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After National Gathering, Is There Room for Insurrectionary Anarchism in Occupy?

The idea, according to organizers, was to bring Occupy participants together from around the country to share and focus visions for the movement.

Occupy National Gathering in Franklin Square, Philadelphia, July, 2012. (Photo: Mentatmark)

On a scorching afternoon recently in Philadelphia’s Franklin Square, where Occupy’s National Gathering participants had set up a daytime base, small circles of people – from gray-haired peace activists and Code Pink members clutching candy-colored parasols, to crust punks rolling cigarettes in the shade and many more – relaxed in advance of a final evening march. It would be the end of a weeklong summit of assemblies and discussions (with a march here and there for good measure), which brought over 500 hundred Occupy participants together from around the country, but passed without media fanfare.

It’s a tall order, vying for attention in Philadelphia over the July 4th holiday. Even the impressive Independence Day fireworks show, which drew in around half a million revelers, was outshone that night when an electrical storm lit up the hot sky like a strobe. But the National Gathering (or NatGat, if we’re going by Twitter parlance) was not necessarily aiming for spectacle. The idea, according to organizers, was to bring Occupy participants together from around the country to share and focus visions for the movement. Pundits have noted the relatively small attendance as an index for Occupy’s death. But for many anarchists and radicals heavily involved in Occupy’s first swell, NatGat was a nail in a different coffin altogether: the death of “Occupy” as the banner du jour under which experimental, insurrectionary action could be fostered.

Dustin Slaughter, 30, a Philadelphia-based activist and journalist who helped organize NatGat, told me he thought the week had gone “spectacularly well.” He explained some of the key intentions behind NatGat and its numerous “visioning” sessions:

“‘Visioning’ really means crafting something of a blueprint,” said Slaughter, a longtime Occupy Philly participant. “The idea is to focus the movement a little, to recognize that there are some core issues driving it – like opposition to corporate personhood and money’s influence over politics,” he said, explaining that the idea was to condense thoughts from NatGat into a final document, which Occupy groups around the country could use. The document, released recently, describes itself as a “first step toward the development of a collective vision.” But Slaughter stressed that it “in no way would be a binding thing, or definitive of Occupy,” – in deference to Occupy’s decentralized structure.

And indeed, it would be impossible to treat the final text, titled “A Vision For a Democratic Future,” as any sort of binding agreement. The finished product is simply a twenty-page list of stuff people would want to see in the world (it describes itself as a “survey”). “The most popular visions are at the top of the list (along with the number of people who also viewed that vision positively),” noted the accompanying press release. Top-ranking “visions” include “clean water, air and food,” and “free education for all.” The list of hundreds of “visions,” each noted in a few words only, also includes, “No gender roles; smash the gender binary” and “peace, nonviolence, no war/death machines; no military; no need for violent conflict or guns.”

Many of the hundreds of “visions” listed will indeed be agreeable to activists, anarchists and their allies around the country. However, the idea of focusing the movement, defining core issues and offering up a blueprint document has repelled former supporters of Occupy, who liked the resonance of the Occupy idea, but never sought a cohesive, national movement. Those for whom Occupy seemed an opportunity to spark something insurrectionary (indeed, many attendees of the earliest New York general assemblies before September 17) saw little appeal in the idea of building coalitions to enact social reforms.

“The scene at Franklin Square looked like protest-as-usual, insofar as it was gutted of any insurrectionary potential,” said one Brooklyn-based anarchist and longtime OWS participant, who asked to remain anonymous and who now sees the Occupy name as, in most cases, “counterproductive at best.”

Amelia H.M., another longtime OWS participant who joined the latter part of NatGat, noted, “it’s clear that it was a predominantly liberal space, with a lot of 99% iconography and American flags not upside-down,” agreeing that the gathering seemed well-intentioned, but lacking in insurrectionary spirit.

Some might wonder what has changed. After all, there were self-identifying occupiers crafting documents, arguing for a focused movement and even pushing for demands since last fall. Why now is the presence of more liberal, movement-building efforts turning radicals away from the Occupy banner? Italian insurrectionary anarchist theorist, Alfredo Bonanno, proposed an answer years before the problem was even posed through Occupy.

