Archive for November, 2011

Occupy: US and Australia

The whole movement of occupations is a massive global phenomenon, one barely knows where to begin in discussing it. It’s all over the place, in the sense of existing in cities everywhere, which is a good thing. It’s all over the place, in terms of its political coherence, or lack thereof — which is a bad thing, as a matter of abstract principle, but in the backwards political and cultural context of the US has probably been a very good thing. And it’s all over the place, in terms of its programme, or lack thereof — again, a bad thing in principle, but working very well in a backwards context.

As far as the Australian context goes, the economic situation is nowhere near as dire, and Australia retains more of the remnants of a welfare state, has a fortuitous boom fueling Chinese industrialization and the death of the planet, no great indebtedness, not such massive inequality, not such massive unemployment, not such massive racial disparities, and so on. But the anomie, the dissatisfaction with the system, the alienation and disgust with life under this system is readily apparent. Give it the material conditions, and it will come.

A particular difference, relevant to Australia, is that one of the major factors that made Occupy Wall Street into a mainstream phenomenon in the US, was the support of unions. And not just verbal support, but their ability to mobilize thousands to demonstrate in support. So far as I know, that was completely absent in Australia.

The state repression was brutal, which is always sad and infuriating. I don’t think it’s surprising; the gratuitous viciousness meted out to movements, nonviolent or not, which challenge the system in fundamental ways is a constant of history. It is only shocking when one forgets the history; and the history of radical dissent in the last few decades, especially in Australia, is shockingly thin.

I was more surprised by the nonviolence of occupiers in the face of such police violence; all the more so, in the cases of Berkeley and Davis. Certainly nonviolence in such circumstances is correct strategically, and almost always in principle, particularly in the present day when the State reigns so supreme in the means of violence. Still, it is quite astonishing to note that, faced with the bone-crushing savagery of the police attack, there was a complete absence — to a man — of anyone willing to try to lay a finger on these vicious thugs. The level of admirable principled nonviolence is stunning, and all the occupations I know of are virtually unanimous in their commitment to nonviolence. I do wonder how much of it is more a reflection of a general ineptitude in violence, rather than a principled commitment, but either way it is quite heartening. There is part of me that would have loved to have seen some cops decked along the way, getting a taste of their own medicine, that it would have been rough justice; which, I suppose, is only human. And no doubt there is a time when a commitment to nonviolence and turning the other cheek becomes an invitation to be treated as a doormat. But we are not there yet, and in any case the nonviolence has been very positive in effect: it wins support to the movement when it remains nonviolent in the face of such brutal violence, and it makes a stunning statement of principled action. It was clearly the right strategy here.

I think there is more to the difference in Australia than just the economic situation. I would add cultural factors, which in general require engaging in speculation and exaggeration; I am exaggerating tendencies I perceive in the following. Australian society is much less forthright on matters of principle. An American proudly states their mind, and they and all around swell with pride in their first amendment and free speech. An Australian does it, and everyone tells them to get their hand off it. I tend to think the circumspection in Australian culture is generally better practice, as the first real lesson of democracy is knowing when to shut up, and the appropriate time to open one’s mouth. (Not to mention the propensity for proudly self-announced moral virtue to stink of hypocrisy.) On the other hand, of course, the zero’th real lesson of democracy is knowing how to talk. So the square full of nonconformist signs and people and behaviours sits more easily in the US than Australia; or at least, certain parts of the US. I don’t doubt Australia could do it too of course.

One more even more speculative cultural thing. Post-invasion Australia is a nation of convicts; this leads to some mistrust of authority, which can be healthy, but usually this only applies in contexts where it is irrelevant (traffic police, elected politicians, etc). But more importantly in the present context: Australia is also a nation of wardens. Any threat disturbing the peace of conformity and resignation raises the greatest annoyance and indignation, until the deviant elements are hauled off and taken away, out of sight, and all returns to the order and stability of the prison. That is the Australia of wardens: silent, clean, and white.


Written by dan

November 29th, 2011 at 7:03 am