Being Peaceful ≠ Passive (Or: The Occupy Wall Street Post)

October 10, 2011

We still owe you a follow-up to our post on strategies for effective vegan activism beyond the boycott. Don’t worry, we haven’t forgotten and we’ll be getting it to you soon. That said, there’s no way we can sleep on the Occupy Wall Street story which, owing to the pleasantly surprising tenacity of its participants, has clawed its way from blowing up Facebook feeds to achieving “no longer ignorable” status with the mainstream media outlets.

Occupy Wall Street is a phenomenon that is at once incredibly complicated and incredibly clear cut. While its persistence has forced the aforementioned major news networks (owned one and all by “One Percenters”) to finally begin covering it, you will notice a common dismissive tone in their stories. “These demonstrators,” they assure you, “have no clear idea of what they want or why they are here.” Of course, this is completely inaccurate. It would be more accurate to state that the participants in Occupy Wall Street (and the hundreds of solidarity occupations and protests around the country) are refusing to reduce their diverse grievances with capitalism to a single, one-size-fits-all message.

A Middle Class Occupation?

The significant presence of middle class participants in Occupy Wall Street entices both media coverage and media derision for, of all things, privilege on the part of the participants. (One wonders where these network experts on oppression and identity politics were when Troy Davis was murdered.) It is important to recognize the middle class influence on Occupy Wall Street without doing the corporate journalists’ work for them and undermining solidarity.

If a significant portion of the United States’ middle class is beginning to realize that capitalism is not a stable system of human organization, then that is a very good thing. It is also relevant to point out that the involvement of many people has been spurred by the fact that capitalism has finally begun to imperil their privilege. Some of us are surprised that they’re surprised. After all, the far majority of the world’s human population has been living in abject poverty for generations as a direct result of these very same policies that shore up the One Percent.

The past 500 years of history display an ever-accelerating rate of resource extraction and wealth centralization. First the colonial empires pillaged the new world, then the dueling capitalist and communist power blocs robbed free trades zones and annexed bloc territories, then the corporatist middle and upper classes plundered the working class de-industrialized zones, and finally the top one percent is poised to take the very last drop from what remains of the middle class. So are we justifiably a little frustrated with someone only showing up last month to a five hundred year fight for the survival of all life on Earth? Sure. But I’m still glad to see them.

Maximizing Potential: From Protest to Resistance

At this stage, Occupy Wall Street is two things: a symbolic protest and a public conversation on systemic inequality. It continues to gain momentum by drawing disparate groups together who recognize the indignity of living under capitalism. By refusing to issue demands or craft political platforms, the participants have in effect created a “big tent” under which any party aggrieved by the economic order can share space, ideas and resources. Basic solidarity and mutual aid on this level have long been in short supply in the United States. We can hope that these become most enduring legacies of Occupy Wall Street.

What Occupy Wall Street is not, however, is an occupation. Allow me to repeat that. Occupy Wall Street is not an occupation unless by that you are referring to its part in the ongoing occupation of Lenape tribal lands. The participants have set up a permitted encampment that is surrounded on all sides uniformed cops and heavily infiltrated by undercover cops. They are subject to selective enforcement of noise and assembly ordinances as well as arbitrary and violent arrests. As Malcolm Harris pointed out in his sympathetic critique of the demonstration, “this is what’s behind every picture you’ve seen of Zucotti Park.”

It was a momentous step for tens thousands of us to get out from in front of our TVs and computers and into the streets, and for us to force this conversation into the mainstream. However, let no one delude themselves into believing that being surrounded by heavily armed riot cops is negotiating from a position of power. It is a dangerous misconception that following directions from police (who are apparently not the enemy, they just accept money to protect the enemy from accountability) will keep us safe from harm. It is a dangerous misconception to believe that we can effect lasting systemic change by simply speaking truth to power. Those in power–be it corporate, government, military or police–are very aware of the economic conditions that allow them disproportionate control over politics and daily life. They will not concede their positions voluntarily, most especially not because someone convinces them that it’s unfair.

Every major social justice movement in the history of this country, from labor organizing to the women’s suffrage to the Civil Rights movement, depended on direct action to achieve lasting gains. This is the process of moving beyond a petition for the redress of grievances and moving toward a community oriented address of grievances without the consent of the politicians, CEOs, generals or cops. Being peaceful is not the same thing as being passive.

Occupy Together as Radicals

There is always more to say and even more to do. For whatever it’s worth, we support Occupy Wall Street completely. We also know that it will be dead in the water by New Year’s unless it continues to evolve. Radicals can seize this moment and be a driving force in that evolution. We can do this by continuing to take part in honest discussions with others and, more importantly, demonstrating the effectiveness of our tactics. This doesn’t have to involve the participation of everyone at an “occupation” and, in fact, it probably shouldn’t. A series of coordinated, well-planned affinity group actions specifically designed to avoid a violent police crackdown (inasmuch as this is possible and acknowledging also that police are responsible for police violence) would be a tremendous boon to Occupy Wall Street.

Here are just a few examples of things people could try:

•Using radio scanners to monitor police communications and liveblogging that information.

