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We are the 99 percent

Articles tagged Theory Thursday

#TheoryThursday: We are Living in a Post-Theory Dystopia of Speed and Isolation

Posted 9 years ago on July 29, 2014, 4:46 p.m. EST by OccupyWallSt
Tags: Theory Thursday, Simon Critchley, Occupy Reboot

“When we asked the revolutionary philosopher Simon Critchley to help us understand the contemporary moment from a new perspective, he replied with a richly conceived work of political satire. We read it once and laughed. Then we read it again and again—each time finding another way of understanding the story.

Occupy Philosopher, Simon Critchley, is the celebrated author of numerous books including the classic of anarchism, Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance. He is a Professor of Philosophy at The New School and the Europäische Universität für Interdisziplinäre Studien (EGS) in Switzerland. Critchley’s contribution to Occupy’s Reboot is a meditation on dynamic social change and we are honored to share it with you today.” - Micah White

An evening, sometime in the near future…

Simon Critchley


26 Kadashevskaya nab. 115035 Moscow

January 1st, 2019

I guess we could all have seen it coming a few years back. Things really started to get worse around the end of 2013 and then dragged on into the long, cold winter months. That whole business with that guy, what was his name? Mountain in Wales. Snowden. That’s it. He went underground for a while and then emerged as the CEO of Bozhe Moi! (My God!): the amazing Russian search engine that overtook Google early in 2017. Totally wiped them out. I find it reassuringly old world and Le Carré-like to have the FSB watching all of us rather than the NSA.

Shortly after the President’s death, events moved fast. Well, suspicions were raised when they declared it accidental. Everyone knew it was suicide. He lost face (and faith) after that awful video circulated. You all know the one I mean. That was just after the attempted toppling of 1 WTC. Why did they build that thing? It looked like a huge robot schlong. It was lucky that only a couple of hundred people died in the rogue drone strike, but the building’s been empty - cursed - since then, apart from a shelter for the homeless on the ground floors. The city began to go bankrupt after whatshisname, De Blasio, was unable to raise taxes to pay for all the damage from the great storm of summer 2016. That was when the BBB movement (“Bring Back Bloomberg”) really got momentum. It turned out that people missed his bad Spanish at those press conferences. He’s been in power for a year now, even bringing back everyone’s pal, Ray Kelly. It’s just like old times.

Biden governed heroically, if ineffectively, until they called an early election due to the state of emergency. But he was never going to beat Chris Christie, particularly after Hillary had to pull out of the primaries because of that scandal with Anthony Weiner’s ex-wife. God that guy really embraced new technology. I think he’s still serving time. Chris Christie was a surprisingly popular president. It was like being governed by Tony Soprano. People love a benevolent despot. But I guess we weren’t surprised when the heart attack happened. He was inspecting the Acela line to Boston after it had been destroyed by floodwaters.

President Rubio has been in power for over a year now. He looks the very picture of health, glowing like the self-satisfied Miami sun when he speaks. Obamacare has been fully repealed, the rather minimal tax increases on the rich have been reversed, the federal budget has been slashed (his “War on Debt” campaign), and Rubio plans to implement the NRA’s proposal to arm all schoolkids. That’s equality. Everyone gets a gun. People seem to feel safer that way. Or they just stopped caring after that horrific school shooting in Greenport: the sixth one last year. I mean, who’s counting, right?

The truth is that national politics no longer seems to matter. Neither does the state. Cosmos is the new 1% international political force, set up by Jamie Dimon and other senior business figures from across the world. Its radical plan is to abandon all states and national borders and establish an independent league of mega-cities (initially New York, Shanghai, London, Tokyo, Mumbai, Moscow, but many others want to join) with its own police force and border agents. They’ve already begun to issue passports. It comes free when you sign up for their premium credit card. I have one here in my wallet. It has their catchy motto engraved on the titanium: “The world is ours. Make it yours”. They were initially called “The League of Rootless Cosmopolitans”. But they shortened their name: like the magazine, like the drink. The only political imperative was how to preserve the patina of liberalism while maintaining existing levels of inequality. Unsurprisingly, this is not that hard. It turns out that this is what we had anyway. A large proportion of the funding base for the Democratic Party has evaporated. Bozhe Moi! is also a big funder of the Cosmos party. Secession from their various states is expected to begin this year.

After the whole Google glasses debacle and the copycat suicides where people filmed their own deaths while wearing them, huge amounts of money were spent on lawsuits and the program was abandoned. Capital was poured into the development of what was called “inner space research.” There were various plans to insert probes under the skin at the wrist in order to internalize search functions with fingertip control. They also tried to develop an ultra-gossamer type mask where computer and skin surface would meet and merge. They called it “2 Skin”. It also failed. As did the plan to insert implants in the retina. The stroke of genius at Bozhe Moi! was realizing that the search engine and the whole apparatus could be run from a customized pair of headphones. People really like headphones. It turns out that there is still a huge difference between what you are prepared to stick in your eyes and your ears. I’m wearing mine right now to talk to you. The translate function means that everyone can speak any language they wish, which is what I do here in Moscow. Rosetta Stone is already a distant memory.

Of course, we knew that the rise of Bozhe Moi! was a soft authoritarian takeover. Old-fashioned leftists would proclaim that the promised means of our emancipation (the internet circa 1996. Remember that?) had merely shackled us more tightly in virtual servitude. Boring! I mean we read Foucault too when it still mattered. But the truth was that people didn’t really care about their privacy. Not really. Not even the Germans.

Wars came and went in the Middle East, huge populations were displaced and innocent civilians were killed. Business as usual. The pieces moved slightly on the global chessboard and then moved again. We stopped caring, particularly after the big broadcast networks began to fold – CNN was first. We knew less and less about world, particularly after all those attacks on BBC journalists. But life was just fine here. There is still no two-state or one-state solution in Israel and settlements are still being built. After the attacks on Iran following their nuclear tests, the Ayatollahs even took out a new fatwa on Salman Rushdie and one on Bono too, after he was involved in that hit musical about the Iranian Revolution. But I think they both still go to parties.

I guess the weirdest changes have been around sex. The omnipresence of the highest quality 3D pornography, combined with “sensorium” patches that went on sale in 2015, effectively killed it off. Together with the first cases of a fatal testicular cancer caused by a variant of the HPV virus that was said to be in 90% of the sexually active young male population. That got their attention.