In his 1998 essay, “Insurrectionalist Anarchism,” Bonanno traces a pattern – recognizable in Occupy’s recent months – in which radicals (specifically insurrectionary anarchists, who reject the development of political programs and parties) can be swept up in the initial exciting “swell” of “resounding demonstrations of the popular movement.” Bonanno says of these anarchists (including himself) that the reason to get involved in certain movements or struggles is not so much to find a shared vision for a better world, but to insert what he calls insurrectionary anarchist “methods” of acting:

“We have asked ourselves more than once, in fact, what we are doing in the midst of such struggles [e.g. of workers or students] for claims, we anarchists and revolutionaries who are against work, against school, against any concession to the State, against property and also against any kind of negotiation that graciously concedes a better life in the prisons. The answer is simple. We are there because we can introduce different methods.”

What exactly constitutes insurrectionary methods is not entirely stable – no action is inherently insurrectionary, but the methodology, as Bonanno sees it, involves “self-organised struggles, attack and permanent conflictuality.” To borrow from the Sex Pistols and put it all too simply, “don’t know what I want, but I know how to get it.” But, as the theorist also stresses, anarchist involvement in a given “struggle” should be predicated on the ability to insert this sort of methodology. Without this, given that the specific issues, aims or demands were never shared in the first place, such a struggle runs antithetical to insurrectionary anarchism.

Bonanno’s theories are by no means uncontested, but his thoughts offer a crucial framing for what Rolling Stone’s Mark Binelli described as “The battle for the soul of Occupy.” For many anarchists who participated in and organized Occupy actions, the idea of protesting money in politics or free education was always comparatively unimportant. However, the Occupy struggles provided a space to insert insurrectionary “methods” – genuine ruptures with the status quo through confrontational acts and projects – which at first avoided crystallizing into a formal political project and inspired a rethinking of what constitutes “politics.” It wasn’t, of course, just about taking the streets and squares and fighting police, but the fact that such acts of defiance can (but don’t necessarily) produce a rethinking of authority, power and our very subject positions and ways of relating. Occupy, in its earlier days, appeared to provide a space for this sort of insurrectionary thinking to emerge.

It’s true that Occupy’s modus operandi is underpinned by anarchistic ideas of horizontal organization and anti-hierarchy. The NatGat document notes, “our process is our message,” and although much of the Occupy process is recognized as an anarchistic one, leaderlessness and a refusal to make demands is not enough. As the document produced from NatGat emphasizes, methods are all important. It reads: “Our movement’s direct democratic model is more than just a decision-making process: it is a model. ‘Our process is our message,’ became one of our primary guiding philosophies and it deeply influenced the development of both the National Gathering and its visioning process.” However, for many more radical groups and individuals involved in Occupy last year, the Occupy model – although based on horizontalism and decentralization – has made the insertion of more insurrectionary methods impossible.

This was exemplified at NatGat, where it became abundantly clear to many that insurrectionary anarchists had no place. Brandi Williams, 39, who traveled from Fort Collins, Colorado, to Philadelphia, having organized inter-Occupy discussions for many months, told me, “Certain communities – those with more aggression, with a ‘fuck the police’ attitude – they were kind of consensed out this week,” noting that confrontation with the police had been heavily dissuaded throughout the week. Indeed, Williams said that NatGat highlights for her included two incidents of “de-escalation tactics” working (the use of an “Ohm” circle and stepping back from police lines to alleviate tension and avoid conflict). Compare this to the fact that in Occupy’s first flush, radical networks in New York playfully referred to weekend actions and marches as “escalation Saturdays.”

It comes as no surprise then, that when “escalation” is not an option, insurrectionary anarchists would see Occupy (at least in any NatGat-style iteration) as a wasteland and instead seek new experiments. It made sense to me, at least, on the night of July 4th, when I walked away from the building fireworks display and sought a view for the brewing electrical storm instead.

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