The Egyptian Revolution, Part 2?

“Egyptians are back in business!” chanted one of the protesters walking down Tahrir Square.

As of writing, it has been over 36 hours of constant battles. Tahrir was the trophy, as it has ever been for the past ten months. Throwing rocks, batons, tear gas, rubber bullets and occasional live ammunition aimed at head and neck were all included, as usual. It’s been ten months of despair, fear, random violence, confusion and thousands of civilians being put on military trials.


#Occupy Toronto on the supposed Eviction night

Tonight I was down at St James park approximately from 8pm to 1am. I left because the legal observers were confident the raid would not happen tonight.

I had some interesting conversations, met some good people, and was generally impressed with the show of support – about 700 people down there, and a good feeling in the air. People are definitely concerned about police violence, and they are a bit on edge, but they are not panicking.

The one conflict I noticed was between the drum circle people and the people who don’t want the drum circle to be fully active past 11pm. The problem with fully non-hierarchical decision making is, even if the vast majority of people feeling genuinely uncomfortable with that much noise being made at this time of night, there is no way to enforce the needs of the majority against the drum-wielding minority. People with drums can just hit their drums whenever they like. They think it’s cultural, even though they aren’t creating any kind of shared content which could contain meaning for the movement – they are just spontaneously expressing themselves without words or even definite song structures. I feel that the unions are way ahead of the occupiers in terms of songs and instituting shared meanings.

After midnight, we broke out into discussion groups to talk about the future of occupy in Toronto, after the eviction. A lot of interesting things were said about Anarchism, about the need to keep lines of communication open – but the most interesting thing that manifested itself to me was the fact that these occupations, these live-in protests actually are instituting new forms of life. This is why they don’t seem to be offering anything constructive to the national conversation – with respect to the systems of power that exists they show up only as a revolt – as saying “you’ve got your priorities wrong, you need to fix these problems” – which is a purely negative form of criticism, and can somewhat fairly be itself criticized as one sided and not offering anything constructive. But this is because what the occupy movement has to offer which is constructive is itself being built in the occupations – consensus-governed ways of sharing, of communication, of deciding, and of living together. And they are not perfect, I heard about some occupies which have slums in them – but the fact that they can get things wrong proves that they are doing something real and not just theory.

This emphasis on occupations as instiutions shows a new reason for why it is important to spend time at the occupations in order to understand what they are doing – because the positive constructive project of occupy is not some policy suggestions (which would be ignored anyway, if not for the revolt), but to make a new way to organize social structures. The way forward is to continue to build consensus decision making social structures to fulfill needs, to go into our communities and talk to people not only about the issues but about fundamental questions about how we live together, and how we should live together.

I am often quite quick to charge anti-hierarchical anarchists with mistaking anarchism’s critique of unjustified power structures for a critique of power structures in general – but comments made by a few people tonight changed my mind on this a little – it isn’t that anarchists believe that some hierarchy is justified, rather they believe that organization is possible without power structures being relations of domination, relations which exclude the interests and participation of some people.

I made some videos, I will link them here when they finish uploading.

How the drum circle is a bit like the 1%

Inspiring midnight general assembly


Addiction and Burnout of a Digital Revolutionary

This has been the year of the Arab Spring, the year of revolts halfway around the world instantly reaching you on twitter, and the year where we no longer doubt the capacity of internet based social media to organize real groups of people in the “first world” who then manifest as physical presence in the #occupy movement.

On a more personal note, this is the year I realized I could hear about an attack on Gaza in a tweet, minutes before the attack would be published on Reuters. And, it’s the year I went to the West Bank and befriended those for whom such attacks are not shots heard from halfway around the world, but halfway across town, or shots that killed their neighbor or their friend. It’s the year I decided I was not particularly attached to living in North America, or even in a Democracy. It’s the year I realized just how deeply racist, colonialist, but more fundamentally – dishonest – was our discourse about war torn regions truly is, and it’s the year I committed my academic work to doing something about that.

It’s the year, other words, of deluges of meaning – meaning in which it’s easy to find confidence and fulfillment, but at the same time meaning in which it’s easy to drown – to stress out, to constantly succumb to curiosity, to find incredibly difficulty in working on long term projects in a world which seems to change everyday, and with friends in areas where their safety is anything but certain.

If this year is not to end with an academic fall, then this winter must be a term of focus, of resolute determination, and to some extent of seclusion from the constant barrage of significant events upon my conscious. It must be a winter of the Castle, of close friends but few acquaintances – of less parties and more reading, and of less reading and more writing.

