Showing posts with label OWS. Show all posts
Showing posts with label OWS. Show all posts

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Million Gardens

[Stan has graciously agreed to let me share this article with you. The solution he proposes is one that should be put into practice immediately: unlike other post-collapse solutions that will only become competitive after collapse has largely run its course, opting out of industrial agriculture is something that doesn't have to wait.] 

I love OWS and the Slogan “99%”

It is a great slogan that puts in bold relief the immense power of the one percent of humanity that exists parasitically on the rest.  “We are the 99%.”  It is a declaration that in some significant way, people are more awake to their circumstances than they were.  Around this slogan, we have seen courageous and principled people take to the streets in a great shout of “No!” at the powers and principalities of late neoliberalism; and we have seen that this outburst resonates with far more people than the ruling layer of society expected.  We have seen the protestors demonstrate with their bodies that under their façade of civility, this ruling layer relies in the last instance on truncheons, teargas, guns and jails.  This unmasking is more important in many ways than what will come afterward, because without it, we accommodate – and we all accommodate in one way or another, even those protesting – without any clarity.  Let these thousand flowers bloom.

Still, the 99% are not actually protesting.  99% of the 99% are just doing what they do to get by in the world the best they know how, far from the demonstrations.  We know this is true, and we know the reasons are as numerous as the people who do not protest in the street.  And so we are required to acknowledge that the movement, such as it is, is representative of its claim, not the number 99’s actualization.  And therein is one seed of mischief.

In Latin, it was once said, perversio optima quae est pessima.  The perversion of the best is the worst.  Some protesters will come to believe they are representative of those they do not know.  Some will try and formalize that representation as power.  Many are already spinning out programs (God, save us from parties and programs!) that purport to represent the 99%, though they are mostly utopian projections cobbled together by handfuls of people who still believe something called the “future” can be subordinated to human management schemes.  Some will begin to articulate what it means to be an “authentic” representative; and the divisions will begin.  Nothing stays the same, and this won’t either.  Lord, have mercy.

I am one of the 99% of the 99% this time around.  I had my day in the sun as a protestor; and if I’d have stayed a day longer, I would have taken up more room than one person should, because movements privilege clever talkers and angry writers more than they ought to.  Now I am one of the 99% of the 99% who is restricted in my movements by personal duties and obligations, the lack of money, and the lack of time.  I am far from any urban center, far from the big schools, far from the cohorts and committees, far from those places where people debate social theory and movement strategies.  And I love it out here in the sticks.

I love the Occupy movement, too.  I repost everything I see on Facebook that is not downright offensive (thickheaded sexism in this movement is alive and well, sorry to say).  I promoted the movement in my church with a supportive article in the bulletin, which generated a whiff of controversy that promises a dialogue about this thing we have named “economic inequality.”  I attended a rally in Lansing, though the mayor there agreed with the protest, so we didn’t generate any hostility from the police.  Sherry sports bumper stickers that say “OWS” and “99%.”  This is what we can do right now, so we are glad the demonstrators (I like the Spanish term “manifestantes” better) are out there keepin’ on.  In so may ways, you are speaking for us.  I get a little giddy at how long it has already lasted.

I love the movement’s sense of satire.  My favorite video was a bullfighting spoof around the Wall Street bull statue, with two capering clowns and a matador who mounted a police car and snapped his cape at the 7,100 pound bronze bovine.

I love the energy, and the courage, and the general understanding that the power of the movement is pacific.  Movements succeed when they inspire violence, but only when they inspire the violence of the oppressor that accomplishes this unmasking.

Whether the vandalism and violence of a few protestors is from fools or police provocateurs (probably a measure of both), it has been thankfully minimal.  Those youngsters who got pepper sprayed at UC Davis were more morally effective in their non-resistance than 10,000 macho-boys throwing rocks and setting fires.

I love the way OWS stays unpredictable.  That is absolutely this occupy-thing’s greatest strength.

I have questions, and ideas, however, about what happens next, about follow-up, about what the 99% of the 99% can do and, more importantly, should do.  I’m not proposing, as many leftists will, that the movement “get itself organized,” select leaders, develop a strategy, etc.  In fact, I vigorously oppose strategies on principle, because I believe most of them are simply designed to put a few people in charge of a lot of people who are then charged to carry out the strategy.  More on that further along.