This led to two trends. A sudden vogue, that summer, for reckless, public sex: in buses, parks, sidewalks, subways, everywhere. It became a kind of display of political indifference or even resistance among the poor, but it was picked up and imitated by a lot of college kids. They call themselves the “League of Lovers” or LOL as way of mocking the Cosmos. There continue to be many arrests and an African-American couple was shot last weekend for refusing to stop making love in Prospect Park. Not so much “Stop and Frisk” as “Stopping Friskiness.”

The other trend – less numerous, but much more influential - was the Cenobite movement, where people would pay significant amounts of money to live together but in such a way that they could remain apart and not constitute any kind of threat to each other. The first one was founded outside Warren, Vermont a few years back. But they have spread all across Vermont, New Hampshire and Upstate New York. After electing to withdraw from the world – what they call anachoreisis – each Cenobite is given an “anchorhold” where they can stay safe and warm with their devices and sleep. Any participation in public events is optional, but with the right use of a wonderful new anxiety medication called Atarax, cenobites are able to be together socially and even main eye contact without looking at their devices for up to two minutes. For fear of contagion, celibacy is the rule in all cenobite groups. This did not extend to masturbation, of course. That would have taken things too far.

People incapable of even this degree of social activity or who could not bear to be disconnected from their devices began to gather outside the Cenobite communities in more extreme group. They began to be called “Hamlet camps” or the “Inkies” after their customized black clothing, that was something between sports clothing and a Benedictine habit. The sign up fee is prohibitively high in order to pay for the private police force and guarantee exclusivity. But I hear that some of the “Inkies” are beginning to produce some really high-level electronic music.

New York City began to feel too much like Alexandria in the late fourth century and I decided to get out when the right job offer came through. I’ve been living in this hotel in Moscow for the last 6 months working for a contemporary art space funded by one of oligarchs behind the Cosmos. It’s alright. The Russians make a generic version of Atarax and I have a bodyguard and a driver. But I stay in the hotel most of the time as it’s too dangerous to go out. Oh, happy new year.



Theory Thursday: We Must Demand A Rent Tax by Andy Merrifield

Posted 10 years ago on July 16, 2014, 12:54 p.m. EST by Andy-Merrifield
Tags: global cities, economic growth, real estate, Theory Thursday, Andy Merrifield, urban development

“This is the inaugural article in a Theory Thursday series commissioned by the Occupy Solidarity Network to encourage intellectual curiosity, strategic thinking and tactical innovation within the global Occupy movement. To catalyze an Occupy reboot, we asked the greatest political philosophers of our movement to contribute a thought-piece. We will post one each week.

We begin with Andy Merrifield—a prolific political philosopher—because his work is woefully under-read in North America. And yet, he is one of the greats. For an introduction to Merrifield’s work, find yourself a copy of both The Wisdom of Donkeys: Finding Tranquility in a Chaotic World and Magical Marxism: Subversive Politics and the Imagination.” - Micah White

Anybody who glances at the latest literature on cities and urban development will see a lot of hype about “global cities” as engines of economic growth. Yet you’ve really got to wonder what cities these commentators have in mind? You’ve really got to wonder if big cities nowadays are actually about the “wealth of nations” (as Jane Jacobs proclaimed in the 1980s) or express some “triumph of the city” (Ed Glaeser’s patent). On the contrary, today's big cities have economies almost exclusively predicated on activities we could justifiably categorize as “parasitic.”

World cities are giant arenas where the most prominent activity is the activity of extorting land rent, of making land pay. London, like New York, like other megacities, is now rich pickings for the world’s super-elite. Its property market is a newer, safer investment haven (at least for the time being), a stock market in exile, a global reserve currency with bonanza rates of annualized return (currently around 10%), generating an inflationary spiral that squeezes other, more modest sectors of the housing and rental market.

The only thing that is truly entrepreneurial and creative about parasitic elites is the innovative way in which they’ve reclaimed the public sector, how they’ve used and abused the public sector to prime the private pump, to subsidize the accumulation of capital rather than the reproduction of people. “Creation” here seems more akin to creative accountancy and creative ways to avoid paying tax; creative devices to gouge make-believe fees from ordinary citizens (especially in utility bills); creative finagling of stock and financial markets (like LIBOR); creative destruction of competition to garner inflated monopoly rents and merchant profits; creative excuses to cadge money from the state. The list goes on, creatively. And when they parachute into cities, these “creative” parasitic classes have little use of public infrastructure anyway; their lives are so utterly privatized, geared only towards individual, market-oriented goods, that they bid up land values and property prices and hasten the abandonment of the public realm in the creative bargain.

“These are fiery, start-up movements and ideas that we, the people, can further fuel and develop.” - Andy Merrifield

When things go belly up, furthermore, as they inevitably do, when there are glitches within the overall economy, the state inevitably plays its ace card as a first line of defense, as a veritable executive committee managing the common affairs of a bourgeois and aristocratic super-elite, stepping in at the first signs of crisis—bailing out the bankrupted corporations, the debt-ridden, too-big-to-fail financial institutions, dishing out corporate welfare to multinationals, turning a blind-eye on tax avoidance and sleazy accountancy.

One string in the state’s bow is austerity governance. Austerity is manufactured consent, ruling class ideology, neatly fitting into the material needs of the 1%. Austerity enables parasitic predilections to flourish by opening up hitherto closed market niches: it lets primitive accumulation continue apace, condoning the flogging off of public sector assets and infrastructure, the fire-sales and free giveaways, the privatizations, etc., etc., all done in the name of cost control, of supposedly trimming bloated public budgets. What were once untouchable and non-negotiable collective use-values (public services) are now fair game for re-commodification, for snapping up cheaply by the predators only to resell at colossally dearer prices to those who can afford them.

Austerity conditions the global urbanization boom by nourishing the parasitic city. In parasitic cities, social wealth is consumed through conspicuously wasteful enterprises, administered by parasitic urban elites, who, acting like rentier aristocrats from the Gilded Age, now squander generative capacity by thriving off unproductive activities. They prosper from rents and interest-bearing assets, from shareholder dividends and fictitious fees. Paradoxically, they’ve amassed colossal wealth when corporate profits have dipped, defying economic gravity because rentiers have helped themselves to the commonwealth the world over. They’ve eaten away inside our social body, stripped peoples’ assets, made predatory loans to people who can’t afford these loans, repossessed homes, engineered land grabs and eminent domain to dispossess value rather than contribute anything toward its creation. They’ve simply invested in themselves rather than built up human capital, privatizing profit all the while as they socialize risk.

