Rise Like Lions
Interview of documentary film-maker Scott Noble, by Soldiers for the Cause:
Your film “Rise Like Lions” charts the history of the Occupy Wall Street movement. What drew you to Occupy?
Well, I should probably begin by stressing that my opinions are likely to be more “radical” than much of your readership. The Occupy movement is made up of a very diverse crowd, ranging from “liberals” and “libertarians” who desire to reform the system while keeping most of its institutions intact, to “radicals” who wish to completely transform the institutions themselves. I fall into the latter camp.
Ken Knabb, author of “The Joy of Revolution”, has called Occupy “the most significant radical breakthrough in America since the 1960s.” One can hope. The important thing is that people are beginning to come together, on an international level, in search of a new society. Whether in the future these various movements fall under the name “Occupy” is not of much significance. The fuse has been lit.
The response by “authorities” has been telling. Rebecca Solnit at Tom Dispatch described the Occupy evictions as “maximum sub-lethal force on sleepers in tents, mothers with children, unarmed pedestrians, young women already penned up, unresisting seated students, poets, professors, pregnant women, wheelchair-bound occupiers, and octogenarians. It has been a sustained campaign of police brutality from Wall Street to Washington State the likes of which we haven’t seen in 40 years.”
It is tempting to view the ruling class as simply sadistic. In the case of the hysterical response to Occupy, however, I think they are mostly acting out of fear. It’s like the old adage of a wild animal being more afraid of you than you are of it. Elites are afraid of equality, they are afraid of real democracy, and they are afraid of justice. I don’t see the righteous anger of the people dissipating any time soon. All signs point not to “recovery” but an increasingly catastrophic set of events – social, financial, environmental – even a WWIII scenario. Truncheons may work in the short term, but they won’t put out the fire. The boys in blue are just spreading the sparks around a little.
The next question is whether the fire will be one that illuminates or merely destroys. In “The Spirit of Revolt”, the great anarchist philosopher Peter Kropotkin wrote, “The direction which the revolution will take depends, no doubt, upon the sum total of the various circumstances that determine the coming of the cataclysm. But it can be predicted in advance, according to the vigor of revolutionary action displayed in the preparatory period by the different progressive parties.”
Right now we are in the preparatory period, though few realize it yet. Obama signed the NDAA on New Year’s Eve when everyone was drunk. A fitting metaphor. We’re seeing the introduction of new “less-lethal” weapons, surveillance technologies, fascistic laws, resource-grabs and so forth; meanwhile, a minority of the public is trying establish some semblance of (r)evolutionary vigor.
The goal, as I understand it, is actual participation by the people in the running of our affairs, including the work place. In other words, real, participatory democracy.
You have at least one-third of the population living in la-la land. They are either oblivious to the scale of the problem, or they sublimate their anger onto irrelevant scapegoats. The latter group consists of people who supplicate themselves before power while directing their rage against perceived “lowers” in the social hierarchy. Neo-fascism is on the rise both in Europe and North America.
You also have a sizeable percentage of the population consumed by hopelessness and various defense mechanisms.
Then you have Occupy, and related movements in other countries. There seems to be a concerted push by the transnational ruling class toward a sort of neo-feudal society worldwide. Even in Canada – the country with the greatest storehouse of natural resources on the planet – we see “austerity” measures being implemented. This is class war on a global scale.
If we wait for our “leaders” to solve our problems we’re in big, big trouble. In “A Short History of Progress”, Ronald Wright examined the response by elites to past system collapses: Easter Island, Rome, Sumer, the Mayans and so forth. As each society began to implode, elites did not acknowledge the error of their ways and change course – even though they had ample opportunity to do so – instead, they dug in; they engaged in increasingly extravagant consumption, more wars, and more repression of domestic populations.
If we place our trust in the ruling class, the human species will almost certainly go extinct in the near future. I don’t consider that statement hyperbole. Just pick a fact off the shelf. For instance, in the past 60 years, 40% of all phytoplankton has died. Phytoplankton is an absolutely essential part of our planetary life support system. Simply put, the parasitic ruling class is killing its host – us – as well as most other life forms on Earth.
This is not a life supporting system; it’s a death supporting system. Eric Fromm used the term “necrophilous: “the passionate attraction to all that is dead, decayed, putrid, sickly…the passion to transform that which is alive into something unalive…to destroy for the sake of destruction…the exclusive interest in all that is purely mechanical.”
