Begonia and Luis — Notes for a Non-linear Anniversary of Occupy Wall Street and the 2011 Global “Movements of the Squares”

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An Anarchic Chronology of the 2011 Uprisings

When did it all start? At the beginning of 2011, with the brutality of the economic crisis hitting Spain hard, it was common to hear the question: “how is it possible that no one goes to the streets to protest?” But hadn’t the students, the young people, the Youth Without a Future already started to do it –well before the 15M movement? And in the US, similarly, hadn’t there already been a huge demonstration on Wall Street in May of 2011 –months before Occupy – and “no one knew about it”? After all, hadn’t millions of Egyptians did what they did in January? But in reality it all started in Tunisia, didn’t it? Yes, sure, in 2010. But, hold on, was it not just yesterday, was it not just last week when we saw the news of those two men who set themselves on fire in Tunisia in protest against confinement and unemployment? Was it not the day before yesterday that a woman threw herself off the balcony because they were going to evict her in Cornellà or was it in Valencia or was it in Barakaldo or Peñafiel? An unemployed computer scientist, a 66-year-old woman who could barely reach the window because she was sick, a Syrian father who had taken refuge in Lebanon, a homeless person covered in gasoline protesting the crisis, or was it protesting the murders of African-Americans by police? Are we in 2012, or in 2018, or was it already in 2009? Or was it last month, in the middle of the pandemic, or was it next year?

Yes, it is true that before Tunisia, in 2009, the “Green Revolution” had already happened in Iran, with thousands of people taking over the Freedom Park in Tehran, self-convened through Facebook and Twitter. Get to a place, camp, stay together, proving ourselves that we can live differently. Tents, experimental self-constructions, yurts, haymahs. In the Agdaym Izik protest camp in Western Sahara, in the early morning of November 8, 2010, helicopters of the Moroccan army began to fly over the haymahs that housed 20,000 people who had decided to stay there, turning their life together into a protest. The night was filled with engine roars, tear gas, the haymahs began to burn… Was this the first of many violent evictions from our camps in what some have called the “movement of the squares”, whose beginnings are usually placed around 2011?
“You mix everything up, you confuse everything up”. Yes, that is what Verónica Gago says that feminists in Argentina are often reproached for. “You should deal with women’s issues, keep talking about abortion, but do not mix it with the Mapuches or with financial debt, or with job insecurity, or with torture during the dictatorship.” Stay in your compartment. Limit your self to your expertise, stick to your discipline, respect at least the chronological and linear order of events and the distances between spaces. Accept that things begin and end… and that later anniversaries are celebrated.

But, what if disorder as poetics and as politics was more faithful to those revolts, to the overflowing events that reverberate in them? What if more than talking about them in this anniversary we wanted to conjure up the forces that animated them?
What would this text be like then?

Perhaps the reciprocal influences between the “Arab Spring”, Spanish 15M, Occupy Wall Street and other revolts would then appear to us as flashes of intensity in a fractal constellation that does not stop growing. Trying to make a history of these influences would perhaps then mean claiming an anarchic chronology from them. This chronology, in any case, easily appears in any attempt to trace an honest genealogy, which will always refer us to another and another and another antecedent of the antecedent (15M happened before Occupy, but Tahir happened before 15M, but Tunisia happened before Tahir, but etc., etc.). From a wider perspective, who is going to deny that the wave of 2011 was only possible thanks to the anti-globalization movements of the late 20th century? But of course, anti-globalization did not arise out of nowhere, how can we imagine it without the Zapatista uprising of 1994? … And in the other direction: it does not seem very risky to affirm that without the movements of 2011, neither the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, nor Standing Rock, nor Podemos and Syriza would have been what they have been. And, what’s more, without all this agitation to the left, who knows if the fascist counter-attack would have gone so far, with its constant and perverse copying of the tactics and ways of doing the movements … Who knows, on the other hand, if Syria had been broken so brutally, but also if Rojava would had been possible…
Backwards and forwards, the tendency to infinity of the line already tells us that it should be understood more like a spiral: time and again those below rise again, they rebuild their infrastructures of common life, and these are attacked, damaged, co-opted, falsified, exploited, turned into merchandise, into spectacle, into “news”… And each instance, each time, each minute aspect of each one of these uprisings and reconstructions is important insofar as it is singular.

Anniversaries of big uprisings can sometimes blur out that the fact that the forces of exploitation, misery and existential commodification are constantly resisted and transformed through lines of flight and abundant collective creativity all around us. Tired of maximalist positions that try to evaluate, summarize and simplify revolts and the creation of worlds from below, dictating when the movements begin and when they end, and what are the “goals” that they “have achieved”, we have tried to sensitize our ears to other kind of voices. Voices that speak of more minute, singular, and everyday forms of political uprising.