How can ordinary people develop civic immunity? One initial measure is to stop the billions of pounds and dollars draining from public finances because of corporate tax avoidance. Governments insist on belt-tightening policies, running down public service provision at the same time as they turn a blind eye on tax dodging companies and super-rich individuals, who’ve carved themselves up and re-registering head offices in offshore tax havens like the Cayman Islands, Monaco or Luxembourg, etc., etc. Already a groundswell of opposition has developed. Grassroots organizations in Britain like “UK Uncut” has adopted rambunctious and brilliantly innovative direct action occupations, creating scandals around tax-avoiding parasites like Vodafone (with its handy 0% income tax rate for 2012) and assorted banks like HSBC, Royal Bank of Scotland, Barclay’s and other Dodge City financial institutions.

Maybe there’s a sense in which tax reform and stamping down on bigwig tax avoidance can be revolutionary? Paris-based economist Thomas Piketty has lately been campaigning for a “fiscal revolution” [“révolution fiscale”]. While Piketty has stirred up debate in France, his manifesto has broader, European and global implications, given systems of taxation everywhere cannot be reformed: they need a complete overhaul, a thorough reconstitution on a new democratic basis, with a dual prong of equity and progressive taxation. Equity here boils down to applying the same fiscal logic to capital as to work, rallying around the development of a Financial Transactions Tax(FTT). In Britain and Europe, ordinary small-businesses and self-employed people are compelled to pay 20% Valued Added Tax (VAT) on profitable earnings, so why should we let financial institutions off the hook, particularly when they balk at even a miserly 0.01% penalty?

We might also bring the other aspect of that famous capitalist holy trinity—land—into the taxable bargain. Long ago in Poverty and Progress (1879), Henry George proposed a novel idea that we might want to explore today. In order to “satisfy the law of justice,” George said, a rent tax seems the only alternative preventing parasitic anti-social wealth appropriation. George, accordingly, declared that all land accruing inflated dividends for private investors should be subject to taxation. “I do not propose either to purchase or to confiscate private property in land,” George wrote. “Let individuals who now hold it still retain, if they want to, possession of what they are pleased to call their land. Let them continue to call it their land. Let them buy and sell it, and bequeath and devise it. We may safely leave them the shell, if we take the kernel. It is not necessary to confiscate land; it is only necessary to confiscate rent.

Thus that preeminent parasitic organism, the leech of landed property—“the monstrous power wielded by landed property,” Marx called it, “expelling people from the earth as a dwelling-place”—can be expunged, or at least democratized by a Community Land Trust that collects this rent tax, instigating another notion of the public realm, one not owned and managed by any centralized state but owned and run by a collectivization of people, federated, communal and truly responsive to citizens’ needs.

Likely the greatest fiscal reform and strongest prophylactic against parasitic urban invasion, though, is democracy, a strengthening of participatory democracy in the face of too much representative democracy, especially when representation means public servants intent on defending private gain. On this note, French philosopher Etienne Balibar has reversed the famous American Revolution mantra and Washington D.C. bumper sticker slogan—“no taxation without representation”—suggesting these days that “no representation without taxation” is more appropriate. Balibar concurs with Piketty, and even thinks that widespread political mobilization for such a “fiscal revolution” could be a key for converting the current “passive citizenship” of the populace into an “active citizenship.”

Active citizens need to engineer some planned shrinkage of the financial sector, and must wage war on monetary blood sucking in the same vein as ruling classes waged war on public services during the 1970s and 1980s. In 1976, then-New York City Housing Commissioner Roger Starr said the city, any city, needed separating into neighborhoods that were “productive” and “unproductive” on the tax base. The plan was to eliminate the unproductive ones, closing down the fire stations, police and sanitation services. Poor areas like the South Bronx suffered immeasurably. Ironically, the idea retains some purchase. Shrinking services that are unproductive drags on our tax base might boil down to financial services; and neighborhoods like London’s Mayfair, home of hedge funds and private equity companies, discreet behind iron-railed Victorian mews, spotlessly painted white, might be the first to be reclaimed. Indeed, as Nicholas Shaxson says, “Mayfair would be far more economically productive if it were turned into a giant waste-disposal center.”

Meanwhile, citizens can strike out at our “Creditocracy” (Andrew Ross’s label), and participate in a debtors’ movement, like Rolling Jubilee, Occupy Wall Street’s roving Strike Debt group, which hasn’t only waged war on the debt collector (college tuition debt alone stands at $1 trillion), but has likewise bailed out the people, organizing a committee to buy back $15 millions worth of household debt, at knockdown prices, on the secondary debt market. Rolling Jubilee has liberated debt at the same time as highlighted the grand larceny and absurdity of the growing debt racket.

These are fiery, start-up movements and ideas that we, the people, can further fuel and develop. We’ve sat back way too long watching our cities and society get repossessed by crooked investors and creditors, gaped helplessly as all this gets endorsed by career politicians and their administrators (or is that the other way around?) who no longer even pretend to want to change anything significant.

Andy Merrifield is a radical political philosopher. Merrifield has written several books including a biography of Situationist philosopher Guy Debord. His latest work is The New Urban Question forthcoming from London’s Pluto Press (March, 2014)


#TheoryThursday: Rethink Environmental Activism (On "Horizontal Hostility")

Posted 10 years ago on March 5, 2014, 3:15 p.m. EST by OccupyWallSt
Tags: environmentalism, Theory Thursday

OSN editors' note: Our friends at Earth First! published this much needed intervention into contemporary environmental activism. When will we North American activists learn to use the "lawful excuse defense"? Committing "illegal acts" in order to prevent the greater crime of climate change is not illegal. Learn about that here Not guilty: the Greenpeace activists who used climate change as a legal defense

Earth First! Journal editors note: This letter was originally published as a comment on our re-post about the No KXL protests in Washington D.C. this week. While we fully support a diversity of tactics, ranging from petitions and lawsuits to civil disobedience and sabotage, the critique made in this letter has been actively suppressed in environmental movement coverage of the climate crisis for fear of causing "horizontal hostility." We hope student and environmental NGO organizers will hear the loving pleas of "not enough" and take the constructive advice to "start listening to the people most affected and supporting their struggles." For example, support is needed right now to resist pipeline expansion in Wet'suwet'en territory!