Before I can explain myself, I need to at least describe the premise for these ideas.


The premise begins that all the changes that are implied in the demands – such as they are – of the movement are not applicable to all people in all places at all times.  The greatest value of this movement is not in its ability to expose certain sufferings and change certain policies, but in its ability to expose – with no unified intention to do so – all the reasons we need to abandon the entire system of which “policy” is only one essential working component.

This is an argument that is not won in this movement yet, because many people who are supportive of OWS et al still maintain the sincere and good-willing belief that governments and other policy-making institutions are somehow independent of their actual actions, like machines, and they can be taken over – like exchanging a bad driver for a good one in an automobile.
I respect that belief insofar as it is a belief people cleave to out of genuine good will.  These people are not collaborators or sheep; and those who characterize them that way are both wrong and mean.  I love the people who want to change the policies, because I am convinced that they want to do it out of a genuine sense of care about others.

My argument:  Even machines cannot be made independent of their makers and users.  The problem with the system is not the driver.  It is the car.
This is my premise.  If I am wrong, then ignore everything hereafter.

Failure of the Future

I think this car that is breaking down might be named “The Future.”
The deeply-parasitic infrastructure of society is coming apart, not temporarily, but in the face of some real trends that put real limits not only on the autocratic futurism of the right, but the “progressive” futurism of the left, too.  I ripped off Ivan Illich above with his reference to perversio optima quae est pessima.  I’m quoting him again when he said, “To hell with the future.  It is a man-eating idol.”

I agree with that.  A lot. This car is breaking down and there is going to be a wreck.

Illich wrote in 1973 about the energy infrastructure crisis.  What he said has proven prophetic in both senses of the word.  Prophets are wrongly believed to be people who simply foretell the future.  In fact, prophets are those who speak truth to power and who have visions, not predictions, that forewarn us of dangerous possibilities in the future.

Every generation has some.  Illich showed in 1973, in a pamphlet entitled “Energy and Equity,” that our faith in technology as redeemer of humanity is a terrible mistake.  Now we see the big secular trends that prefigure the collapse of many infrastructures.  Climate change.  Peak resource extractions.  The very economic crisis that spawned OWS.  War for the fuel to make war.  That’s next, and not far off either.

This crisis is not short-term, and it will force people to adopt new tactics for everyday life.  It represents both a trauma and an opportunity; but that opportunity, in my opinion, is not available through policy.  Policies may alter and change in response to material changes.  What has to change is not policy, but our entire built environment based on some more personal and less abstract narratives than Progress and The Future.

This is where the 99% of the 99% can do something, and they can begin doing it right now, without leaving their hometowns.  Let’s put this in another context before explaining why and how the 99% of the 99% can make some of those changes.

Devolution & Design

All social orders eventually devolve and are forced to reorganize, and the globalized world we live in is witnessing the devolution of the social order.  These periods of discontinuity never last forever, because society eventually self-organizes out of these devolutions, and a new order is established.  When an order collapses, there is an accompanying crisis of ideas.  More and more in our own period, we are seeing the de-legitimation of our ideas not only about capitalism and socialism, or their ugly merger into neoliberalism, but about what they held in common that have proven to be dangerous idols.  Progress.  The Future.  Technological Salvation.

When I was part of the organized activist left, I cooked up an alliterated recipe for resistance: de-legitimate, disobey, disrupt.  For the present, I will add a fourth D.  Design.

We are not going to force policy-makers to remake the world.  We have to do it ourselves.  We have to take our entire built environment, one piece at a time, and re-design it.  This will take everyone, because where you live is different than where I live; and there is no one-size-fits-all solution.  To hell with policies.  They are people-eating idols.

The Money Grid

One nub of the whole situation at the end of 2011 is a longstanding fact.  People have been captured by their dependency upon a vast, technocratic apparatus that has de-skilled them and rendered them 100% (not 99%) dependent on money.  The technocratic apparatus makes all our stuff, controls our climate, fixes our boo-boos, educates us, feeds us, moves us around, lights our homes, and puts us to work – all inside our most excellent technocratic life support system – and the only thing that makes the system respond… is money.  As it is in 2011.  As it was in 2010, 2000, 1990, 1980…  it just got worse with time.