Resisting Violence Against Common Life, Northern and Southern Versions

Around the 1970s-1980s, in Spain, for example, some voices began to talk often in political terms about something that at first may seem very banal, even individualistic or “middle-class”: boredom. In a documentary film from this time (Después de…, by Cecilia and Juan José Bartolomé, 1981) that showed a popular effervescence that had been easily overshadowed by the story of a “successful transition to democracy”, one can hear voices of young people who, as Spain embraced “modernity”, were saying: “we do not want a world where the guarantee of not dying of hunger is compensated by the security of dying of boredom”. Macro-historical normalization will always tend to understand these types of voices as expressions of youthful “nihilism”, or in any case of an “apolitical and hedonistic counter-culture”. However, perhaps taking seriously the drama of the phrase (they talk about dying of boredom) is not so out of place, given the increasing rate of suicides, “new pathologies” and not so new “mental illnesses” that seem to accompany the establishment of the neoliberal way of life in the global North during the last decades.

It is undoubtedly essential to recognize the differences between lives that are treated as disposable, condemned to constant warfare, food shortages, the deprivation of any type of security and other lives that enjoy the privilege of having access to housing and food in a peaceful setting. But it is also important to see the relations between the multiple forms of violence exercised by the same Western colonial capitalist and patriarchal order against a multitude of beings, whether these forms of violence are due to hierarchy and exploitation, or to mechanisms of existential control such as individualization, hyper-codification of behaviors, and submission to a technocratic order in which we are deprived of the necessary tools to give meaning to our lives.

These last forms of violence, which we could understand as the causes of that kind of “deadly boredom”, or perhaps better, “existential malaise” that afflicts the global North, are deeply intertwined with the mechanisms that lead to condemn entire populations of the global South to misery and disappearance (and, in any case, isn’t also the North itself full of small Souths?). The other side of the expansion in the North of an isolated individual subjectivity, incapable of empathy, immunized to what happens around it by spectacle and consumption, whose existence is channeled by all kinds of mediations and cybernetic control systems (oriented towards work understood as the production and depredation of abstract value), is the constant attack in the South against lives that are exploited, evicted, violated, neglected or simply killed.

Sometimes, when those maximalist approaches that seek look for “outcomes” analyze events such as what was called Occupy Wall Street, they tend to forget the overlap between these two types of violence, and, therefore, the overlap that there is also between the resistances and lines of flight that transform them. It is true that in the “Northern” and metropolitan version of the movements of the squares, we can easily find instances of individualistic middle-class behavior, or naivety regarding the belonging of the neo-liberal “democracies” to the racist and exploitative colonial order. But perhaps it is more interesting to explore precisely the tactics and ways of doing that did manage to create interesting intersections and echoes between the global North and the South, between resistance and transformation in the face of both the grossest violence and the most sophisticated instruments for controlling subjectivities.

An American friend said it with typical gringo pragmatism: during Occupy, Zucotti Park became one of the very few spaces in New York City where one could meet people without the mediation of money or work or leisure. Again, it may seem trivial, but isn’t the existence of these kind of spaces a basic condition for rebuilding a common life capable of displacing Western capitalist individualism? It is very different to burn oneself than to stop an eviction, or to create meeting place, but, were we all not looking precisely for intersections that allowed the different tactics to intensify each other?
We have remembered it many times: in those months of the square camps, days seemed to have many more hours than 24, looking back we still cannot understand how we managed to be in so many places at the same time, with so many comrades going from here to there, plotting, sharing, taking to the streets, while maintaining our jobs, attending to the multiple tasks that in times of “normality” (or should we rather say of normalized alienation?) made us believe that “we were very busy” and “didn’t have time for anything”. Einstein had already said it, and in 2014 it was experimentally verified in a particle accelerator in Germany: for a fast moving body, time passes more slowly. Deep down, we all know it from our childhood experiences, but it’s so easy to forget. In childhood, the mechanisms of sensitive immunization and neutralization of our capacity for experience, which the late-modern West has been refining to the extreme, have not yet been consolidated. Hence, when we were little, some summer afternoons could seem endless, or at least immeasurable.
Recovering a subjectivity capable of experience, capable of allowing itself to be traversed by an intensity that completely exceeds the limits of the individual, was certainly not one of the explicit demands of the movements of 2011, but perhaps it was one of the main underground desires that animated them. Perhaps in order to understand these collective desires it is useful to think of them outside the frame of Western metaphysics, which understand desire as the will of a subject to achieve an object that is lacking. If we think otherwise, desire would be more something like a transformative force that tries to free itself from the identities (the “desired objects”) that try to capture it: desire for more desire. In this sense, it is interesting to understand movements (or rather: intense political events), not as projects that try to achieve goals, but as creative lines of flight that deactivate those devices and ways of life that block the proliferation of a collective intensity.

Deactivating Blockages Across Revolts and Building Collective Autonomy

Can we now come back to the old issue of influences between different movements, with this in mind? In each place, at each moment, it was about re-learning that art of deactivation (or dismissal) according to specific, unique conditions, but without a doubt these deactivations perceived each other from afar, and mutually intensified each other. Like other emigrants from Spain and many other places living in NYC, we had the opportunity to closely follow these global dialogues, which were sometimes explicit and others were tacit.