Posted 10 years ago on Feb. 20, 2014, 10:58 a.m. EST by OccupyWallSt
Tags: Theory Thursday, Joan Donovan

Ed.Note: A frequent question to the team of the Occupy Solidarity Network is, “Why are you still here? Isn’t Occupy over?” The response is that we carry a moral responsibility to maintain and grow the networked communication hubs that we have been a part of building to help bring radical social change. Ms. Donovan’s article speaks to the importance of servicing, preserving, and lighting up these networks when needed. Additionally, this article speaks of how interconnected the networks are with on-the-ground work, and how one cannot happen without the other. Activists are only as good as the community that we organize and work with, so we honor all of you who work tirelessly organizing with information, resources, or people, one cannot work without the others. -Priscilla Grim

Occupy, Solidarities, and Social Movement Creation

by Joan Donovan

I am often asked, usually in a pejorative tone, “What has Occupy even accomplished?” As a sociologist though, these questions make me wonder “How do occupiers accomplish anything? How are projects made? How are they spread? Under what conditions are they successful? What do failed projects have in common?”

This has led me to study of very boring things, like infrastructure across multiple platforms. Here, I articulate how the Occupy movement communicates and coordinates action using the example of Occupy Sandy. I also introduce an idea that I am calling net work, i.e. the use of one’s free time in the service of a project involving multiple skills, knowledges, technologies, and people. It is concept closely related to Star’s work on infrastructure, where she describes infrastructure as a process and product where people ideas and technology are densely entangled. The concept of Net Work helps to better grasp how Occupiers organize without organizations. Important for Occupy, no one directs how the movement will unfold. Instead, people begin working on an idea, recruit some allies, and carry out action without knowing if another group is doing the same thing. The hacker ethos of “don’t propose, just do” helped Occupy become a multi-modal movement that melds online worlds and offline spaces. Focusing on how the communication infrastructure became formalized across occupy projects illustrates how occupiers as knowledge workers cull, assess, analyze, summarize, and distribute information in the service of the movement. I conclude with the example of Occupy Sandy to show how the forms of communication networks already used by occupiers were leveraged to provide direct aid to storm-torn communities.

Photo of black leaf

Those who participate in net work projects are often already employed as knowledge workers. Italian theorist Bifo Berardi describes them as the cognitariat, workers whose labor consists of spending a good deal of their time thinking about and moving knowledge from one place to another. They gather, analyze, and assess data, facilitate collaboration and think critically about future directions. In the case of Occupy, the cognitariat remix the corporate space of social media for their own purposes, while also taking up public space or “privately owned public spaces” (POPS) as a way to challenge corporate rule. I argue that net work becomes possible because the main currency of the internet is keywords. A keyword like “occupy” can be used to move between online and offline groups and helps the user find similar communities of practice in ways that keywords like “social justice” simply can not.

Star stipulates that “Nobody is really in charge of infrastructure.” This is because infrastructure is layered overtime and involves not just different locales, but also generations of users with different skill sets and idiosyncrasies. Occupiers did not consciously make decisions early on about how to build a unified infrastructure, but rather, many infrastructures appeared with similar characteristics. For each occupation there was a facebook page, twitter account, webpage, general inquires email address, a google group, a donation page, phone number, a camp or public meeting space, as well as a set of committees.

Also, they all had keywords in common: #OccupyWallStreet is not an address, but an organizational schema that signals to the user to go on twitter and use that keyword to seek out like-minded people. When coupled with other keywords like “#OccupyOakland” or “#OccupyCleveland” localized groupings become possible.

Keywords also produce a kind of solidarity, if solidarity is thought about in the sense put forward by Emile Durkheim. Durkheim believed that solidarity refers to the interdependence of components within a social system which are held together by a set of similar values. The term “Occupy” became synonymous with another more potent phrase “We are the 99%,” where 99% refers to not just a proportion of the population, but a class position opposite the moneyed 1%. Becoming part of Occupy was more than just identifying with a subject position, it included finding a niche where you could use the skills that you have in order to start a new project or work on an existing one. For some, this could mean sleeping in parks, going to street actions, doing outreach, picking up garbage, or working on the group’s finances. But for the cognitariat it meant curating information, producing content, broadcasting livestreams, and administering social media platforms. Each form of participation was integral for the whole system to operate. Without people using the internet to promote actions, they would be sparsely attended. Without actions to report on, live streams would be dull, and social media stagnant.

The ability to find one another as well as a place to plug into the Occupy movement is an effect of rhizomatic communication. Communication across this global movement has no center or command post; instead, there is a sprawling organizational structure that leverages all points of connectivity to foster growth. It’s a rhizome, a nodal mass of roots that grows horizontally under the soil, such as a root of ginger. Like infrastructure, rhizomes rarely become visible and as such require some digging.

Occupy employs rhizomatic communication, wherein multiple channels are used to strengthen networked connections that spread ideas from one group to another. This model includes the simultaneous use of email groups, social networking sites, text loops, conference calling and face-to-face meetings to circulate information from many to many. This rhizomatic form, then, becomes a model for how to carry out direct actions themselves in distributed and redundant (while also coordinated) fashion.

Mobile communications such as smart phones and laptops with WIFI are technologies of social change that allow users to connect to the global network from anywhere with signal. Global movements against capitalism have creatively re-imagined the uses and constraints of social media’s capacity to network and broadcast. Castells calls this counter-power, where people use technology to build a sense of togetherness to combat state power. And this, I argue is where 8net work flourishes. Today, no single call to action is effective, but rather cognitarians, push information through networks with the intention of networking networks. Posting, linking, liking, friending, inviting, sharing, tweeting, retweeting, following, instagramming, regramming, streaming, broadcasting, commenting, blogging, emailing, texting, calling, watching, donating, recording, editing, documenting, note-taking, meeting, and finally, protesting are all forms of “GSD” within Occupy. GSD means “getting shit done” … In other words, labor or work.

Importantly, many cognitarians brought skills from their daily lives to bear on occupy projects, while also poaching much of their paid work hours to conduct mundane tasks for Occupy projects, like answer email, write press releases, admin social media accounts, all from their workplaces. Being able to plug into the network from both inside and outside the camps was critical for building solidarity and coordinating massive direct actions, like the west coast port shutdown in December 2011.

