Take Up the Baton

This is not a manifesto. Manifestos provide a glimpse of a world to come and also call into being the subject, who although now only a specter must materialize to become the agent of change.

This is not a manifesto. Manifestos provide a glimpse of a world to come and also call into being the subject, who although now only a specter must materialize to become the agent of change. Manifestos work like the ancient prophets, who by the power of their vision create their own people. Today’s social movements have reversed the order, making manifestos and prophets obsolete. Agents of change have already descended into the streets and occupied city squares, not only threatening and toppling rulers but also conjuring visions of a new world. More important, perhaps, the multitudes, through their logics and practices, their slogans and desires, have declared a new set of principles and truths. How can their declaration become the basis for constituting a new and sustainable society? How can those principles and truths guide us in reinventing how we relate to each other and our world? In their rebellion, the multitudes must discover the passage from declaration to constitution.

Early in 2011, in the depths of social and economic crises characterized by radical inequality, common sense seemed to dictate that we trust the decisions and guidance of the ruling powers, lest even greater disasters befall us. The financial and governmental rulers may be tyrants, and they may have been primarily responsible for creating the crises, but we had no choice. During the course of 2011, however, a series of social struggles shattered that common sense and began to construct a new one. Occupy Wall Street was the most visible but was only one moment in a cycle of struggles that shifted the terrain of political debate and opened new possibilities for political action over the course of the year.

Two thousand eleven began early. On 17 December 2010 in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, twenty-six-year-old street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, who was reported to have earned a computer science degree, set himself on fire. By the end of the month, mass revolts had spread to Tunis with the demand, “Ben Ali dégage!” and indeed by the middle of January, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was already gone. Egyptians took up the baton and, with tens and hundreds of thousands regularly coming out in the streets starting in late January, demanded that Hosni Mubarak go too. Cairo’s Tahrir Square was occupied for a mere eighteen days before Mubarak departed.

Protests against repressive regimes spread quickly to other countries in North Africa and the Middle East, including Bahrain and Yemen and eventually Libya and Syria, but the initial spark in Tunisia and Egypt also caught fire farther away. The protesters occupying the Wisconsin statehouse in February and March expressed solidarity and recognized resonance with their counterparts in Cairo, but the crucial step began on 15 May in the occupations of central squares in Madrid and Barcelona by the so-called indignados. The Spanish encampments took inspiration from the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts and carried forward their struggles in new ways. Against the socialist-led government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, they demanded, “Democracia real ya,” refusing the representation of all political parties, and they forwarded a wide range of social protests, from the corruption of the banks to unemployment, from the lack of social services to insufficient housing and the injustice of evictions. Millions of Spaniards participated in the movement, and the vast majority of the population supported their demands. In occupied squares the indignados formed assemblies for decision-making and investigative commissions to explore a range of social issues.

Even before the encampments in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol were dismantled in June, the Greeks had taken up the baton from the indignados and occupied Syntagma Square in Athens to protest against austerity measures. Not long after, tents sprang up on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard to demand social justice and welfare for Israelis. In early August, after police shot a black Briton, riots broke out in Tottenham and spread throughout England.

When a few hundred pioneer occupiers brought their tents to New York’s Zuccotti Park on 17 September, then, it was their turn to take up the baton. And indeed their actions and the spread of the movements in the United States and across the world have to be understood with the year’s experiences at their backs.

Many who are not part of the struggles have trouble seeing the connections in this list of events. The North African rebellions opposed repressive regimes and their demands centered on the removal of tyrants, whereas the wide-ranging social demands of the encampments in Europe, the United States, and Israel addressed representative constitutional systems. Furthermore, the Israeli tent protest (don’t call it an occupation!) delicately balanced demands so as to remain silent about questions of settlements and Palestinian rights; the Greeks are facing sovereign debt and austerity measures of historic proportions; and the indignation of the British rioters addressed a long history of racial hierarchy — and they didn’t even pitch tents.

Each of these struggles is singular and oriented toward specific local conditions. The first thing to notice, though, is that they did, in fact, speak to one another. The Egyptians, of course, clearly moved down paths traveled by the Tunisians and adopted their slogans, but the occupiers of Puerta del Sol also thought of their struggle as carrying on the experiences of those at Tahrir. In turn, the eyes of those in Athens and Tel Aviv were focused on the experiences of Madrid and Cairo. The Wall Street occupiers had them all in view, translating, for instance, the struggle against the tyrant into a struggle against the tyranny of finance. You may think that they were just deluded and forgot or ignored the differences in their situations and demands. We believe, however, that they have a clearer vision than those outside the struggle, and they can hold together without contradiction their singular conditions and local battles with the common global struggle.

