All Power to the General Assemblies? Or, the Strange Case of Take Artists Space

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After the raid on Zuc­cotti Park early this morn­ing, what remains of Occupy Wall Street? The library was destroyed and thrown in the garbage; the kitchen and com­mune that fed and housed hun­dreds now gone. But what about the gen­eral assembly?

The police vio­lence demon­strates that the rel­e­vance of Occupy Wall Street as a polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion is by no means in its attempts, fail­ures and very real suc­cesses at direct democ­racy. It is instead a ques­tion: what is beyond democ­racy in the spirit of Occupy Wall Street?

This is not some ter­ri­ble, reac­tionary decon­struc­tion of the impor­tance of con­sen­sus, dis­cus­sion, and the cama­raderie of equals; I merely mean to pin­point tac­tics of affin­ity that force plat­forms of shar­ing and lev­el­ing to occur in the first place. As Rosa Lux­em­burg said,free­dom is always and exclu­sively free­dom for the one who thinks dif­fer­ently” – to not dis­cuss this, and bring it forth­with, is to say only end­less opin­ions matter.

Why should mere “opin­ions” be inter­est­ing? Why should any­thing like Occupy Wall Street be sup­posed to be a mono­lith of prac­tices and ideas? Even if it were, why should it con­tinue as it is? The power of Occupy Wall Street is in its mul­ti­plic­ity of demo­c­ra­tic forms, not end­less rote assem­blies. The recent raids on Oak­land, Port­land and New York (most likely coor­di­nated) are forc­ing Occupy Wall Street to rad­i­cal­ize its for­ma­tions – autonomous affini­ties are nec­es­sary to pro­pel the “move­ment,” but in order to do this, they can­not be wholly iden­ti­fied with it.

At 5PM on Sat­ur­day, Octo­ber 22, a group of activists, artists and oth­ers occu­pied Artists Space, a project of the New York State Coun­cil on the Arts which had the goal of assist­ing young and emerg­ing artists. Deemed “Occupy 38” (for 38 Greene Street, Soho), over the course of the next 28 hours they drew dis­mis­sive com­ments, if not out­right venom, from every would-be ana­lyst of Occupy Wall Street. Vil­lage Voice feigned con­fu­sion. Anony­mous decried it with “this ‘occu­pa­tion’ sucks   !!!” On Twit­ter, the hash­tag #occupy38 was bizarrely filled with vit­riol against the action, with numer­ous New York blog­gers and jour­nal­ists claim­ing under­stand­ing and sym­pa­thy with Occupy Wall Street at Zuc­cotti Park and the move­ment as a whole, but eager to denounce “Take Artists Space” as “imma­ture” and “stu­pid.” Despite hold­ing open gen­eral assem­blies, Occupy 38 was quickly con­strued as “elit­ist.” Though they did not try to pro­mote exclu­siv­ity, it is true that their goal was to cir­cum­vent the Gen­eral Assem­bly – with its under­cover cops, wet blan­ket lib­er­als, and bleat­ing obses­sions with process – in order to advance the movement.

Trees for the Forest

Of course, those behind Take Artists Space were well aware of their actions – the com­mit­tees and process of Zuc­cotti were becom­ing over­wrought and sti­fling, and it was a neces­sity to take indoor space, espe­cially before the cold weather began, to renew the rad­i­cal­ity of OWS’s ini­tial ges­tures. In other words, to con­tinue a ser­ial com­po­si­tion of what occu­pa­tion is, not defen­sively and hys­ter­i­cally cry­ing out “quid juris?” Occu­py­ing a more community-oriented art gallery was a cal­cu­la­tion to avoid an imme­di­ate crack­down – Artists Space failed in this regard, even­tu­ally snitch­ing on the occu­piers, because by all anec­do­tal reports, they were, in sum­mary, mean.

Why does any of this mat­ter? The obvi­ous response was included on the Take Artists Space tum­blr. They found them­selves “amidst accu­sa­tions of moral defi­ciency and polit­i­cal imma­tu­rity, the same accu­sa­tions wielded by the own­ers of Zuc­cotti Park at the start of its occu­pa­tion.” But this cri­tique was unfor­tu­nately lost on the lib­er­als of the blogosphere.