In my opinion, Occupy Sandy is the most sophisticated project to come out of the Occupy camps. Responding to the devastating superstorm, occupiers leveraged all existing platforms around a set of keywords in order to organize donations and volunteers. Instead of adopting a rigid bureaucratic structure that requires compliance to a set of rules (Think Red Cross), networks that use rhizomatic communication leverage aspects of bureaucratic communication, including reliance on documentation and skill building, while removing the hierarchical process of approval for taking action. “Don’t propose, just do!” became the ethos after the storm. With 40K New Yorkers without power, water, or access to public transit, already-existing Occupy social media accounts began using the keywords #sandyvolunteer to query needs and link people to social services and web resources. However, this quickly became an overwhelming and ineffective way to organize. The demand for information and resources far surpassed the people-power managing those accounts. Moreover, occupiers on the ground in Rockaway, Red Hook, and Staten Island were also experiencing a myriad of communication glitches from lack of electricity to cell services.

Enter InterOccupy.net, a small group of “network nerds” based in locations all over America. IO began in October 2011 during the height of the encampments, as a project to link different occupations together and provide conference calls, email lists, and documentation tools for those who wanted to spread ideas or coordinate actions nationwide. Importantly, by the time Sandy hit New York, IO had some practice dealing with ecological crisis as some worked on a campaign after Hurricane Isaac hit New Orleans. Moreover, IO and OWS volunteers also were able to rapidly set up internal and external email lists, a website, and social media accounts with nearly 30 administrators from all over the USA. Sharing the burden of communication and information management to those outside of the crisis area allowed for other forms of work, like databasing volunteers, routing donations, and answering emails, to get done more quickly.

The name #occupysandy was adopted later because one occupier who worked on finances for the camp in Manhattan already set up a donation page bearing the name. Moreover, in tweets inquirers were re-using occupy-related keywords and overlapping them with #sandyvolunteer. Many of the people volunteering in the emerging network were opposed to an occupy related organization, but were powerless to stop its momentum.

In order to remain cohesive around the Occupy Sandy keywords, a facebook page, twitter, and email account were set up to drive people to the website, donation pages, and volunteer locations. On the back end a series of conference calls, email lists, text loops, chat boxes, google docs, maps, phone calls, carpools, a volunteer database, newsletters, and wifi equipped volunteer locations, held the network together, albeit by a thread. Because Verizon held the lone cell towers in badly damaged areas, some were unable to reach the cell network and began using google voice numbers through their wifi as a way to patch holes in the communications system.

Interestingly, while InterOccupy always envisioned themselves as a network that circulated ideas, it did not occur to any of us that we could also distribute goods. This fact though was obvious when the movement had camps; as occupiers were able to feed, clothe, and provide medical services to many on a daily basis. But after the raids the question remained: how could Occupy enliven a spirit of public service akin to the one felt in the camps? Occupy Sandy shows that whatever networks move information, can also move goods and people. Yet, the conditions of the crisis still matter.

A hashtag like “mutual aid” would not have produced the kind of solidarity needed to respond to hurricane sandy. However, mutual aid is the basis for projects that use net work to meet community needs. In the case of Occupy Sandy, a group running the social media accounts might never speak to the person transporting 1000 flashlights, but all of the work is significant for making Occupy Sandy successful because actions are animated by mutual aid.

The anarchist zoologist, Peter Kropotkin, describes the benefits of mutual aid in his study of bees, “These small insects by working in common, multiply their individual forces; by resorting to a temporary division of labor combined with the capacity of each bee to perform every kind of work when required, they attain such a degree of well-being and safety as no isolated animal can ever expect to achieve, however strong or well-armed it may be. In their combinations, they are often more successful than man, when he neglects to take advantage of a well-planned mutual assistance. Thus, when a new swarm is going to leave the hive in search of a new abode, a number of bees will make a preliminary exploration of the neighborhood, and if they discover a convenient dwelling-place-say, an old basket- they will take possession of it, clean it and guard it, sometimes for a whole week, until the swarm comes to settle therein. But how many human settlers will perish in new countries, simply for not having understood the necessity of combining their efforts.”

Here, the combined efforts of Occupiers acting as cognitarians to leverage the networks built during the days of the encampments, while also scaling-up the technologies of communications that occupiers are already accustomed to using, led to direct aid in the most devastated areas. In the words of the New York Times, “Where FEMA Fell Short, Occupy Sandy Was There.”

Joan Donovan researches global anti-capitalist movements use of information and communication technologies. In 2011, she helped build the InterOccupy.net platform, which facilitates distributed direct actions by linking networks of activists. She is completing a dissertation at the University of California San Diego on the communication infrastructure of the Occupy movement.

This article was originally published on Occupy the Social.


#TheoryThursday: Break The Monopoly on Everyday Life by Christopher Key #Zuccotti

Posted 10 years ago on Jan. 22, 2014, 7:08 p.m. EST by OccupyWallSt
Tags: Revolution, Theory Thursday, Mutual Aid, Christopher Key, Zuccotti

"We commissioned the greatest political philosophers of our movement to contribute a thought-piece that encourages intellectual curiosity, strategic thinking and tactical innovation within the global Occupy movement. We call it Theory Thursday. This week’s contribution is from Christopher Key, a movement philosopher in NYC. Christopher is a Zuccotti. That is a term we use to distinguish the founders of the first Occupy Wall Street encampment and assembly in Zuccotti Park. To read this article on your device, download the unabridged ebook edition." - Micah White

For a truly transformative revolution to take place a parallel, alternative society must be created that is robust enough for the people to live their entire lives within it from cradle to grave.

People would be born in this new society's hospitals, be educated within its schools, work within its institutions, and be buried in its grounds, all the while drawing entertainment, friendship, and meaning from those around them. Such institutions must go beyond simple charity, beyond providing people things, and instead be a means through which people are able to provide for themselves in a manner that directly challenges the prevailing order while not replicating its neuroses. Any successful revolution will co-opt the functions of the society it opposes because society, essentially, is these functions.