Ralph Ellison’s invisible man, after an arduous journey through a racist society, developed the ability to communicate with others in struggle. “Who knows,” Ellison’s narrator concludes, “but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” Today, too, those in struggle communicate on the lower frequencies, but, unlike in Ellison’s time, no one speaks for them. The lower frequencies are open airwaves for all. And some messages can be heard only by those in struggle.

These movements do, of course, share a series of characteristics, the most obvious of which is the strategy of encampment or occupation. A decade ago the alterglobalization movements were nomadic. They migrated from one summit meeting to the next, illuminating the injustices and antidemocratic nature of a series of key institutions of the global power system: the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the G8 national leaders, among others. The cycle of struggles that began in 2011, in contrast, is sedentary. Instead of roaming according to the calendar of the summit meetings, these movements stay put and, in fact, refuse to move. Their immobility is partly due to the fact that they are so deeply rooted in local and national social issues.

The movements also share their internal organization as a multitude. The foreign press corps searched desperately in Tunisia and Egypt for a leader of the movements. During the most intense period of the Tahrir Square occupation, for example, they would each day presume a different figure was the real leader: one day it was Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Prize winner, the next day Google executive Wael Ghonim, and so forth. What the media couldn’t understand or accept was that there was no leader in Tahrir Square. The movements’ refusal to have a leader was recognizable throughout the year but perhaps was most pronounced in Wall Street. A series of intellectuals and celebrities made appearances at Zuccotti Park, but no one could consider any of them leaders; they were guests of the multitude. From Cairo and Madrid to Athens and New York, the movements instead developed horizontal mechanisms for organization. They didn’t build headquarters or form central committees but spread out like swarms, and most important, they created democratic practices of decision making so that all participants could lead together.

A third characteristic that the movements exhibit, albeit in different ways, is what we conceive as a struggle for the common. In some cases this has been expressed in flames. When Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire, his protest was understood to be against not only the abuse he suffered at the hands of the local police but also the widely shared social and economic plight of workers in the country, many of whom are unable to find work adequate to their education. Indeed in both Tunisia and Egypt the loud calls to remove the tyrant made many observers deaf to the profound social and economic issues at stake in the movements, as well as the crucial actions of the trade unions. The August fires of rioting in London also expressed protest against the current economic and social order. Like the Parisian rioters in 2005 and those in Los Angeles more than a decade before, the indignation of Britons responded to a complex set of social issues, the most central of which is racial subordination. But the burning and looting in each of these cases also responds to the power of commodities and the rule of property, which are themselves, of course, often vehicles of racial subordination. These are struggles for the common, then, in the sense that they contest the injustices of neoliberalism and, ultimately, the rule of private property. But that does not make them socialist. In fact, we see very little of traditional socialist movements in this cycle of struggles. And as much as struggles for the common contest the rule of private property, they equally oppose the rule of public property and the control of the state.

In this pamphlet we aim to address the desires and accomplishments of the cycle of struggles that erupted in 2011, but we do so not by analyzing them directly. Instead we begin by investigating the general social and political conditions in which they arise. Our point of attack here is the dominant forms of subjectivity produced in the context of the current social and political crisis. We engage four primary subjective figures — the indebted, the mediatized, the securitized, and the represented — all of which are impoverished and their powers for social action are masked or mystified.

Movements of revolt and rebellion, we find, provide us the means not only to refuse the repressive regimes under which these subjective figures suffer but also to invert these subjectivities in figures of power. They discover, in other words, new forms of independence and security on economic as well as social and communicational terrains, which together create the potential to throw off systems of political representation and assert their own powers of democratic action. These are some of the accomplishments that the movements have already realized and can develop further.

To consolidate and heighten the powers of such subjectivities, though, another step is needed. The movements, in effect, already provide a series of constitutional principles that can be the basis for a constituent process. One of the most radical and far-reaching elements of this cycle of movements, for example, has been the rejection of representation and the construction instead of schemas of democratic participation. These movements also give new meanings to freedom, our relation to the common, and a series of central political arrangements, which far exceed the bounds of the current republican constitutions. These meanings are now already becoming part of a new common sense. They are foundational principles that we already take to be inalienable rights, like those that were heralded in the course of the eighteenth-century revolutions.

The task is not to codify new social relations in a fixed order, but instead to create a constituent process that organizes those relations and makes them lasting while also fostering future innovations and remaining open to the desires of the multitude. The movements have declared a new independence, and a constituent power must carry that forward.