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Quo Vadis, Domine?

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It’s my contention that any revolutionary action, if it’s to succeed, must involve the right combination of theory and practice, for insofar as practice informs theory, the converse is also true.

Which isn’t to say one is a substitute for the other or vice versa – there is no substitute for putting one’s body on the line when moral force is the only force at people’s disposal against guns and brute force, let’s be clear about that! – nor is one necessarily preemptive of the other. In the best of all possible worlds, both should co-exist. Nor is it to say we can always tell what the right combination is. The exact dynamic of a movement is impossible to foretell, for all movements have a life all their own, their own life-expectancies and trajectories, many possible futures. All that’s being asserted right now, this relationship shouldn’t be ignored (if only for tactical reasons).

It might be presumptuous under the circumstances to argue on behalf of any value to be attached to leadership per se (a cadre or a vanguard are some of the more derogatory terms). Indeed, the very idea of leadership appears to run counter to the very idea of a true democratic process, the idea of direct participation and that of the General Assembly, of casting of lots, and I can’t help but totally concur. And yet . . .

When we look at the composition of the GAs across the many OWS sites, and if we’re indeed to take OWS at its own word as offering us a kind of pro forma, a boiler plate for reinstating true democratic practices and processes the world over, we get a different idea. We see that consensus, that most desirable end-product of the democratic process, is deemed attainable only within the confines of small groups, and moreover, that it’s built incrementally.

True, we’ve seen a proliferation of many such groups, each trying to do their bit and stay true to their task. The question of how these groups may or may not eventually coalesce and extend concentrically so as to make the consensus widespread needn’t concern us at this point, Suffice it to say, consensus can only be reached in small groups, where anyone and everyone has ample opportunity to speak as well as listen.

To bring these considerations into sharper focus, I don’t see how my application of OWS’s own formula to the theoretical rather than the practical changes anything or violates the protocol; nor do I see why I should be called an elitist for suggesting what some might regard as heresy. I can well understand, I suppose, the outrage on the part of my many comrades-in-arms for my staying untrue to the democratic principles. And the usual gamut of objections would run here from accusations to the effect that I’m against any horizontal type of organizational structure, that I’m an autocrat, to God knows what else.

To which I say, my friends are guilty of jumping the gun, of putting the proverbial cart before the horse. In their quite understandable desire for immediate results and instant resolution, fired besides by their revolutionary zeal which indeed is hard to resist, they forget that any meaningful social change is a process, most often a painstaking process. It must have a respectable beginning; but then again, in order to stay the course, it must also have a respectable follow-through and a respectable ending.

It’s like a three-act play, really, a well-formed reality play! (Umberto Eco made that point perfectly clear when he observed in one of this essays, “Language, Power, Force,” that the storming of the Bastille was just icing on the cake.) As to the satire part, the epilogue, I suppose we can all wait and see, and then laugh at ourselves if and when we can.

Consequently, I have no apology to make for my theoretical rather than practical bias. Part of it is dictated by circumstances, a far larger part by natural inclination. We all must do what we can and what we do best; the revolution demands it. No effort should be demeaned or made light of so long as we’re working for the same cause. And there should be no litmus test either as to who is or who is not a true revolutionary, whether in terms of their ideas or whether their boots are on the ground. It’s precisely this kind of thinking which led to the Reign of Terror in the post-revolutionary France, all in the name of purity, commitment and whatnot – the ever-present suspicion that the fellow next to you was a traitor.

In defense of thought, however, as opposed to “pure” action, let me fall back on an example or two. Lenin’s speeches, for instance, have certainly gone a long way to mobilize the Russian masses. And it was no different with Marx’s Communist Manifesto which, more so than Das Kapital, his more authoritative work, made the communist ideal alive to this very day.

This is not to defend the intellectual, don’t get me wrong, only the power of the idea. Each of us has his or her work cut out for us and it’s our responsibility to do what we do best. So no, I’m not going to become a philistine all of a sudden or someone I’m simply not just because the revolution is on. That’s not my idea of revolutionary purity or staying true to the cause. Besides, how could I stay true to the cause if I can’t stay true to myself?