It’s not just a few bad apples at Goldman Sachs. In “The Penal Colony”, Franz Kafka compared the modern system of governance to a machine to which everyone, including the commanders of the colony, must ultimately sacrifice themselves.
No one benefits from this system, not even members of the ruling class; they are consigning their grandchildren to a horrific fate.
“Regular” people, for our part, are becoming increasingly desperate. There was a time when workers referred to wage labor as “wage slavery”; we rightly considered it a gross insult to our dignity to have to sell our labor to a “boss” who would order us around for most of our waking hours. Now, we consider ourselves lucky to even have a job.
We have a daunting task ahead of us. But it may not be as hopeless as it seems.
In many ways, the American power structure – like all hierarchical power structures – is a paper tiger. It relies to a great extent on what Etienne de la Boetie called “voluntary servitude”.
I don’t want to overstate the point. In the US, specifically, there will soon be thousands of drones patrolling the “homeland”; thousands of drone-like humans work diligently for the FBI, Homeland Security and similar agencies; the current American President is little more than a drone-in-chief; Biometrics and other surveillance technologies are being rolled out across the country; and unfortunately, the empire is unlikely to relinquish power in the manner of the Soviet Union during Glasnost and Perestroika.
At the same time, it must be continually stressed that we really are dealing with a tiny percentage of the population. Even if you include their minions in the security apparatus it’s still less than 1%. The Stasi in East Germany were the most feared security service in the world; they commanded about half-a-million informants; yet they were overthrown in a matter of days. At heart, authoritarians are cowards.
If and a when a large enough group of people decide the game is up, the game will be up.
It may be a bloodbath, or it may be a mass awakening, or it may be both. If nothing else, the Occupy movement has the potential to educate people before it’s too late.
What is your opinion of the upcoming American elections, and what role do you see the Occupy movement playing?
I’m not American, so I won’t speak to how I feel Americans should vote. It’s true that American corporations own about three-quarters of Canada, making Canadians a de facto colony of the empire, but we’re still technically two different countries. What I will say is that “lesser evilism” is clearly a failed strategy. Moreover, it is downright utopian to imagine that one person elected to a position of power – even the presidency – will be able to stave off the coming disaster. The land-mass known as the United States hasn’t had democracy on a large scale since the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Federation. In fact virtually none of the world’s countries, regardless of political labels, have anything approaching majority rule. Switzerland is fairly democratic; however even in countries like Switzerland there are very strong institutional hierarchies, as well as strong adherence to market systems.
Under “representative” democracy in the United States and most other countries — especially after the rise of television – voting has become little more than a symbolic exercise. Elections are mostly competitions between different PR firms and vote fraud specialists. This is not to say that voting cannot produce positive outcomes, but we have to be realistic.
Another way of looking at political campaigns is that they waste tremendous amounts of energy that would better be spent elsewhere. This is the traditional view embraced by anarchists. The American anarchist Lily Gair Wilkinson wrote, “the “call for ‘votes’ can never be a call to freedom. For what is it to vote? To vote is to register assent to being ruled by one legislator or another”.
The word “anarchism” is not well understood by the public, but it’s essentially a philosophy advocating for systems of direct democracy and decentralization. So for example, rather than having politicians make all of the important decisions “for” us, an anarchic society would have delegates who could be recalled and replaced if they started making decisions on matters of import without the consent of the majority. This is actually the way we have organized ourselves for most of our time on planet Earth.
Here is Kahentinetha Horn’s description of consensual decision-making among the Kanien’kehá:ka: “[N]o one can impose their will nor make decisions for another, all must understand the viewpoint and agree of their own free will. The goal is not total agreement, but total understanding…the individual has a duty to be directly involved, and to bring their ideas into the discussion within their clan. The final decision will be fully satisfactory to some, satisfactory to others and relatively satisfactory to the remainder, and will reflect elements from every group. This is a slow careful process requiring the reaching of a full understanding by each individual and not a decision made by a ‘leader.’ The person who explains the decision is a spokesman.”
In the case of Occupy, I do not agree with the 100% consensus model embraced by some towns and cities; there is too great a risk of monkey wrenching by infiltrators; but the directly democratic structure is the right one.
Regarding the Occupy movement and the elections, I think the most important thing is to remain independent of the Republocrat Party and other would-be-co-opters. Let Occupy build real alternatives. In my film “Lifting the Veil”, historian Sharon Smith describes the Democratic Party as the “graveyard of social movements”. It’s something to keep in mind.