Secession Versus Mosaic

There are two ways that this can be accomplished. One is a secessionist model, the way of communes and collectives. Under this model, the community would generate everything it needs by itself, being a self-sustaining closed loop society that can simply separate from the dominant order with little to no ill-effects. While such things are wonderful experiments in sustainability and community living, their isolation, both geographic and social, makes them poor tools for mass revolution. While they may well achieve the cradle to grave totality that a parallel system needs and, within its limited sphere, create and sustain a new model for the way things are done, their isolation means that they cannot effectively engage with society as a whole, because it is that much more difficult to interact with them in a meaningful way. This reduces them, at best, to sociological museum pieces that can be observed and commented on, but never really experienced on the scale that is needed to transform large sections of society. In addition, because someone has to go out of their way to interact with and observe these communities in action, the only information that most people will have about them is that which has been supplied by other people, which means that these communities have that much less control over their own message and image. Since, by definition, they are out of the mainstream, this means that the dominant order will be the one that gets to tell people who and what this community is. This means that, despite their intensely practical nature, their demonstrative impact is limited to a rather small sphere. Finally, it should be noted that such communities are rarely sustainable in the long run because, historically, children raised within them tend to leave them behind, making their lifespan only a few generations at most, and just one or two more commonly.

Not that this means a secessionist model is automatically doomed to failure. For a secessionist community to thrive, however, it must directly address a practical problem that is faced by many people, such as lack of farmland to grow food, regardless of ideology. Once again, the alternative must be directly demonstrated through the amelioration of some sort of practical difficulty. This is the difference between, say, the Zapatistas in Mexico and a small commune in upstate New York formed for the explicit purpose of practicing orthodox Marxism. The intentional community is just that: intentional. Its formation is a matter of choice, a bold project intended to explore the depths of political and social possibilities but, ultimately, remains a matter of curiosity on the part of its founders. For the likes of the Zapatistas or Brazil's landless workers movement, however, such a community is a matter of survival, and those who also want to survive are the ones who are drawn to them.

However, there still remain significant outreach problems among those that are not naturally inclined to join such a community. While blunted by the perspective of those who experience the problems that a secessionist community is built to address, their image among mainstream society will still largely be controlled by those who oppose them due, once again, to a lack of direct, everyday engagement among the population as a whole. Its main impact will be on those within this community and those who are in similar circumstances to those who first formed it. Their specialized demographics mean that it is much more difficult to reach outside of this circle and into mainstream society as a whole. Additionally, if the community is set up to address a specific problem faced by a certain set of people, then those who are not facing this problem will have little reason to join it, which means there is a fixed number of people who would be potentially interested in joining such a community.

These challenges are less of an issue with another possible way, which is the mosaic model, where the individual components of the new society exist side by side with those of the current established order, decentralized but linked into a single network. While a secessionist model has every aspect of its parallel society contained in a single place, with participation limited only to the people living within the community, the mosaic model has each of its functions handled by a different group, each of them gaining their means of support through interactions with these other groups. Rather than being geographically and socially isolated, these institutions are, by design, directly engaged with society. People don't need to go out of their way to see these institutions operate. They will see them just by living in the same area, and will thus more easily be able to participate if they have an interest or need.

Take, for example, a volunteer ambulance service: even if they, themselves, never avail themselves of its services, people will constantly see its vehicles traveling from place to place and know that it is possible to get ambulance service under this alternative model. If they should ever find themselves in a situation where they need such services and call upon them, the demonstration of this model's viability will be even stronger and will better understand its superiority.

Further, because it exists among society rather than apart from it, it is easier for people to make side by side comparisons between the revolutionary institutions and the mainstream ones, and to choose the revolutionary institutions for getting their needs met, which not only builds loyalty to the alternative system but weakens the current one by denying it access to the resources and support it needs to sustain itself. In the greatest of all ironies, capitalism will simply be out raced. If it continues to exist at all, it will do so only as a quaint historical curiosity, perhaps as a theme park where people dress in period costumes and speak in old dialects to educate students on what life was like before participating in non-market networks of mutual aid became simply how things are done.

Because each of these institutions will only have a piece of what is needed to sustain themselves and the people within them, they will have to depend on each other for their existence and comfort and so will, by necessity, have to be outwardly facing in nature. Solidarity will be not just a sentiment but a survival mechanism, which makes ironing out any disagreements with each other a matter of life and death. It will be through cooperation, not competition, that any of these institutions will be capable of continued existence, for none will be able to sustain themselves completely without the support of other institutions. Withdrawal, the logical conclusion of the secessionist model, will simply not be possible.

The mosaic model is also advantageous because it is modular. You don't need to have everything in place at once to start building up a robust network. You can build up their capacities over time, and experiment with what does and doesn't work. It's inevitable that, at least in the beginning, some engagement with mainstream society will be necessary. A farm might not be able to grow enough produce at first to be anything more than a supplement; a clinic may need to tap into the grid for the power it needs to run its machines; a carpentry crew might need to buy its tools and equipment from a capitalist firm. So long as such arrangements are understood, in the long term, to be temporary, and the institutions make weaning themselves off of their dependence on the dominant order as high priority, however, these short-term concessions should not stand in the way of eventually achieving what I would call a stateless sovereignty: an ability for people to live entirely within a parallel society and provide for themselves by interacting only with the alternative economy.

Astute readers may note that just as there are many communes and collectives that follow the secessionist model, there exist myriad specialized collectives, mostly in urban areas, that follow the mosaic model, and they haven't been successful in starting the revolution either. If a mosaic model is so much better, what explains its lack of success thus far?

One reason is lack of effective networking. While an area might have an abundance of individual collectives, all diligently working toward their own particular goals, they have not often worked together on a consistent basis. While a city might have one organization concentrating on food distribution, another focused on providing medical services and a third offering child care, they have tended to remain isolated from each other, with each thinking of their own particular project as some sort of separate endeavor, as opposed to being part of one large network that can boast all of these things simultaneously.

Another reason is simple lack of resources, material and human, with both problems usually feeding into each other. Revolutionary groups tend to be small and, because of this, usually have limited access to resources that they need to fulfill their missions. Anyone with even a passing familiarity such with groups know that they tend to run into constant problems regarding access to equipment, supplies and even a place out of which they can operate. Part of the reason for this is that, starting out, they only have the resources–material, intellectual and social –that their individual members can bring to bear, and there tend not to be a lot of individual members who consistently show up.

But this is not always the case. There are large, robust collectives that manage to consistently operate with an adequate amount of resources. If resources were the only stumbling block, this would be puzzling. However, another reason these specialized collectives have yet to build to a serious revolution is that they tend to be rather insular. Put bluntly, many contemporary collectives appeal only to other revolutionaries, and do so by design. Organizations founded by revolutionaries tend to attract only other revolutionaries. Much like it is in capitalism, it is folly to think that the new system will be composed entirely of true believers, but radical insularity presumes just this, which limits them only to those who would be inclined to agree with them anyway and becomes, at best, a support system for other revolutionaries. A big reason for this is because it is generally only other revolutionaries that will know about their existence to begin with. This means that, even in a large city, these groups can be isolated from the population as a whole. While they may, spatially, be among the community, culturally they are as isolated as a country commune.