•Researching specific One Percenters, making public their nefarious deeds, and then organizing SHAC-style demonstrations at their homes and offices.

•Offering trainings on elementary street tactics (which could have potentially helped hundreds evade arrest last week on the Brooklyn bridge).

•Staging real occupations, lockdowns and disruptions of corporate offices.

•Organizing bank runs.

•And many more that we cannot legally advocate!

In Short…

Occupy Wall Street could be the start of real revolutionary change or it could just be the death throes of the middle class. Which one depends entirely on how disciplined we can be in the pursuit of a post-capitalist society. We do not need a share in their plundered wealth. We do not need to be another complacent generation, standing by as the world burns and knowing that things will be worse for our children. It is time to stop asking. It is time to start making and taking.


Will Veganism Be Relevant for Another 70 Years?

September 22, 2011

When Donald Watson, Sally Shrigley and 23 of their friends founded the Vegan Society on November 1st, 1944, the world was a very different place. It was no accident that veganism, a term coined by Watson, was gaining traction during the waning months of World War II. As the sun set on the old seafaring empires, many Europeans looked around at the devastation wrought by industrial warfare and knew there had to be another way. Unfortunately, Truman, Stalin and Churchill had other ideas. The politicians, industrialists and assorted war profiteers who had done quite well for themselves during war years wasted little time in consolidating their power. While the United States and Soviet empires rose, anarchists and the political left did their best to recover from the repression of the war years. Egalitarian visionaries like Watson sought to pioneer new ways of living that could leave the violence of war and slaughter in the past. So why didn’t we?

The history of strategic boycotts is storied and, in the years leading up to the birth of Donald Watson’s Vegan Society, they had been used to varying degrees of success. From the National Negro League’s boycott of goods produced by slave labor in 1830 to Gandhian Swadeshi during the struggle for Indian independence to the Jewish-organized boycott of the Ford Motor Company over its ties to the Third Reich, there was ample historical precedent to suggest that coordinated denial of popular economic support could result in at least a degree systemic reform.

Much has changed in the years intervening 1944 and 2011. While veganism as a simple boycott may have seemed a sufficient strategy 67 years ago in a pre-global marketplace, we can no longer expect to shop our way to the revolution. Ultimately, efforts at action that do not address the root causes of systemic exploitation will result in the recuperation of veganism by institutional power. As we discussed in an earlier post, global capitalism depends upon an ever-increasing margin of profit maximization through resource extraction. Even if we are naive enough to believe that we can minimize the effects of this extraction through the reform of its most brutal aspects, the capitalist logic always seeks a greater rate of extractive efficiency. The only equilibrium sought by this system is that of a dead planet on which every last resource has been exploited to the point of inutility. This is incompatible with the ethics of veganism and, as such, any serious vegan needs to be as serious about organizing against global capitalism as they are about boycotting meat and dairy products.

A visit to your (gentrified) neighborhood Whole Foods Market showcases how even an ethos as sound as veganism can be transformed into a class wedge. Paying major corporations to transform society for us is not a viable political strategy. When we engage with veganism exclusively as consumers, we are falling prey to the same marketing tricks that legitimize humane meat (sic): that a guilt free lifestyle only costs a few extra dollars per week. This lack of strategy ensures that veganism will die a quiet death in a subcultural, middle class ghetto of our own creation. The ecological devastation and murdering of biodiversity brought about by industrial soy plantations is how capitalism interprets veganism. If veganism is not anti-capitalist, then it is useless, except perhaps to let us witness a mass extinction in slower motion.

None of this is to say that the boycott aspect of veganism lacks relevance, only that we cannot expect to make social progress by engaging in the ethic of veganism solely as consumers. Boycotts have been used in the past as powerful organizing tools. They are embodied demonstrations of strength, solidarity, discipline and unity. They are beacons to others who care but feel disempowered or isolated. We are here, we are poised and every person who comes with us adds to the historical inertia of our movement.

The boycott may only be our first step as a movement but it’s not the only one we’ve made in 70 years. The Hunt Saboteurs Association, the Band of Mercy, the Animal Liberation Front, the Liberation Leagues, SHAC and the Animal Defense Leagues all represent strategic advancements in the struggle for animal liberation. Whether or not one agrees with any particular tactic utilized by these groups, it is important to study their history. If you are someone for whom veganism is a political act, then it is your history. In order for this movement to maintain relevance for another 70 years, we need to be unafraid of its evolution from reaction to anti-capitalist organizing tool to post-capitalist social foundation.

In an upcoming post, we will discuss practical strategies for vegan anti-capitalist organizing beyond the boycott.

Some recommended reading:

Against All Odds–A concise, strategic look at the pre-SHAC campaigning era in England.

From Dusk Til Dawn–This book is absolutely sprawling. It’s not the kind of thing you want to sit down and read cover to cover. That said, it chronicles 40 years of movement history in the words of somebody who was there to witness and participate in it.

Green is the New Red–Picks up where Keith Mann leaves off on the other side of the Atlantic. Will Potter’s incisive take on the post-9/11 crackdown on civil liberties with a focus on the animal liberation and radical environmental movements.