nearly
> unknown workings of international trade and finance bodies, and making
> anarchism and anticapitalism almost household words. As if that weren't
> enough, we find ourselves on the streets of twenty-first-century
> metropolises demonstrating our power to resist in a way that models the
> society we envision: a truly democratic one.
> But is this really what democracy looks like?
> The impulse to "reclaim the streets" is an understandable one. When
> industrial capitalism first started to emerge in the early nineteenth
> century, its machinations were relatively visible. Take, for instance, the
> enclosures. Pasture lands that had been used in common for centuries to
> provide villages with their very sustenance were systematically fenced
> off--enclosed--in order to graze sheep, whose wool was needed for the
> burgeoning textile industry. Communal life was briskly thrust aside in
> of privatization, forcing people into harsh factories and crowded cities.
> Advanced capitalism, as it pushes past the fetters of even nation-states
> its insatiable quest for growth, encloses life in a much more expansive
> generally invisible way: fences are replaced by consumer culture. We are
> raised in an almost totally commodified world where nothing comes for
> even futile attempts to remove oneself from the market economy. This
> commodification seeps into not only what we eat, wear, or do for fun but
> also into our language, relationships, and even our very biology and
> We have lost not only our communities and public spaces but control over
> own lives; we have lost the ability to define ourselves outside
> grip, and thus genuine meaning itself begins to dissolve.
> "Whose Streets? Our Streets!" then, is a legitimate emotional response to
> the feeling that even the most minimal of public, noncommodified spheres
> been taken from us. Yet in the end, it is simply a frantic cry from our
> cage. We have become so confined, so thoroughly damaged, by capitalism as
> well as state control that crumbs appear to make a nourishing meal.
> Temporarily closing off the streets during direct actions does provide
> momentary spaces in which to practice democratic process, and even offers
> sense of empowerment, but such events leave power for power's sake, like
> very pavement beneath our feet, unchanged. Only when the serial protest
> is escalated into a struggle for popular or horizontal power can we create
> cracks in the figurative concrete, thereby opening up ways to challenge
> capitalism, nation-states, and other systems of domination.
> This is not to denigrate the direct action movement in the United States
> elsewhere; just the opposite. Besides a long overdue and necessary
> of numerous institutions of command and obedience, the movement is quietly
> yet crucially supplying the outlines of a freer society. This
> politics is, in fact, the very strength and vision of today's direct
> where the means themselves are understood to also be the ends. We're not
> putting off the good society until some distant future but attempting to
> carve out room for it in the here and now, however tentative and contorted
> under the given social order. In turn, this consistency of means and ends
> implies an ethical approach to politics. How we act now is how we want
> others to begin to act, too. We try to model a notion of goodness even as
> fight for it.
> This can implicitly be seen in the affinity group and spokescouncil
> structures for decision making at direct actions. Both supply much needed
> spaces in which to school ourselves in direct democracy. Here, in the best
> of cases, we can proactively set the agenda, carefully deliberate together
> over questions, and come to decisions that strive to take everyone's needs
> and desires into account. Substantive discussion replaces checking boxes
> a ballot; face-to-face participation replaces handing over our lives to
> so-called representatives; nuanced and reasoned solutions replace
> lesser-of-two-(or-three-)evils' thinking. The democratic process utilized
> during demonstrations decentralizes power even as it offers tangible
> solidarity; for example, affinity groups afford greater and more diverse
> numbers of people a real share in decision making, while spokescouncils
> allow for intricate coordination--even on a global level. This is, as
> activists put it, the power to create rather than destroy.
> The beauty of this new movement, it could be said, is that it strives to
> take its own ideals to heart. In doing so, it has perhaps unwittingly
> created the demand for such directly democratic practices on a permanent
> basis. Yet the haunting question underlying episodic "street democracy"
> remains unaddressed: How can everyone come together to make decisions that
> affect society as a whole in participatory, mutualistic, and ethical ways?
> In other words, how can each and every one of us--not just a
> or this protest movement--really transform and ultimately control our
> and that of our communities?
> This is, in essence, a question of power--who has it, how it is used, and
> what ends. To varying degrees, we all know the answer in relation to
> institutions and systems. We can generally explain what we are against.
> is exactly why we are protesting, whether it is against capitalism and/or
> nation-states, or globalization in whole or part. What we have largely
> failed to articulate, however, is any sort of response in relation to
> liberatory institutions and systems. We often can't express, especially in
> any coherent and utopian manner, what we are for. Even as we prefigure a
> of making power horizontal, equitable, and hence, hopefully an essential
> part of a free society, we ignore the reconstructive vision that a
> democratic process holds up right in front of our noses.