“But what are their demands!” or, a response to a standard story about #occupy

I am not an expert on the #occupy movement. I’ve spent some time at the occupy toronto site, and I’ve visited and spoke with various people at the encampment in Kingston and in Zuccotti park in New York City. Still, I’d like to say something in response to a consistent complaint made about the movement – that they lack a coherent set of demands, a coherent leadership, and that if they “really want change”, they should simply join the existing democratic political system.

Unfair Burden Expected of Protestors

The first fallacy I see in critiques of occupy is the implied and unjustified burden placed upon the occupiers to have the answers to all the problems they choose to concentrate on. Political progress can not occur when a problem is not even focussed on – first we need to put our attention towards a problem, and then we can come up with solutions. We’re used to politics of politiciens, where problems are only talked about if the politicien has a story about how the problem will be fixed – and really this is usually only brought up to increase the politicians popularity. That’s what’s normal to us, so it’s strange to see a group of activists focussing on problems without a coherent clear solution. But, actually, that’s what a revolt should look like in a democratic country – we’re not going to demand the fall of dictator, because we already have somewhat democratic structures. Instead, we’re going to demand that issues that concern everyone be focussed on, become part of the political conversation.

There is a coherence of demands

As for the list of demands, if you wander around the encampment, you’ll see lots of demands. But, if you can’t see a coherence between them, then there is something wrong with your eyes. The first demand is that society be run for the benefit of the 99%, rather than the 1%. These numbers may be too extreme for Canada – but they certainly work in the US, where the 1% really does own the government through lobbyists. The situation in Canada is not as extreme, but the demand is the same because if income inequality and american-style politics continue to grow in Canada, we’ll begin to look more and more like the failed democracy of the United States.

Every other demand falls within the rubric of the idea that society should not exploit the less well off for the benefit of the wealthier. There are lots of specific demands, but I’ll just concentrate on two – one is to reduce economic inequality, and one to move towards just solutions to the problems that still face first nations people hundreds after hundreds of years of colonization.

Income Inequality Hurts Everyone

As for economic inequality, this should be a mainstream of the political centre. The research is in, and we know to a much greater degree of certainty than we normally know anything in the social sciences that too much inequality results in people being worse off not only at the bottom and middle of society, but at the top as well.  Basically, the wage share has not increased since the 70s, and yet consumer consumption has increased hugely. How? Well, maybe the 25,000$ average consumer debt of Canadians can explain why we own more and more and yet make the same as we did 40 years ago. This is not a sustainable situation – not even for the 1%, who own the consumer debt of Canadians, and who will themselves begin to lose out as that debt becomes less and less serviceable.

Canada’s treatment of its colonized Peoples – Dishonesty and Embarrassment 

The situation of indigenous peoples in Canada is a national embarrassment. Just for an example, the Globe and Mail reported this morning the findings of a controversial national panel on native education:

The decision to open the schools on some native reserves is made on a day-to-day basis according to whether or not the water is running.

The staff turnover rates range between 20 and 40 per cent as teachers leave for better pay in non-aboriginal schools. Libraries, special education and computers are unaffordable luxuries.

The annual hike in federal funding for native schools has been capped at 2 per cent, while provinces have been getting increases of 6 per cent. At the same time, the growth in the number of on-reserve students has dramatically outpaced the number attending provincially funded schools.

While this and a thousand other stories can tell of the experience of Canada’s colonized peoples, I think the cause of their continued plight can be distilled remarkable easily: dishonesty. When the British set out to take control of the resources of a land the size of Europe as a whole, the sovereign native peoples of the land were perceived as a challenge to British/Canadian sovereignty – either they had to go, or we wouldn’t get the resources. Compared to the revisionist zionists dream of a “Greater Israel” which might include Jordan and part of Syria and Egypt, the dream of Greater Canada was much grander – dozens of times more territory. The land was taken by disabling the local populations from presenting serious resistance against the occupying forces – this was sometimes done militarily (sometimes through germ warfare, sometimes open combat), but more often it was done by subsidizing European settler communities who would, to borrow a phrase, make the desert bloom and extracted great bounty from sometimes not terribly rich Canadian farmland. But their presence on the land pushed off the natives, who often used the land in a nomadic way rather than sedentary farming. But once the natives had been pushed off their traditional territory, which made their traditional ways of life unsustainable, they were literally imprisoned in permanent refugee camps that we call “reserves” (which were studied by South Africa for the development of the Bantustan and Apartheid system there). And, if imprisoning natives on “reserves” (as if they were some kind of wild animal) wasn’t bad enough, the next stage involved kidnapping their children, and forcing them to learn the British ways of life – in child prisons, or “residential schools”, where they were punished for speaking their own language or doing anything from their own traditions, like carving for instance. After the residential school system became too gruesome for white Canadian society to accept, it was replaced by an agressive child services department which took more native children away than the residential schools every had – giving birth to the famous “sixties scoop”, which continues today as my lawyering friends try to defend the rights of native families to keep their children at home.