Now, more than ever, after OWS has suffered its first symbolic defeat – the Zuchotti Park eviction, I mean – at the hands of an increasingly militaristic state, it’s time to take five, to regroup and to reflect. The future is always uncertain, full of all manner of unexpected obstacles, detours, surprises and whatnot. But none of this really matters, no more than a walk in the woods matters, unless you’re without a compass or a clear sense of direction. So yes, it all comes down to this vision thing, where we are and whither we’re going.

Quo Vadis, Domine?

Say what you will, but education and thinking do matter. Self-education first, for how can we expect to speak the truth unless we be convinced first in our heart of hearts it is the truth? The second component, the communication aspect, is a bit more tricky, but I think a case can still be made. Not so much when it concerns the oppressed folk, those who are being dominated and have suffered all manner of indignity since day one. They know the truth intuitively, instinctively, because suffering and injustice sharpen your consciousness: it makes you see. Whom then?

This is the tricky part, for I suppose we also must reach the “movers and the shakers,” the presumed though unacknowledged and self-effacing “leaders” of the people’s movement; and marginally, to the extent possible, even the backsliders, those who’re still on the fence.

Again, I don’t believe I’m compromising any of my principles here, only being realistic. In order for any movement, however righteous, to succeed, it must have the critical mass behind it, that, plus a winning strategy. Truth alone won’t do it unless it’s preached from the rooftops. Lenin was a first-class tactician, none better; and so was Marx to an extent. We need people like that.

The panel discussion at the New School, featuring Michael Moore, Naomi Klein and some others, is a real treat, and you shouldn’t miss it if your life depended on it – yes, two-hours long but worth every precious minute of it. For those of us who are either sound-bytes bound or expect instantaneous results, let me suggest, however, two clips: the first, starting at about ninety minutes into the presentation, the second, at about one hour and forty four minutes. The first deals with structural problems we’re facing, that democracy is facing; the second, with the importance of self-education as a prerequisite to educating “the leaders” and the masses. If you haven’t the patience to view the entire discussion, your owe it to yourself to view these two clips.

Which brings another topic into sharp relief, perhaps the unexpected find of these deliberations, if not the most important one: the idea of pluralism (tolerance, really!) in the context of an open, democratic society. I used to think tolerance was a standalone virtue, divorced from any consideration as to context. No longer!

It now occurs to me that true tolerance can flourish only as a backdrop against fully established, moral and democratic values. In the absence of any such, the term is meaningless. It’s just like with deviance, which derives its meaning from what’s considered “normal.”

Well, it’s no different with tolerance, I say. To tolerate anything or anyone must presuppose a standard, a generally agreed-upon standard. And that standard had better be either a tacit or a fully-expressed agreement as to what the dominant values are, and again, they better be democratic and moral values – the only true basis for building any worthwhile and lasting consensus.

Under the circumstances, I find it rather ironic that one of my most vociferous opponents to forming a small group discussion project, and the main objection amounted to my insistence on a measure of “exclusivity,” had started deleting comments on his own community board platform as soon as some comments were deemed somewhat “less than constructive.” Quite a turnaround, I say.

Isn’t it a better strategy, I ask, to start on the less ambitious foot, by reaching the desirable accord (even if it be among the dedicated few) and then expand outwards? Before we can have total inclusion, we must have some exclusion. How else are we to turn those who are resistant or simply uncompliant, how are we to turn them to true faith if not by establishing a precedent, an example, even a form of ostracism for being defiant. But as I said, any true revolution is a process.

As to my defense of the intellectual (or the warrior, as the case may be), let me cite from the conclusion of Seven Samurai, the perennial classic by Akira Kurosawa (available for viewing and re-viewing through Hulu Plus, to include all Janus Films featuring the unforgettable Ingmar Bergman):

“In the end we lost the battle too.”
“I mean the victory belongs to the peasants, not to us.”

Now, I submit these heart-rending lines don’t demonstrate any lack of faith in the people but precisely the opposite. Once the work is done, there’s nothing for the intellectual or the warrior to do but to fade away.

The people will have taken over, and so it shall remain.