> For all intents and purposes, our movement remains trapped. On the one
> it reveals and confronts domination and exploitation. The political
> exerted by such widespread agitation may even be able to influence current
> power structures to amend some of the worst excesses of their ways; the
> powers that be have to listen, and respond to some extent, when the voices
> become too numerous and too loud. Nevertheless, most people are still shut
> out of the decision-making process itself, and consequently, have little
> tangible power over their lives at all. Without this ability to
> street actions translate into nothing more than a countercultural version
> interest group lobbying, albeit far more radical than most and generally
> unpaid.
> What the movement forgets is the promise implicit in its own structure:
> power not only needs to be contested; it must also be constituted anew in
> liberatory and egalitarian forms. This entails taking the movement's
> directly democratic process seriously--not simply as a tactic to organize
> protests but as the very way we organize society, specifically the
> realm. The issue then becomes: How do we begin to shift the strategy,
> structure, and values of our movement to the most grassroots level of
> policy making?
> The most fundamental level of decision making in a demonstration is the
> affinity group. Here, we come together as friends or because of a common
> identity, or a combination of the two. We share something in particular;
> indeed, this common identity is often reflected in the name we choose for
> our groups. We may not always agree with each other, but there is a fair
> amount of homogeneity precisely because we've consciously chosen to come
> together for a specific reason--most often having little to do with mere
> geography. This sense of a shared identity allows for the smooth
> of a consensus decision-making process, since we start from a place of
> commonality. In an affinity group, almost by definition, our unity needs
> take precedence over our diversity, or our supposed affinity breaks down
> altogether.
> Compare this to what could be the most fundamental level of decision
> in a society: a neighborhood or town. Now, geography plays a much larger
> role. Out of historic, economic, cultural, religious, and other reasons,
> may find ourselves living side by side with a wide range of individuals
> their various identities. Most of these people are not our friends per se.
> Still, the very diversity we encounter is the life of a vibrant city
> The accidents and/or numerous personal decisions that have brought us
> together often create a fair amount of heterogeneity precisely because we
> haven't all chosen to come together for a specific reason. In this
> where we start from a place of difference, decision-making mechanisms need
> to be much more capable of allowing for dissent; that is, diversity needs
> be clearly retained within any notions of unity. As such, majoritarian
> decision-making processes begin to make more sense.
> Then, too, there is the question of scale. It is hard to imagine being
> friends with hundreds, or even thousands, of people, nor maintaining a
> single-issue identity with that many individuals; but we can share a
> of community and a striving toward some common good that allows each of us
> to flourish. In turn, when greater numbers of people come together on a
> face-to-face basis to reshape their neighborhoods and towns, the issues as
> well as the viewpoints will multiply, and alliances will no doubt change
> depending on the specific topic under discussion. Thus the need for a
> where we can meet as human beings at the most face-to-face level--that is,
> an assembly of active citizens--to share our many identities and interests
> in hopes of balancing both the individual and community in all we do.
> As well, trust and accountability function differently at the affinity
> versus civic level. We generally reveal more of ourselves to friends; and
> such unwritten bonds of love and affection hold us more closely together,
> at least give us added impetus to work things out. Underlying this is a
> higher-than-average degree of trust, which serves to make us accountable
> each other.
> On a community-wide level, the reverse is more often true: accountability
> allows us to trust each other. Hopefully, we share bonds of solidarity and
> respect; yet since we can't know each other well, such bonds only make
> if we first determine them together, and then record them, write them
> for all to refer back to in the future, and even revisit if need be.
> Accountable, democratic structures of our own making, in short, provide
> foundation for trust, since the power to decide is both transparent and
> ever-amenable to scrutiny.
> There are also issues of time and space. Affinity groups, in the scheme of
> things, are generally temporary configurations--they may last a few
> or a few years, but often not much longer. Once the particular reasons why
> we've come together have less of an immediate imperative, or as our
> friendships falter, such groups often fall by the wayside. And even during
> group's life span, in the interim between direct actions, there is
> frequently no fixed place or face to decision making, nor any regularity,
> nor much of a record of who decided what and how. Moreover, affinity
> are not open to everyone but only those who share a particular identity or
> attachment. As such, although an affinity group can certainly choose to
> down a street, there is ultimately something slightly authoritarian in
> groups taking matters into their own hands, no matter what their political
> persuasion.