But, we never tell the story this way – we tell a tiny bit of it, and we find some way of blaming the chaos of native communities on themselves, rather than on the colonizer/occupier. At occupy Toronto there is a strong native presence, and a strong contingent of native activists who can tell you about the problems in their communities in relation to Canada’s colonialist and genocidal policies. And if you’re willing to listen, you might learn something. And, I honestly believe, that if we were all just honest with ourselves about the situation of Canada’s colonized peoples, it wouldn’t be so impossible to put the practical programs into place that would improve their situations greatly. If we understood the context in which we took sovereignty away from them, we might think it a bit more reasonable to give it back – to negotiate away Canadian sovereignty over large tracks of stolen land, and over resource and airspace rights. To negotiate away our right to tell the band councils how they are allowed to organize themselves, and to decide which treaties we want to obey, and which ones we can safely ignore. This is of course considered “politically impossible”, but I contend it is only politically impossible due to the standardization of dishonesty about history as concerns first nations people in Canada.

Effective Leadership? (Isn’t that an oxymoron?)

The other thing I want to address is the idea that the occupiers don’t have an effective leadership. This is a more complicated issue – certainly it is sometimes important for revolts or reform groups to have leaders. However, the occupy movement grows out of a new political tendency – group autonomy, and consensus rather than leaders. I first experienced this kind of group interaction at my first Critical Mass bike ride – Halloween in Vancouver about 10 years ago. Certainly there are advantages to a clear leadership – but there are also disadvantages. It’s easy to frame the leaders, put them in jail, and use attacks against them to discredit the movement. Wikileaks is a great example of what can go wrong if you have a public leader. Not having leaders doesn’t mean you can’t organize – the General Assembly has facilitators, and resolutions do get made. So, it is possible without a leadership to develop a list of demands – something Occupy New York is currently working on, with difficulty, and with some resistance against the idea of demands in general. There already is a list of demands from #occupywallstreet called the “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City”. I’m not sure if there is any list of demands from Toronto, if there is, I haven’t heard about it.

Watch Gord Perks’s CBC interview

Even without demands, Gord Perks put it well on the CBC recently when he said that important things are happening at the park, regardless of whether the protestors have all the answers.

Some thoughts on the pending struggle at #occupytoronto

Much of me feels I shouldn’t even be at a computer right now – rather that I should be back at #occupy, participating in trainings and discussions about tactics of resistance in anticipation of the eviction of the movement from the park, the notice of which was delivered this morning at 12:01 am.

But, in reality, I had to come home – I’d gone down there on a whim, unprepared – without proper clothes or supplies, without my camera, and without anyone really knowing where I was. I also have other obligations to adhere to be places and see people, and those must be honoured also in the course of a moral life – even when it feels like a time of emergency.

The annoucement of the eviction notice brings the song I wrote last thursday into clearer focus. At the direct action training I was asked if I was “yellow” (somewhat averse to being arrested) or “red” (not averse to being arrested). No one even bothered to ask if I was “green” (very averse to arrest); I suppose nothing about my looks green with my scruffy hair and Palestinian keffiyeh. But the truth is, despite the hard words in my song, I am not already committed to defending the park with my own body, in a way that puts my own freedom in danger. But I have no excuses this time – I’m not a traveller or a visitor, I can’t simply say “this is not my fight” because it is. So I have to ask – what is my role in this conflict? I know which side I’m on, but in what way can I best serve the cause? I know that I am a musicien and a philosopher, but I also think myself a dissident and an activist. Are those identities in conflict with each other? Merleau Ponty writes that the militant understands things immediately, whereas the writer tries to understand things in general, even timeless fashion. But Merleau also writes that writing is a craft, a part of the struggle, and not fully distinct from more apparently “practical” forms of involvement. Moreover, my own work in body hermeneutics of political situations has demonstrated (to me at least) that involvement in praxis is a major theoretical tool for the writer to understand social movement. When I put it this way, things seem obvious – there is no contradiction between my identity as thinker, and my identity as activist – they are one in the same.