Thus, for example, if we ​​pay attention to the underground currents of desire that connected the singularity of Sol Encampment in Madrid with that of Zucotti Park, we could imagine a constellation in which the rejection of the media in Sol reverberates with the rupture of the logics of New York’s professional activism. In both cases, the conditions were collectively created to avoid being trapped by deeply paralyzing configurations. As has often been recalled, the 15M movement managed to bypass the predetermined narratives of the Spanish media, which could not fit it into either of the “two camps” of institutional politics. However, this deactivation did not occur automatically, but thanks to the collective intelligence and intuition that materialized in tactics like the initial ban on big media from recording the assemblies and the thousands of spontaneous -and not so spontaneous- gatherings that kept building an autonomous understanding of what was happening by the very people who were living it. To a certain extent, if the slogan of the wave of anti-globalization movements was “don’t hate the media, become the media”, we could play with the idea that in this new wave what seemed to float in the air was rather something like “don’t become the mediation, be the experience”.
Similarly, at various crucial moments in the New York City version of the movement of the squares we remember how another important mediation, that of professional activism, had to be patiently dismantled, often provoking an outraged and territorial response that still resonates in our ears to this day: “Who the hell are these people?!”, referring to the alleged organizers of the planned “occupation of Wall Street”. In the same way as for the Spanish media it was inconceivable that 15M could be something alien to the power networks of the two large Spanish institutional blocks, for some New York professional activists the idea that OWS might not have an “author” (whether an individual or an NGO or a political organization) didn’t seem to be able to make it into their heads.

In the same was as many Italian workers in the 1960s started ignoring their trade union leaders and went into self-organizing, many of us in Zucotti soon began to attend the general assembly less and less frequently, since it had become the refuge of the bureaucratic and institutional logics of the professionalization of politics. It seemed ridiculous to miss a chance to explore the proliferation of experiments by which people who were in the squares tried to provide themselves with the means to treat each other as equal, think together, take care of each other, join forces, inhabit the city in a way other than work or leisure, and defend themselves from the economic and psychic violence of patriarchal Western capitalism.
Facing what those Spanish “counter-cultural” youngsters of the 70’s called “dying of boredom”, facing a life in which one is isolated both from others and from the possibility of experiencing the world by countless authoritarian mediations, people in 15M and Occupy Wall Street, as in so many other uprisings around 2011, tried to recover the possibility of the encounter, of the experience, and the deactivation of control structures. All of which perhaps constitutes a necessary experimentation to open autonomous worlds, different from the one who exercises the multiple forms of violence that plague the Earth.

As Marcello Tarì wrote, building collective autonomy has more to do with reinventing the world than with retiring oneself to enjoy spaces of “self-management” only accessible for a few: “Autonomy is not about a kind of abstract idea of ​​the self-management of what exists, as if superimposing organization schemes and voluntarist activism could break the monstrous inertia of the capitalist order, or made it possible to overcome the existential pathology of a subjectivity that is always looking for recognition, always in need of being someone, usually at the cost of everything and everyone. Autonomy can only be another use, of itself and of world, immanent to a certain intensity of sharing, to an attention to joy and play -in the activity that sustains what we create and that sustains us by creating it- but also to the necessary efforts, in giving birth and in caring, in growing up and in persisting”.

In any case, in 2011 there was no shortage of those who, probably even with good intentions, but definitely oblivious to the importance of this type of experiment with “another use of oneself and the world”, soon declared that “people cannot always be mobilized”, trying to turn once again the joy and the playfulness of reinventing common life into something more similar to work. A work for which, they also declared, they themselves were more qualified than most, and consequently would gladly assume from now on behalf of those people who should not get too tired by an insane excess of meetings or demonstrations.

And yet, of course, the reinvention of ordinary life keeps going. We are not interested in taking stock of the movements of the squares, nor are we really interested in “studying” them, if for that we understand turning them into an isolated object. What we want is to let us be possessed by their strength, that the sad passions of criticism, representation, technocracy, and fear are carried away by their same intensity, as it keeps happening again in Western Sahara, in Argentine feminism, in the general strike in support of the peasants followed by 250 million people in India, in the struggles against racism and against femicides around the world.

The spiral has taken another turn, and it seems that many of the distractions and naiveties that the movements of the squares in their Northern version could still afford, are now impossible. The coronavirus pandemic has also made us feel even in the more privileged areas of the planet the brutal degree of destruction that violent human intervention on the fragile balances of life on Earth can cause. Meanwhile, the dissatisfaction with the elites of global neoliberalism that the movements of the squares expressed continues to collide with the retaining wall of the institutional “Left”, which by trying to capitalize it ends up channeling it towards the extreme right and fascism.

The gravity of the moment challenges us, and perhaps the least that we can do is to skip any official, linear, North-centric and instrumental “anniversary” of the 2011 uprisings, refusing to consider them something of the past, declaring ourselves sons and daughters, but also grandmothers of their potencia.
Today more than ever we inhabit the line of flight of their unfinished constellation.