> Deciding what to do with streets in general--say, how to organize
> transportation, encourage street life, provide green space, and so
> on--should be a matter open to everyone interested if it is to be truly
> participatory and nonhierarchical. This implies ongoing and open
> institutions of direct democracy, for everything from decision making to
> conflict resolution. We need to be able to know when and where citizen
> assemblies are meeting; we need to meet regularly and make use of
> nonarbitrary procedures; we need to keep track of what decisions have been
> made. But more important, if we so choose, we all need to have access to
> power to discuss, deliberate, and make decisions about matters that affect
> our communities and beyond.
> Indeed, many decisions have a much wider impact than on just one city;
> transforming streets, for example, would probably entail coordination on a
> regional, continental, or even global level. Radicals have long understood
> such mutualistic self-reliance as a "commune of communes," or
> The spokescouncil model used during direct actions hints at such an
> alternative view of globalization. During a spokescouncil meeting,
> delegates from our affinity groups gather for the purpose of coordination,
> the sharing of resources/skills, the building of solidarity, and so forth,
> always returning to the grassroots level as the ultimate arbiter. If
> assemblies were our basic unit of decision making, confederations of
> communities could serve as a way to both transcend parochialism and create
> interdependence where desirable. For instance, rather than global
> and international regulatory bodies, where trade is top-down and
> profit-oriented, confederations could coordinate distribution between
> regions in ecological and humane ways, while allowing policy in regard to
> production, say, to remain at the grassroots.
> This more expansive understanding of a prefigurative politics would
> necessarily involve creating institutions that could potentially replace
> capitalism and nation-states. Such directly democratic institutions are
> compatible with, and could certainly grow out of, the ones we use during
> demonstrations, but they very likely won't be mirror images once we reach
> the level of society. This does not mean abandoning the principles and
> ideals undergirding the movement (such as freedom, cooperation,
> decentralism, solidarity, diversity, face-to-face participation, and the
> like); it merely means recognizing the limits of direct democracy as it is
> practiced in the context of a demonstration.
> Any vision of a free society, if it is to be truly democratic, must of
> course be worked out by all of us--first in this movement, and later, in
> communities and confederations. Even so, we will probably discover that
> newly defined understandings of citizenship are needed in place of
> groups; majoritarian methods of decision making that strive to retain
> diversity are preferable to simple consensus-seeking models; written
> compacts articulating rights and duties are crucial to fill out the
> culture of protests; and institutionalized spaces for policy making are
> to guaranteeing that our freedom to make decisions doesn't disappear with
> line of riot police.
> It is time to push beyond the oppositional character of our movement by
> infusing it with a reconstructive vision. That means beginning, right now,
> to translate our movement structure into institutions that embody the good
> society; in short, cultivating direct democracy in the places we call
> This will involve the harder work of reinvigorating or initiating civic
> gatherings, town meetings, neighborhood assemblies, citizen mediation
> boards, any and all forums where we can come together to decide our lives,
> even if only in extralegal institutions at first. Then, too, it will mean
> reclaiming globalization, not as a new phase of capitalism but as its
> replacement by confederated, directly democratic communities coordinated
> mutual benefit.
> It is time to move from protest to politics, from shutting down streets to
> opening up public space, from demanding scraps from those few in power to
> holding power firmly in all our hands. Ultimately, this means moving
> the question of "Whose Streets?" We should ask instead "Whose Cities?"
> and only then will we be able to remake them as our own.
> -Cindy Milstein is a faculty member at the Institute for Social Ecology
> http://ise.tao.ca/ for more on the ISE) and a board member for the
> for Anarchist Studies (http://home.newyorknet.net/ias/intro.htm). She has
> long been active in municipal campaigns, study groups, alternative
> publications, cooperative projects and regional organizing.
> ********
> ****** The A-Infos News Service ******
> News about and of interest to anarchists
> ******
> COMMANDS: lists at tao.ca
> REPLIES: a-infos-d at lists.tao.ca
> HELP: a-infos-org at lists.tao.ca
> WWW: http://www.ainfos.ca/
> INFO: http://www.ainfos.ca/org
> -To receive a-infos in one language only mail lists at tao.ca the message:
> unsubscribe a-infos
> subscribe a-infos-X
> where X = en, ca, de, fr, etc. (i.e. the language code)

More information about the lbo-talk mailing list