Money is generated by banks and printed by the government.  It is designed to work a certain way to benefit governments and banks, which are run by the rich.  Governments and banks are never going to be the ally of any movement like OWS, so there is little likelihood that activism will change the nature of money any time soon.  Money is designed to transfer power; and it does it very well.  Money is not a morally-neutral sign any more than a gun is a morally-neutral tool.  Each is designed for a purpose.  Guns are designed to kill.  Money is designed to commodify, that is, to make everything into a thing for sale.  Including you.

The anthropologist Alf Hornborg said that money dissolves cultural and natural systems in an ecosemiotic process.  “Viewed from outer space,” says Hornborg, “money is an ecosemiotic phenomenon that has very tangible effects on ecosystems and the biosphere as a whole.  If it were not for money, nobody would be able to trade tracts of rain forest for Coca-Cola.”
That’s a lot to think about.  Think about it.

The Institutional Grid

Institutions are required to administer the technocracy upon which we all abjectly depend.  Institutions are always somehow imbricated within the system of money that benefits banks and government.  There is probably nothing controversial about saying that institutions can be corrupted by money.  What I am about to say is that institutions – all of them, even your favorites – are inherently and unavoidably corruptible.

If OWS develops “lists of demands” and programs and the like, there will be predictable appeals to target institutions for particular policy changes.  Money controls the institutions.  Money controls the policies.  Money will come to control the institutions that are created to fight the institutions.  As it ever has been and ever shall be.  The movement will become “focused,” it will deploy a strategy, and let the games begin.  The movement will be placed under management to oversee and coordinate the strategy.  The movement will come to depend on money.

Policy games controlled by money will be able to frustrate the original objectives of activists, either by crushing them or co-opting them.  Then the demoralization will start anew, amid more nihilism because the devolution will have advanced throughout the process.

If OWS itself begins to unravel over time, which it hasn’t so far but certainly may eventually, the follow-up options may appear to be (1) play by the rules for scraps or (2) to argue for more direct force against the system.  The latter will increase the probability of outright destruction, and the former might lead people to believe that nothing, in fact, can be done.

Welcome to the institutional grid.

Relations On and Off the Grid

I believe there is a way out of that impasse.  To explain it, I need to make reference to an anthropologist named Robin Dunbar.  He calculated that human beings have the cognitive capacity and the time to sustain a very finite number of caring relationships.  His guess was around 150.  I give this a lot of leeway, but I accept the general idea.  Finite brain.  Finite time.  Finite capacity.  Got it.

These primary relationships are built on trust and empathy, requiring no formal agreements, no contracts, no administration by a third party.  Most close family relations fall into this category, as do friends.  My own trick for categorizing these relations is to think of them as covenantal as opposed to casual or contractual.  Your relation to your boss is contractual.   Your relation to a grocery clerk you see once a week is casual.  Your relation to your friend, lover, child, mother, etc, is covenantal.  These covenantal relations are built on care, on trust and empathy.  They imply certain non-monetized, highly personal duties and obligations to one another that are accepted out of love.  These relations do not require formal rules; and in fact, formal rules would have a deleterious effect on these relations.
“A contract is an agreement made in suspicion. The parties do not trust each other, and they set “limits” to their own responsibility. A covenant is an agreement made in trust. The parties love each other and put no limits on their own responsibility.”
-Wambdi Wicasa
Once a group exceeds this fuzzy cognitive limit, this “Dunbar’s number,” it begins to require third parties to administer, manage and resolve conflicts.  This is the genesis of administration and management, and it becomes inevitable with greater scale, more people.  This new layer of relations is more impersonal, first by some small degree.  With more people and more administrators come greater degrees of impersonality.  The uprooted impersonality of administration is inevitable.  The tendency of these social formations is summed up in the way we can refer to administration as an “apparatus.”

A remarkable moral shift occurs with the emergence of this apparatus.  Doing the right thing because you care for someone is superseded by doing the correct or legal thing because of an impersonal rule.  The rules are necessary because the third parties of these apparati have to be seen as disinterested parties.  In this single moral shift, those who administer the rules gain a new kind of social power that makes them inherently corruptible.