The park is inspiring – truly much more impressive than Liberty square in NYC. The signs are still shining brightly (if a bit muddy), the tents and yurts are strong. The ground is a little bit muddy, but straw keeps the worst at bay. The food tent is constantly providing food by donation to the protestors, people are speaking with each other, having discussions, training sessions are happening constantly. Things are happening! While I was there, Gordon Lightfoot was being interviewed – his child is down here, and she is spending the night here tonight. While I was quite close to him, I couldn’t hear his voice because he was speaking quite softly – but one thing I did hear him say when asked “do you see any similarities between this movement and your generation” (i.e. the 60s) – he responded “I’ve never seen anything like this before”. I think that’s quite important, and interesting, and apparently something being repeated by many people from the older generation who step by the camp – that this movement does not resemble the movements of the 60s, that it’s something new, something altogether modern and futural. The values of no-leadership, 99% – these are much less divisive in society than the old divide between the liberal youth and their conservative parents. This time it seems that everyone supports the values of the occupy movement, the only bad thing anyone has to say about them is the worry that their tactics are ineffective. But, when the evictions begin – this is where the tactics become effective – non violent resistance only works (according to Ghandi) if you meet two conditions. The first is people have to already agree with you, and the second is that you get your head smashed in for acting on this value which other people already in their conscience agree with. This is what politics was for Ghandi – not convincing people of new ideas, but eliciting them to act on ideas they already have. If people already agree with the #occupy movement, all that remains is for the movement to be violently crushed – and out of this use of political violence, it will rise up like a Phoenix ten times stronger, again and again, until significant concessions are the only way forward for the state to resume normalcy.

Last night I watched the livestream of #occupywallstreet while the police there raided and destroyed the camp in liberty square park. I felt very angry watching the eviction, but I did not feel that it was my fight – I didn’t feel a motivation to get on a bus and go down there. Occupy Wall street is to Toronto what Tahir square is to Occupy Wall Street – an inspiration. But, by extension, if Wall street does not represent my home ground, then Toronto does. Toronto is where I must defend, sumud, hold fast to the ground and resist: support the decolonization of Canada (the role of indigenous activists in the centre of this movement is inspiring and essential). Support the 99% against the 1% (despite myself certainly being, by privilege if not by income, part of the 1%). Undo the power of banks and big business over the Canadian state, and, eventually, move towards power structures that enact the interests of the people rather than the elite.

EDIT: Due to a court injunction, it seems the protestors will be allowed to stay in the park, at least until friday.

Al-Jazeera on the Militarization of North American Police

From a worthwhile to read, and quite frightening article from Al-Jazeera

And that’s the most prosaic of the new policing toys that are becoming available. Reporter Ando Arick analysed the new generation of weaponry in an article in Harper’s called “The Soft-Kill Solution – New Frontiers In Pain Compliance“. He recounts a 60 Minutes investigation into a new weapon to be used for what the military said was “crowd control in Iraq”.

Yet in military exercises in Georgia, soldiers were dressed as protesters, carrying signs that say “world peace”, “love for all” and “peace not war” for some reason. In what was presented as a choice between backing off and shooting into the crowd, the audience was then shown that a “ray gun” was on top of the Humvee.

“An operator squeezes off a blast. The first shot hits them like an invisible punch. The protesters regroup, and he fires again, and again. Finally they’ve had enough. The ray gun drives them away with no harm done.”

Except for the repeated “invisible punches”, of course. But like the Taser, the whole point of this “pain compliance” is to inflict short-term physical agony on human beings to “induce behavioural modification”.

They have developed plans for a flying drone that fires stun darts at suspects, a “Shockwave Area-Denial System”, which blankets the area in question with electrified darts, and a wireless Taser projectile with a 100-metre range, helpful for picking off “ringleaders” in unruly crowds.

Would the public balk? Probably not. After all, they’ve accepted the Taser to such an extent that it’s now a staple of movie comedies and viral YouTube videos. The ground has been well-prepared. And after all, just as the government has expanded its police powers and built up its arsenal of “pain compliance” weaponry, the broader culture was lifting the centuries-old taboo against torture.

An excuse, a song, and some remembrance day references

I’ve been busy with thesis work lately, soon I’ll put together some readable pieces on some questions in political philosophy I’m wrestling with.

Also, yesterday this song spilt out of me, right after reading that Ford is asking the #occupytoronto protestors to leave the park.

As for remembrance day, I wrote this fairly satisfactory piece a few years ago. This year I spent the day thinking of the revolutionaries who have fought and continue to fight against colonization and oppressive regimes all around the world. From Palestine to Algeria, and Ireland to Oka, revolutionary causes sometimes require the commitment of individuals to make the complete sacrifice for the cause. If you can’t stomach supporting those who have the courage to fight against your colonial state, then at least check out Milan’s post from today, an excellent piece which focusses on the suffering of civilians in war, and the moral courage of objectors, “who have had the courage to refuse to fight – and those who had the even greater courage to speak out publicly against unjust wars”.