Models for a Parallel Society

Making non-revolutionaries the focus when accomplishing practical, concrete goals should address these issues. The model should be participatory in nature, existing as a means for people to provide for themselves, not to be provided for. The participatory nature of this system is vital because it instills a level of commitment and ownership that simple gratitude cannot match and, furthermore, allows for sustainability in a way that a purely charitable model would not. Those who benefit from the system should also be the ones who contribute to it. The more people it reaches, the more people it will have to support it. Starting out, focus should be on the needs that are most under served in a population, a place where capitalism has left gaps that can be filled in by alternative economic models.

Since the entire venture will collapse without new people constantly joining, at least at the start, outreach is a survival skill. A network will not survive without constantly making new contacts and expanding its scope. Meanwhile, by making the network participatory in nature and eliminating the barrier between server and served, you address the problem caused by lack of people which, in turn, can help address the problem caused by lack of resources. This also helps address the problem of such networks appealing only to other radicals; there are only so many radicals out there. If a network is successful in solving practical, concrete problems, its appeal will spread to anyone that it touches, because the results will speak for its efficacy.

One possible model for such a system is what could best be described as a network of networks, each constituent part devoted to meeting some specific need. For example, one part of the network would be composed entirely of individuals and organizations interested in creating a food distribution network, another would be dedicated to meeting medical needs, another would ensure public sanitation, and so on and so forth. Within each of these individual networks would, in turn, be smaller networks that work on the individual needs of that particular network as a whole. So, within the food network, one part will focus on producing food, perhaps through farms and gardens, another will focus on distribution, while another would handle food safety. Each of these networks would be composed of still smaller networks as needed. For example, the food production network would, itself, be composed of seed gathering networks, soil quality networks, and harvesting networks.

Individual networks would act autonomously on matters directly pertaining to them. However, discussions that would impact other parts of the network on some unavoidable, inescapable level (such as if, say, a particular crop can only be grown where another project already operates) would be discussed with all the relevant stakeholders, with courses of action decided upon through careful conversation and debate on what they feel is the best course of action. This is to ensure that decision making does not become a top-down affair -- the wider scale a decision, the more people the conversation will necessarily involve. This also ensures that people do not get bogged down in endless meetings concerned with minutiae that have nothing to do with the majority of people there -- the only decisions made will be the ones that directly concern the participants, which maximizes the autonomy of each network as well. However, considering that decisions tend to ripple throughout a network, such conversations will probably involve multiple networks.

Because whether or not a decision pertains to someone is not always immediately apparent, a transparent information structure will be vital so that, even if a debate isn't necessarily germane to one network, its members will still know about it and be able to judge for themselves whether it's relevant to them. How these debates happen and how people will judge whether or not a decision pertains to a particular network is, of course, a decision that affects all people in the network, and so no matter what it is that people decide, this overall structure must be determined with full participation and input from all members of the network.

Practical Concerns

Step one is getting a large starting base of people, which will require extensive networking, possibly with community groups already in the area that already have people and resources that can be utilized, which avoids the previously mentioned pitfall of having isolated, discrete organizations that don't work together.

While there are doubtless many different ways to do this, one possible method would be to call a large general meeting of as many of these organizations as possible, as well as individuals who may not be a part of any of them but are nonetheless interested in what they do. Once gathered in one place, the group as a whole can examine their collective capacities and resources and decide for itself the specific areas on which they can focus, such as food or transportation or home maintenance and repair. The general group can then separate off into breakout groups organized along each of these areas and begin the work of planning and implementing their specific part of the overall network. While not necessary, it may also help to have a group within this network composed of members of all the various other organizations that will focus on one-off projects and events that concerns itself with immediate problems and issues that can be addressed right away, rather than long-term needs such as food or medicine. People may also find it prudent to have a similar group devoted to outreach and visibility, giving new people interested in participating an easy conduit through which they can engage.

Depending on how many people come in at the start, it may be possible to only form one or two networks that meet a few immediate needs, say food and medicine. This is okay. The important thing, in this model, is to get the first few networks off the ground. Once these groups are assembled, they can focus on growing their base by increasing participation, and creating new networks that meet new needs, with the goal being the creation of a cradle to grave totality that generates the stateless sovereignty that will form the basis for the post-revolutionary economic system.

This is, of course, but one example. Presumably, each network will have its own quirks, variation accounting for local resources and conditions, and all will be run in slightly different ways. However, regardless of the specifics, in general the most important parts of any network are active and open participation, transparency, autonomy and accountability, and modularity. While the particulars may vary, a successful network will incorporate all of these main principles. As time goes on and networks grow, the various ways in which these networks operate will form the basis for how the communities they serve will govern themselves.

Regardless of the particulars, though, the focus in general should be on fixing specific problems, which is essentially the purpose of any societal institution. This need not necessarily be done in the exact same way that our current society functions, and given that the whole point of a revolution is to produce a root and stem change in the fundamental ways that society operates, a wholesale replication is not even a desirable outcome anyway. But, ultimately, people accessing these alternatives need to be better off doing so than they would be accessing that which is offered by mainstream society. This is the metric against which all such networks must be measured.

Process and Defense

There is no purpose of creating a new society if it degenerates into a copy of the old, which has been the fate of all too many revolutions in the past.

So while it is indeed important to consider what sorts of decisions will get made, even more important is how they will get made in the first place: who took part in this decision? Who got to speak? How were people made aware that the discussion was taking place at all? And what sort of process will evaluate the decision so it can be changed should the need arise? These factors must always be considered to create a new society, because current society almost completely ignores them. As current society is hierarchical in nature, the network must operate non-hierarchically, with no one part having direct authority over another. If the organization is capable of doing this, then even if people within it were power-hungry and authoritarian, there is no outlet through which these desires can be expressed and it becomes that much less likely that a single person or group can dominate the process. Hierarchy is vulnerability: it presents an inviting target for opponents, is an easy access point for subversion, and encourages power struggles that can pose existential threats to the entire project. Furthermore, it is inefficient, as groups lose the ability to act autonomously and must instead seek approval for their actions from some director or manager.