The lib­er­als felt that Take Artists Space drew atten­tion away from the main strug­gle of Occupy Wall Street and its Zuc­cotti Park ori­gin story, imply­ing that if the tal­is­man of that place were to be taken away, the “move­ment” would some­how cease to grow. As though the power of the gen­eral assem­blies were in their unity, and not their mul­ti­ple ele­ments! The occu­pa­tions sym­bol­i­cally uphold their occu­pied spaces, but any aber­ra­tion is deemed “poorly orga­nized” adven­tur­ism by peo­ple who insist on sym­bols alone. The “friendly,” “rad­i­cal” media rel­ished in call­ing out the per­ceived turpi­tude and audac­ity of Take Artists Space, and effec­tively did the work of the police’s PR department.

But never mind that. Given the real arc of affairs sup­ply­ing the back­drop to the drama that is OWS – the break­down of global cap­i­tal­ism as a world sys­tem – why not sup­port eman­ci­pa­tory revolt in all its forms? Given the very real­is­tic long-term con­se­quences of today’s events, why stunt the trans­for­ma­tive poten­tial of every­thing that emerges from capitalism’s struc­tural contradictions?

The mis­take today is to look at Greece, Spain, Lon­don, Chile, and else­where, and hold them in relief as parts of a whole, a sin­gle phe­nom­e­non. Actu­ally, this is what a sin­gle phen­e­menon looks like as it is being ripped apart. We should par­tic­i­pate in its com­ing apart – it’s not as if we could do any­thing to pre­vent it! Are there some peo­ple – even those who claim sup­port for Occupy Wall Street – who still believe a return to the sta­tus quo is pos­si­ble, but with maybe a lit­tle more democ­racy and jobs thrown in?

The gen­eral assem­blies, while excit­ing and res­o­nant, are not sacred cows. The gen­eral assem­blies sus­tain a refusal of today’s dis­mal sit­u­a­tion not only inas­much they do just that – sus­tain the refusal. They must meet at the inter­sec­tion of rev­o­lu­tion­ary sequence and insur­rec­tionary act: where they are a process, they should also be an act of trans­gres­sion, and where they are trans­gres­sive, they should also move toward a real goal. When they are nei­ther, they should be scrapped for some­thing else. They do not rep­re­sent any­one, and do not speak for the move­ment, strictly because there is not a move­ment, but thou­sands of move­ments, in full flo­ral bloom.

Still Not Get­ting It

Sim­ply put, there isn’t any stop­ping what is under way – what is impor­tant is to fos­ter the cre­ation of groups, agi­tate and edu­cate in and out of the work­place, and splin­ter what­ever unity the present pos­sesses into many other fac­tions and affini­ties.  Forc­ing encoun­ters – those moments when busi­ness does not go as usual – is the pre­rog­a­tive for new assem­blies and meth­ods. Global cap­i­tal pre­serves a sit­u­a­tion in which there are no encoun­ters, because busi­ness must always go as planned, and noth­ing exists but busi­ness. Take Artists Space was an attempt at cre­at­ing an encounter – to draw out the con­se­quences of haste and audac­ity, and adher­ing not to schisms in gen­eral, but to gen­er­at­ing schism and play­ing it out until the music stops. If exper­i­men­ta­tion rubs peo­ple the wrong way when its hap­pen­ing, this is the symp­tom that some­thing new is occurring.

The last com­mu­niqué from Occupy 38, or Take Artists Space, affir­ma­tively reads,

We bat­tle with sabo­teurs, cam­ou­flaged social­ists, intel­lec­tual skep­ti­cism; and we say: Let’s occupy some­thing else. Now we know who we can invite. The ones that don’t wish only for progress to our move­ment, but the efforts of our bod­ies to expose and threaten, to break struc­tures and clichés which are not bound only in the arena of a bureau­cratic vil­lage. In this process we are edu­cated about tac­tics of friend and enemy.

It is Pollyan­naish to con­tinue to assume that every­one will be Occupy Wall Street’s friend, just as it is obtuse to believe there are ene­mies around every cor­ner. We must con­tinue to dis­cover who our friends really are.

The first sequence of the Occupy move­ment, as events in Oak­land and Chapel Hill attest, is over. On Take Artists Space tum­blr log, the key to the action was in the lan­guage used: “Take That Which is Already Yours.” It’s impos­si­ble to “occupy” some­thing that is already yours – but it must be taken back, indef­i­nitely. Zuc­cotti Park and Oscar Grant Plaza must not be just “reoc­cu­pied” in response to this recent wave of state repres­sion. They must be taken per­ma­nently. Now the real work begins. We must change the polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion. “Occupy Every­thing” is lit­eral, and because of that, stop say­ing “Occupy.”


Trevor Owen Jones is a librar­ian and a writer.

Author of the article

is a librarian and a writer.