This applies to a corporation, a club, a rifle platoon, a progressive non-profit, a church, a school, a hospital, a town, the water supply system, the food system, everything… because our technocratic society is administered by an apparatus that is approaching perfect impersonality.  Plain size can begin this pernicious process, so small “organizations” beware.  Simply calling yourself an organization carries this risk of impersonality.  The corruptibility of these institutions inheres in the enormous power they accumulate purely through the authority to administer and manage.

The Fetishism of Bureaucratic Competence

So while we are unmasking ideologies – those constellations of ideas that simultaneously conceal and reproduce power – let’s look at this ideology of “progress” and the “future.”  It is entirely built on force, and that power has accrued to the one percent, and we have not unmasked what Alasdair MacIntyre calls the “fetishism of bureaucratic skill,” part of the ideology of progress that both reproduces and conceals this administrative power.  Most of the left and the right have fallen prey to this fetishism.
“The modern American is culturally conditioned to think of nature as nothing more than matter-in-motion, as a standing reserve that through technological and entrepreneurial prowess is converted into a consumer’s cornucopia.”
-Max Oelschlaeger
To this adds MacIntyre:
“The fetishism of commodities has been supplemented by another just as important fetishism, that of bureaucratic skills… the realm of managerial expertise is one in which what purport to be objectively grounded claims [e.g., to the knowledge of the good society and how to achieve it] function in fact an expression of arbitrary, but disguised, will and preference.”
Power.  His qualification is at the heart of it, “to the knowledge of the good society and how to achieve it.”  This is a delusion of the ideology of progress, this notion that people can render the future predictable and manageable.  Experts, managers and administrators take full advantage of this ideology to exert will and preference behind a mask of special competence.

MacIntyre continues, in 1984, that “we know of no organized movement towards power which is not bureaucratic and managerial in mode, and we know of no justifications for authority that are not Weberian.”

As the power of administrators grows, an ethic of care becomes more and more antithetical to the rules-regime of administration.  Impersonality metastasizes, and we wake up to find ourselves not living in the world but moving plugs around on a switchboard to get what we need from the technocratic grid.

Management makes rules that help management.  Management is the administration of administrators.  Administration makes rules that benefit administration.  As Haitians say, ti tig se tig.  “The child of a tiger is a tiger.”
The original purpose of a rule – often created out of good will – is subverted by the administrative application of the rule.  In common parlance, “the tail starts to wag the dog.”  The letter of the law is administered against the spirit of the law.  This dog-waggery leads to the incomprehensibility of the rules and resentment of administration and management, which in turn becomes defensive, setting up a power struggle in which administration is already advantaged by the growing dependency of the administered on administration.  Remember that Stalin accrued his immense power through control of an administrative apparatus.

One of the reasons we have so little power to act creatively in the face of so many crises is not just that we are fragmented, but that we’re cut off in a much deeper way by the lack of social cohesion that can only happen in the small, intimate group.  Covenantal relations are strong bonds.  Contractual relations are weak bonds.

Every infantry squad leader knows that.  Every good mother knows it.  The rest of us ought to, too.

Management is the enemy of social cohesion, because it substitutes secondary (weak) bonds for primary (strong) ones. By re-strengthening primary bonds, we develop a greater capacity to resist power, but also to creatively adapt to (without direct resistance) rapidly changing circumstances.

Strategy and Tactics

Strategy and tactics as they are commonly understood are war terms, and they can’t escape their conflict implications.  Michel De Certeau, however, draws a distinction between them that leaps over some of the martial interpretations of these ideas.

In military parlance, strategy is the identification of key campaigns that are necessary to accomplish the main objective – in most cases, winning the war.  Operations is a level of planning that determines key battles necessary to win campaigns.  Tactics are those techniques that are required to win battles.  So the tactic is subordinate to the campaign, which is subordinate to the strategy.  In other words, “In the beginning, there was Strategy, and without it the world was shapeless and void.”

De Certeau wrote about people in their everyday lives, not conditions of extremity and conflict, in a book entitled oddly enough, The Practice of Everyday Life.