Non-Violence in #Occupy and Occupation

The #Occupy movement has created a semantic hybridity which post-modernists are sure to love – “Occupation” now has an ambiguous double sense in that it can refer to the Occupation of Palestine, or the Occupation protests in America, Europe, and the rest of the world. A question which is relevant to all of these situations is: What are the right tactics to resist oppression?

Non-violence is at this point a condition for first world resistance. Any resistance in North America or Europe which resorts to violence immediately is outside the realm of considerability and support for the gross mainstream of western societies – and that support is essential to the growth and strength of any protest movement here. Moreover, non-violence is effective because one of the only weapons the state can use against the #occupy movement is the police – and the police are not ideologically in our context meant to be a tool of political force. So, when they get used as such, it’s obvious that they are acting outside the realm of legitimacy that they have in the public’s eyes. However, if the protests become violent, then the mainstream ideology allows the police to attack and oppress the protestors without most people batting an eyelid.

However, it’s important to remember that these arguments for non-violence only make it into a tactic, not a principle. Other arguments, or rather slogans, such as “violence is always wrong” try to make the case for non-violence as a principle. But this case is much more difficult to make, and I find that in most cases if you see people advocating non-violence as a principle this is more like a religious belief than an analytical claim with evidence and supporting reasons that meet an appropriate burden of proof.

The non-violence of first world protests rests on an assumption that things have not yet degraded to the point of a conflict – we don’t yet believe in class struggle, or at least, we don’t believe that we can see it – or that it can be seen at this point by enough workers to bring the revolution into effect. Many marxists, Zizek being perhaps the most famous, don’t even believe in class struggle in the classical sense any longer. If we did believe in class struggle in the sense that the proles are in conflict with the bourgeois, and we believed in Marxist revolution, it would actually make sense to use violence because as George Sorel argues, violence can clarify situations – violence makes explicit the war which was already there but you couldn’t see.

To advocate non-violence as a principle means to advocate for its use in a conflict situation as the only means of resistance. Empirically, there are surely situations where non-violent resistance is tactically effective in a genuine conflict – certainly the low-intensity resistance (but not strictly non-violent) of the first intifada is widely recognized to have been more effective than the full on armed struggle of the 2nd intifada. But now it might be things are swaying in the other direction. The Palestinian Authority, which has defended rock-throwing in the past, has taken a stand against rock-throwing and told Palestinians that this highly symbolic form of resistance must end. I hope this choice is being made on an empirical basis about effectivity, and not simply another collaborationist concession which will fail to improve the PA’s bargaining situation – which is so weak anyway that no amount of fiddling will truly improve it to the point that a fair settlement could be achieved.

Violence is, of course, an action which intends to hurt another person or community. But it is not only that – it is also a form of communication. Not in the sense that it “sends a message” (this is probably the biggest misconception about the symbolic role of violence), but in the sense that it modifies the symbolic realm habited by the individuals and groups on either end of the attack. De-colonizing violence can be effective not because it tells the colonizer to “go home” (this could be said much more easily in a letter), but because it alters the symbolic situation in which the colonizer lives to the point where the choice that has the right meaning is the decision to withdraw, or the decision to grant concessions to the colonized people.

In this sense, violence and non-violence are very similar in their structure – both forms of political action attempt to alter the social fabric, to create events which change the way the causes relevant to the resistors are talked about, to change the solution which feels right from one to another. The fundamental difference is not between violence and non-violence at all – the difference is in the situation, and whether the situation by its nature demands non-violence or whether violence or non violence are both potential tactics. In first world situations, where stability is taken for granted (although it could be taken for granted in a dishonest way, this isn’t the point), non-violence is a condition for resistance because of the ideological structure which legitimizes the police, but in conflict situations where stability can’t be taken for granted, like the case of military occupation, the tactic of violence can not be ruled out in advance.

There may be moral arguments against the use of violence for political purposes, but such cases are actually quite difficult to make – especially if we consent to the use of force by the police and army to enforce a status quo. One might ask why is it alright to use violence to enforce a situation, but not to change it? My conclusion is simply this: that the legitimacy of the use of political violence cannot be determined in advance by first principles, it must be decided given the particularities of the situation, taking into account the reasonable foreknowledge of the effects of actions, and without decieving oneself about either the immorality or inherent glory in different tactics – tactics are not glorious in themselves, they are, and will only ever be, tactics.

Such is the difference between #occupy and an Occupation.