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About Roger Nowosielski

  • It’s a good thing that OWS serves as a platform to take on any number of issues. That might be the ticket to generate popular support behind it.

    I’m addressing this and similar issues in the upcoming article, and will notify you by email once published. Meanwhile, I can’t help being somewhat pessimistic.

  • See this story.

    It’s not immediately obvious how to attack the problem using direct action, but I’m sure people can figure something out if they try. The action should be led by the most concerned, however. On the whole, they may prefer to work through the courts rather than go the route of direct confrontation at this time.

    Another cause simmering along is the foreclosure epidemic. Some groups are seizing houses and turning them over to their former inhabitants or other homeless people. There is less of this in New York City because extensive infusions of Chinese real-estate money (I don’t know why) are more or less holding prices up, so many fewer houses and condos are underwater than elsewhere, and while there is plenty of unemployment it hasn’t gotten severely worse — yet.

  • Are the African-Americans and the people of color singled out as bearing the greatest brunt of this kind of justice?

    Surely, they have a far greater stake to see such policies bite the dust than the privileged whites. Are the contemplated street actions expressly organized on behalf of those groups? because that would be the right thing to do.

    It might turn OWS away from its parochially-defined interests in terms of rising tuition costs and the disappearance of the American Dream.

  • Well, here in New York City, as a potential target there’s the stop-and-frisk practices of the police, a blatant, egregious violation of the 4th Amendment. The ACLU is trying to stop them through the courts, but a series of street actions involving more than the locals might have some effect.

  • I perfectly understand, and judging by the record, the attitude is quite justifiable.

  • Igor

    IMO it’s difficult for black Americans to embrace OWS because their history has taught them to have a certain diffidence and skepticism about whitemans social projects. And you can’t blame them. You’ll notice that in Europe blacks are more easily accepted in social reform and more accepting of them. It seems to be normal.

  • Again, I don’t disagree with you, just think it would be a waste if it came down into history as but another “white people movement.” Even as a myth, it wouldn’t be that powerful.

    Of course, the African-Americans must themselves decide whether it’s a struggle they ought to embrace; OWS is powerless about that.

    I do like your formulation — “one stage in a long process of working out certain social forces.”

  • I don’t know the details of the John Lewis event, but here in New York, when the first celebrities began to show up (Michael Moore and Susan Sarandon) they were quite surprised when everyone didn’t drop whatever they were doing to dance attendance upon them. Later, OWS changed or something happened, because other celebrities and authorities were able to hold ‘seminars’ of doubtlessly rapt disciples. That apparently includes the indefatigable Michael Moore, who reported himself as meeting with ‘forty plus’ others (not worthy of being named) to define the ‘vision and goals’ of the movement, as if it didn’t already have vision and goals and Michael Moore was needed to supply it with some.

    Needless to say, I liked the earlier version of OWS.

    My comments about why more Black people don’t show up for various activist events isn’t cynical, it’s a simple observation of well-known facts: discriminated classes pay a higher price for opposing the order of things, and they have to pick their battles carefully. It doesn’t apply only to OWS.

    As I said before, I don’t think OWS has a future. Instead, I think it has many pasts and many futures, some of which will be barely recognizable. It’s one event, one stage in a long process of working out certain social forces, such as the desire to escape from slavery. Of course it could be institutionalized into a thing after which it will be part of the problem.

  • @23

    Valuable links, GradyLee, Lukes and Gaventa. Especially the focus on “power” is well-taken, quite reminiscent of the Foucauldian themes with the bit of old farts like Durkheim thrown into the mix. I like your choice of reading material.

    So here’s the mission, should you choose to accept it, dear sir. Since you’re “an expert” in Foucauldian studies (and so am I, proud to say), the first thing on the burner may as well be re-conceptualization of “power” as a positive concept, especially in light of OWS which provides us with the proper context: e.g., bypassing the existing social and political institutions and structures by establishing brand-new centers of power first locally and then outwards. Although Foucault and William James have said pretty much all there is to be said on the subject, I’m certain there’s still a great deal to be mined by way of practical or theoretical implications, not to mention available strategies, in light of the present developments.