Strategy, notes De Certeau, is always the purview of power.  Strategy presumes control.  Strategy is self-segregating, in the same way administration and management is self-segregating, setting itself up as a barricaded insider.  The strategic leaders become the Subject; and the led become — along with any enemies — the Objects.  Strategy presumes an in-group that executes the Strategy.
“Strategy is the calculus of force-relationships; when a subject of will and power can be isolated from an environment.”
-De Certeau
The financial masters of the universe at Wall Street oversee the strategy.  They are the institutions.  In many ways, the rest of us cannot escape their Grid.  They are the subject, and the rest are the object. They are inside; and we are outside.  They live behind guarded walls.

De Certeau calls tactics, on the other hand, the purview of the non-powerful.  His version of “tactics” is not as a subset of Strategy, but adaptation to the environment (which has been structured by A Strategy).

The city planning commission may determine what streets there will be, but the local cabbie will figure out how to take best advantage of lived reality of those streets.  This making-do is what De Certeau calls bricolage, and it often implies cooperation with others as much as competition with others.
While the masters of the financial universe at Wall Street protect their guarded walls and ensure the system keeps paying the imperial tribute, we are making do.  We do things that they can’t control or fully account for.  We barter, clip coupons, work under the table, trade labor, share tasks and expenses with friends… all those little cheats to bypass the more disadvantageous routes along the Grid.  Making do.  Bricolage.
Bricolage is so detailed, so numerous in instance, so adaptable, that much of it escapes the notice of the Big Strategists; more importantly, it is beyond their power to control.


Strategy makes two presumptions:  control and an in-group.  The contradiction of strategy is that the control is never perfect and the situation upon which the strategy was constructed is always changing, making aspects of the strategy obsolescent.  The self-segregation of in-groups magnifies these myopic aspects of strategy, because the walls that keep others out also obscure their view of the outside.  Strategy becomes self-referential.
Tactics, on the other hand, or bricolage, is action in a constant state of reassessment and correction based directly on observations of the actual micro-environment.  Tactical theorist John Boyd rather schematically diagrammed this process as an OODA-loop, meaning people observe their surroundings (O), orient on the most important developments in the environment (O), decide on an immediate course of action (D), take that action (A), then revert immediately to observation (O) of the environment to see how their last action might have changed it (orienting again, deciding again, acting again…and again).  There is no presumption of how things will turn out, as there is in strategy.  There is, in fact, readiness to take advantage of unpredictable changes; this is called tactical agility.

Ignore that Boyd studied aerial combat for a moment, and we see that this is sense in many other scenarios.  It just requires recognizing the radical limits on our ability to control something called “the future.”  That future has always and always will remain unpredictable. As it should.

Strategies are undermined by unpredictability.  Tactics (bricolage, OODA-loops) can make an ally of unpredictability.

The intrepid street manifestantes of the Occupy movement can benefit from the OODA-Loop.  They are in a tactical contest with the authorities to perform their prophetic tasks.  For those among the other 99%, what kinds of bricolage can begin to directly and intentionally reduce our degree of dependence on the technocratic grid?

Strategic Without Strategy

Nero – both an emperor and a sadistic misanthrope – is said to have wished humanity had one throat so he could have the pleasure of cutting it.  This is the statement of a strategic principle.  The centralized structures of one’s enemy are considered strategic targets.

Sherman’s great arson campaign was principally aimed at Atlanta, where both the railroads and telegraphs of the Confederate forces converged.  His march to Atlanta prefigured what would later become strategic bombing.
As the United States Armed Forces, to their chagrin, discovered in Iraq and Afghanistan is that when there were no longer centralized political structures to attack in Iraq, there was a complete loss of tactical initiative.  The US forces were metaphorically reduced to fighting off a swarm of hornets.  Their strategy became incoherent.  The problem was further magnified in Afghanistan, because there even the material infrastructure lacked centralization.  Rumsfeld’s first complaint about Afghanistan, when the Bush administration was preparing its war, was that Afghanistan presented the US with “no good targets.”

One thing this might be telling us, if we are listening, is that we are safer from the strategies of ill-wishers in decentralized groups.  The more the merrier.

In nature, decentralized diversity generates resilience.  Centralized monoculture, on the other hand, is vulnerable precisely because it is centralized.  One electrical failure can plunge 50 million people into opaque helplessness. One new fungus can wipe out a monocropped food staple.
I bring this up, because I want to suggest a mode of strategic decentralism.  Being strategic without developing A Strategy.  The 99% of the 99% need to have some answer to the question, “What can we do?”  My answer is make new facts on the ground.  Start re-designing the built environment, especially in those spaces that are being ignored or abandoned during the process of devolution.