While it will probably not happen at first, there may be some push back from the dominant order, especially as the revolutionary economy starts co-opting the functions that give the state its power. Early on, this will probably take the form various rules and regulations, and the potentially violent enforcement thereof. Current society does what it can to maintain the monopoly it has on every day life and possesses numerous rules on what one can or cannot do, some of which are well intentioned, but mainly are demonstrations of its territoriality over people's lives. For example, a network might want to set up a group home somewhere, or even build one themselves, but may run afoul of things such as zoning and planning regulations that prohibit such a use on that particular property. Working within legitimate channels, such as getting a zoning variance for the aforementioned group home, might work and may represent the optimal solution at a particular time, but this cannot be guaranteed. Utilizing the system's mechanisms should be seen as only a pragmatic measure undertaken as a last resort, considering that the whole point of this endeavor is to set up an entirely new system within the shell of the old. A revolution is predicated on a refusal to acknowledge the dominant order entirely and so its laws are to be seen as merely practical obstacles on the way to providing something better. With this in mind, though, it may be a good idea for a network to set up a defense group that will actively work to prevent incursions that would inhibit the work that it does through media outreach, direct action and good old fashioned protest.

As time goes on, though, more severe reactions may occur. Although a mutual aid network may seem innocuous at first, not worth the consideration of serious attention from the state and capitalist economic system, the networks may eventually come to encounter the thuggish repression that always seems to accompany legitimate challenges to the powers that be, starting with riot police and, if those prove ineffective, escalating to rifles and tanks, bombers and drones, against which the chances of victory are slim. Slightly more manageable would be infiltration and sabotage such as that enacted by COINTELPRO a few decades ago, though this too has proven to be hideously effective against movements in the past.

In both cases, the efficacy of the network must be its strongest defense. By the time the state finally realizes that there is a legitimate threat within its midst, there must be enough people within these networks across the country that action against them would necessarily mean action against their friends and loved ones. The more engaged and integrated with the community that a particular network is, the more problematic blunt force repression becomes. Therefore, being outward facing and participatory in nature is a matter of survival. Should a network achieve this level of growth, violent repression will backfire spectacularly. If it does not, if it is composed entirely of politically aware radicals, then the state will have no problems firing at will, because the guns will be aimed not at "us" but at “them.” If you live in a niche, you will die in a niche.

The other danger that exists is that of co-option into the dominant order, becoming yet one more amusing specimen in its already vast menagerie of organizations that seek not to overthrow the old system but to make life within it slightly more tolerable. This happens when people forget that building alternative institutions which address people's needs in a direct way is only a means to an end, namely revolution, not an end in and of itself. While this fate may befall a revolutionary network under virtually any circumstances, it will be hastened by exposure and entanglement with the mechanisms of mainstream society – involving itself in electoral politics, for example, or becoming too enmeshed in the nonprofit organization mindset, both of which create a dependency on the continued existence of the state and capitalist economic system in order to optimally function. This is, in fact, an even bigger threat than repression from the system, and will only grow bigger the larger and more successful the network becomes.

The true purpose behind the organization must always be kept in mind in order to guard against this happening. The goal is a fundamental transformation of all society in the way we live, work and play, which necessitates the eventual destruction of the state and capitalist economic system, both of which alienate us from our own lives for the benefit of a select few. Nothing short of this, in the long term, will do because the problems that we face necessarily emanate from these institutions. Thus, there must be frequent internal reflection to detect early any signs of creeping reformism. However, one cannot rely on reflection alone – the very structure of the network itself must be built so that the existence of the dominant order does not matter one way or the other, with every action of those within it reflecting the nature of the new society. This means things such as avoiding the use of market mechanisms in its operations as much as possible, mainly relying instead on in-kind exchanges of goods and services, and minimizing any interaction with the state. The network should operate as much as possible as if the revolution has already arrived.

While there is no doubt much frustration as to the speed with which the revolution happens, it must be known that, even in the best of cases, this is a multi-generational process that will require effort on the part of grandparents, parents and children in a great unbroken chain, not only to achieve the critical mass necessary to present a truly viable alternative to mainstream society but to ensure it remains robust for the future. We all carry within us the neuroses of our own pasts, and while great efforts can be expended to manage the authoritarian impulses learned from living in a hierarchical society and the ruthless selfishness learned from living in a capitalistic one, they will never be truly erased. While our work in building the foundations of a new society is important, we will not be the ones who will carry its banner; that honor will go to future generations that grew up in this new civilization having never known the spiritual sickness from which their precursors suffered.

Not realizing this has been why so many revolutions in the past have turned utopias into graveyards. The neuroses of the old order seep into that of the new. On a technical level, yes, a swift and often violent overthrow of the established power can quickly create new institutions and reorder the very structure of society, mainly because these things are usually done at gunpoint, which is one hell of a motivator. While this may be more immediately satisfying than the slow way, history shows that such revolutions tend to quickly unravel into a humanitarian nightmare. Revolutionaries don't even need to necessarily succeed for this to happen; witness extant militias today that have long ago abandoned all but the most faint of pretense of revolutionary aims in favor of becoming, essentially, armed gangs concerned more with controlling territory than establishing a new society. This is because a violent revolution, by its very definition, will be won by those who have no problem with using violence to achieve their aims. Why should this thinking evaporate once they come into power? It was though the gun that they seized power and it is through the gun that they shall preserve it, and we are back at the repression and alienation that necessitated the revolution to begin with, old wine in a new bottle. The gun answers only to its wielder. At best, you have replaced one type of oppression with another that shuffles the members of the ruling class but maintains the existence of that class none the same. It's not even a stable condition because the people as a whole have not been primed to work within this new society and so, themselves, continue to carry the same mindset that characterized the old one. A forced change produces violent reaction, and the only way to prevent this reaction in such a situation is to be more violent still – not an optimal solution by any means.

In the end, then, the revolution must be won through bread and medicine–not bombs and rifles. The key to creating a new social order is a network that aims to solve practical, everyday problems in a way that is superior to the current one, both in its efficacy and its appeal to those who participate in it. The revolution is not a tearing down but a building up. The revolutionary's goal is to break the current system's monopoly on every day life. Only then can a new society emerge.

Christopher Key is a Zuccotti—a founder of the Occupy Wall Street encampment in New York City—who wants to see thousands of mutual aid networks spring up to challenge the dominant order.


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