    Cindy’s obsessed with the subject of “indoctrination,” which could be expanded to include ideology and culture, and that would be her forte: I’d be more than happy to relinquish the lead. Mark Eden (aka “troll”) has recently raised the important topic of “representation,” so he’d be a natural to take the initiative, and we’d all chip in and do our best. As to yours truly, I’d introduce the moral component into the mix, to serve as a corrective, as it were, a way out from the “indoctrination morass.”

    I have been in contact with Shenonymous, and at first she was being very responsive until I challenged some of her points; then she became hostile. Now, that’s an example of a puffed up ego, and it’s a pity since her erudition and education would definitely be a big plus. Shall see, though.

    As to our goddess Anarcissie, I’d be quite content if she were to remain our Pallas Athena, ever judicious, all-wise, and perfect in every way.

    In any case, one doesn’t have to wait until all votes are counted. Even a modest start would be a step in the right direction. One has to teach by example. The rest may follow suit.

    But that’s enough on the subject. I’d better retire before I hurt anyone’s feelings.

  • Sorry about the hyperlinks in #25. They just get formed aside from the person’s intent.

    Another advertising gimmick recurring with ever greater frequency on the internet.

  • Thanks for visiting, GradyLee, especially since my two longtime friends are either suffering from temporary amnesia or appear to have forsaken me. It’s difficult to carry on a conversation with oneself.

    Come to think of it, the antiwar movement, along with the counter-culture revolution of the sixties, were for the most part a unique product of a middle to upper-middle class educated and privileged white female & male. And Anarcissie’s also spot on when she points out that the participation by whites in the civil rights struggle was limited to the usual suspects. So there definitely are old wounds and “I’ve told you so” type of mentality, I well recognize that.

    Which is precisely why the voices by such as Dr. West or Tavis Smiley are invaluable. And those voices must be directed at their own people, not at OWS.

    Of course, OWS didn’t do itself great favor when, while infected no doubt by its revolutionary zeal, it shunned John Lewis at the Atlanta site.

    Dunno much about John Lewis, but rather shortsighted, I’d say.

  • @22


    Rather cynical view, Anarcissie — not that I disagree with most of your points.

    Apart from the Times editorial policy (which, granted, has a stake in the establishment), don’t you think that at least some of the contributors may have considerable leeway? If the article I linked to is indeed just another example of Times propaganda, than I submit to you that it’s as fine a work of art as Herr Goebbels has even produced.

    You speak of the “divide and conquer” strategy, and I agree, but has has speaking the truth got to do with it? How is pointing out that many black churches are in the pockets of corporate donors, just as Vatican or our institutions of higher learning are, an example of “divide & conquer”? Does one have to be Cornel West or Martin Luther King Jr. to be free of the stain — for you are painting with a broad brush — and be able to see the commonality of purpose so as to transcend the racial and economic divide and speak to all the people with one voice? Someone has got to pick up the slack and mobilize the oppressed masses under the common banner (and for now, the French Revolution slogan will do). Who’s gonna fill their shoes?

    Indeed, Anarcissie, if matters are nearly as grim as you surmise, I don’t see much future for OWS, and I don’t mean anything like formation of a third party, only that humanity must rise together as one.

    If not now, then when?

  • GradyLeeHoward

    Anarcissie (22): It is a matter of racism, but it is more a matter of class status that is considered before any disadvantaged person physically joins Occupy. Just as no one can “be” Anonymous without hardware/software access and a requisite level of expertise; the assurance of such tangibles as a bed and food and bail may be an incentive. Hurdles of social psychology put in place by the differential power dynamic also impact participation. (Exclusion causes withdrawal.) There is much more on this in the works of Steven Lukes and John Gaventa.

  • In regard to the presence of Black people at OWS and other protests, it is well to keep in mind that they have to expect to pay a much higher price in terms of police violence and juridical malfeasance than middle-class White people. Thus they have to pick their battles carefully with not-too-remote, concrete goals in mind. For example, those proposed by the Civil Rights movement (which, incidentally, not that many White people supported).

    In any case, we can expect the Times and WaPo to exploit and expand any kind of difference or conflict among the lower orders. Divide et impera.

  • Fascinating article from NYT about the genesis of OWS, dating back to 2007.