I want to propose a strategic goal without any general staff, without any hierarchy of any kind, part of which almost anyone can accomplish.  No requirement for management, and no implied requirement for conflict (some will always find you), and no one-size-fits-all instructions on how to get it done.

I want to propose that we begin a systematic effort to reduce our dependency on the technocratic grid, by a lot of people working at or near their homes.  One of the most powerful dependencies we have on the grid is food.  The power of the food institutions is already well known and well understood, from Monsanto, to ADM and Cargill, to the Food and Drug Administration.  Our very survival has been lashed to this grid by food-production monopolies.  The entire world is groaning under the depredations of the food giants.

I have witnessed food riots firsthand.  It is an unforgettable experience.  Our dependency on food is a terrible weapon in the hands of the one percent.
I want to propose we build a million food gardens.  Two million.  However many.  However many conditions.  However many designs.  There is the strategic direction:  make food, and not just for the same reasons Gandhi made salt.  Make food because it puts that much of our lives back into our own hands, and the hands of our communities.  Into the hands of our friends, our families, our covenantal relations.  We can meet one of our own needs without any bureaucratic apparatus.

Making Food

In the town where I live, with around 20,000 souls, we built a garden this year.  A group of people built the first of several food donation gardens on what the city has called “orphaned properties.”  The city owns them, but they have no particular use for them during this devolutionary contraction.  Next Spring, we want to make two more gardens.  A friend from church just offered the use of a portion of her country property for garden cultivation.  We have around a million maples worth of leaf mulch and compost, mountains of chipped wood (from ice storm damage last year), and those long Northern summer days of sun.  We have barely begun to learn how much food we can grow here… off the commercial food Grid.

I, for one, do not intend this to be some strategy to force new policies into the commercial food grid.  Speaking for me, I see this as a way of serving divorce papers on the commercial food grid.  And no one has figured out a way to call helmeted, militarized police out to stop anyone working in the gardens.  The cops I talked to this year said it was a good idea, the garden.
Multiply this by a million, then instead of a quarter acre of re-designed facts on the ground, you have 250,000 acres of re-designed facts on the ground.  These are easier to defend than a policy, and it presents no strategic targets.  Certainly there are threats and potential threats, but there is no one neck so Nero can have the pleasure of cutting it.  Instead there is an accumulation of intimate victories, accomplished by convenantal communities, communities made that much stronger by the reduction of their dependency on the technocratic grid and the recognition of their very personalized interdependency on each other.

Walking on Two Legs

Demonstrating in the street, this unmasking work that OWS has done so incredibly, inspiringly, lovingly well, is not done yet.  I am not by any means arguing that anyone ought to return from the street.  Those of us who can’t be there do need you to represent.  You are the allies of unpredictability, the agile OODA-artists of the street, the magicians who can abracadabra bits of stunning clarity out of your hats.  Your job is exhilarating, exhausting and crazy risky sometimes.  If you can do it, that is where you need to be.

There will never be more than a fraction who have the flexibility at a particular time to be manifestantes.  We love you, and we want you to go on, and we have been both instructed and entertained by your courage, creativity and endurance.

When you can no longer do it, there is something you can do, and so can the 99% of the 99% who can’t be those shock troop manifestantes, right now.
What can be done, and without any strategies involved, is a straightforward and strenuous effort by 99% of the 99% who are at home to make food. If there are 500,000 OWS protestors, then there need to be 1,000,000 more people who are making food in their yards, their neighborhoods, their churches, temples and synagogues, their workplaces, their schools, their land trust plots, their fallow fields, their empty lots, their apartment decks, their patios and their kitchen windows.

Even when the demonstrations end – and they will end – we are not left with nothing to do to continue dissolving that power.  Every square yard of land recovered for food is a material victory in the face of little resistance, and that same square yard is a square yard of independence from the Grid.
Do not pit your weakness against their strength.  Exercise your strengths where they are weakest, where you live.  The system is falling apart, and nothing will stop that.  More and more niches will appear.

Even more important to me personally:  gardens are peacemaking.  Peacemaking is still the most important form of resistance.
Let a million gardens bloom.