    Invaluable, too, for a chuck-full of great links.

  • I’m certain that’s the case for Occupy Oakland; and yes, NYC too is a mixed bag.

    But I don’t think we see the kind of involvement which defined the civil rights struggle. Of course, the issue was far more clearly defined then, so perhaps one shouldn’t use it as any kind of standard.

  • It’s odd, because in just about every news photo and report I see about the Occupy protests, half the faces are black.

  • Why Blacks Aren’t Embracing Occupy Wall Street.”

    A similar question could be raised with respect to the gays and women, with the same if not greater poignancy.

  • Smart strategy on the part of OWS — expose US duplicity and double standard: condemning the Egyptian military for violent tactics while selling the Egyptian the tear gas to quash the people’s rebellion.

    demonstration in front of the Egyptian consulate, NYC.

  • Drummers Scuffle

    Excellent piece of street theater, and people are having fun.

  • Amy catches up with the New School Seminar:


  • Occupy Thanksgiving, NY.

    The people are being fed.

  • Press conference on the destruction of the OWS library.

  • Typical NYPD double standard, Macy’s Thanksgiving parade is OK, but the occupiers aren’t allowed to have their fun.

    After all, they’re not supporting commercial interests and are unlikely to be doing any extensive Xmas shopping tomorrow.

  • Breaking news:

    Some draw hope from rare German weakness.

    Let’s hope Europe doesn’t follow the US lead by bestowing upon ECB (the European Central Bank) the same powers as we’ve done here. We certainly don’t need another Fed.

    If Europe is to fold on the economic front, let it do so of its own accord without any recourse to cosmetic alterations of window dressing, which amount to nothing but false hope. It’s better to look the disaster straight in the face instead of laboring under the illusion.

    Why prolong the agony?

  • @6

    But so is moral support …

  • LB, it wasn’t a matter of life and death. First, I’m not in everyday communication mode with Alan (it was he who brought my attention to the facts of the case). Second, you should know I don’t shy from a little controversy now and then. And third, I wanted to get things off my chest.

    I don’t see any great harm having been done. Now everything’s back to normal as far as I’m concerned. And I don’t think the people affected will hold it against me as though I committed any cardinal sin. I’m certain they’re bigger than that.

    Just the way of human communications, which are never perfect.

  • Alright, Anarcissie, I won’t argue with that.

  • ‘Opposition is true friendship.’ — William Blake

  • considering how easily the pertinent details were discovered, why were they not investigated before the article was published?

  • First off, let me state that via personal communication, Mr. Kurtz informed me that deleting his comments was by his own initiation, not the moderator’s. So the author wasn’t lying but was simply unaware of all the pertinent details. It wasn’t, however, an unreasonable assumption to make in light of the remark by Mr. Eden in the body of the comments to the effect that the input from the participants ought to be “constructive.”

    Second, I do agree that no one really opposed the formation of the group along the lines I envisaged; but then again, neither Anarcissie nor Mr.Eden had really supported the project. In the former case, the objection was raised that reaching consensus online, with certain notable exceptions, was a rather futile enterprise; in the latter, the project didn’t seem worthwhile enough in view of other, more important things on the burner (and I can’t really disagree with another person’s sense of priorities). Consequently, my use of language was more of an expression of frustration rather than reflective of the facts of the case, frustration in that the two persons whose input, views and opinions I continue to value fell short of being supportive.

    On a happier note, Happy Thanksgiving, everybody. We should give thanks not for what America had become but for the young people who have demonstrated a will and determination to change it.

    Our thoughts should be with them.

  • troll

    …that’s simply how Rog interprets my reluctance to participate in this instance

  • I was not aware that anyone opposed anyone else forming a small group discussion project, exclusive or not.

  • troll

    I find it rather ironic that one of my most vociferous opponents to forming a small group discussion project, and the main objection amounted to my insistence on a measure of “exclusivity,” had started deleting comments on his own community board platform as soon as some comments were deemed somewhat “less than constructive.”

    but for his Moonraven spam which was totally unrelated to the topic Alan Kurtz removed his own comments and was not excluded from the conversation…is the author lying here or simply unaware?