How do you think Occupy is progressing, and where do you think it will go in the future?
I will answer this question at length because there are a great variety of potential outcomes.
Occupy is currently mutating into different forms. Which is healthy. There are occupations of foreclosed homes, acts of solidarity with prisoners, boycotts, bank transfers and so forth.
The movement has already been successful in the sense that it has altered the dominant discourse. The whole idea of the 1% vs. the 99% is a powerful meme. Most important, in my view, is that Occupy is building networks of mutual aid. America is an incredibly atomized society, and the first step in effecting real change is to break down the walls designed to keep people isolated from one another.
As I write this, the most important Occupy-related uprising in North America is occurring in Quebec. Students are refusing to accept rising tuition fees, and openly challenging draconian “emergency” laws of the state. What I find most remarkable about these student assemblies is that they are insisting on directly democratic organization, rejecting the old hierarchical models. They have been inspired by students in Chile, who in turn were inspired by events in Greece and Spain, who in turn were inspired by events in Egypt, and so forth. Young people in particular are beginning to recognize that “representative” democracy is an antiquated form of social organization.
Eventually, Occupy and related movements will become more militant. Of that I’m reasonably certain. I’m not talking about an armed insurgency against the government, though conceivably it could come to that if people get desperate enough; rather I’m talking about higher levels of class-consciousness, sacrifice, solidarity, organization, participation; and the willingness to bypass, circumvent and overtake traditional institutions.
Increased violence by the state is probable. Self-defense, even armed self-defense, is a possibility as well.
There are several predictable techniques used by the powerful to destroy movements for positive change. One is propaganda. Another is brute force. Another is co-optation by the establishment. Another is Counter-Intelligence, including “dirty tricks”. All of these are interlinked and feed off each other.
The first goal is to divide and conquer the movement. You can already see this happening with Occupy, especially as the election season heats up. Writing in The American Prospect, Sally Kohn suggests that Occupy will soon break up into factions: “radicals” and “anarchists” will be marginalized (even though “radicals” and “anarchists” started the movement), while everyone else will go “mainstream”. She seems to think this is a good idea. But look closer. PR Watch published a fascinating communiqué by Ron Duchin, who served as president of Mongoven, Biscoe & Duchin (MDB,) a Washington D.C. public affairs firm specializing “in issues management and the motivation behind activist movements.”
Duchin graduated from the US Army War College and served as special assistant to the Secretary of Defense. He is listed in the Association of Former Intelligence Officers.
“In 1991 he gave a speech to the US National Cattlemen’s Association describing how MBD works to divide and conquer activist movements. Duchin claims that activists fall into four categories: radicals, opportunists, idealists and realists, and that a three-step strategy was needed to bring them down.
“FIRST, YOU ISOLATE THE RADICALS – those who want to change the system and promote social justice. “Second, you carefully ‘cultivate’ the idealists: those who are altruistic, don’t stand to gain from their activism, and are not as extreme in their methods and objectives as the radicals. You do this by gently persuading them that their advocacy has negative consequences for some groups, thus transforming them into realists.”
“Finally, you co-opt the realists (the pragmatic incrementalists willing to work within the system) into compromise.”
One of the ways “radicals” tend to get isolated is through provocation.
When it comes to violence, there are many lessons to be learned from the FBI’s Counter-Intelligence program against the “New Left” during the Civil Rights era. Here is a typical case involving an agent provocateur:
“Tommy the Traveler,” posing as an SDS organizer, offered bombs, guns and lessons in guerilla tactics to students on various new York campuses. Two students whom he had taught to make Molotov cocktails burned down the campus ROTC building and were immediately arrested (New York Times, June 7 and 19, 1970).
In his valuable study, “On an overlooked category of social movement participant: the agent provocateur and the informant”, sociologist Gary T. Marx sums up the purpose of these operations: “to gain evidence for use in a trial, to encourage paranoia and internal dissension, and/or to damage the public image of a group”.
Because these tricks are almost impossible to prevent, and because they can foment paranoia and demoralization within dissident groups (which is one of their purposes), many activists and intellectuals eschew the topic entirely. I think this is a mistake.
First, by studying the history of black ops we can learn how best to minimize the threat of disruption. For example, one important lesson: playing “catch the snitch” is a dangerous game.
In a 1970 memo, “FBI agents were instructed to plant in the hands of Black Panthers phony documents (on FBI stationery) that would lead them to suspect one another of being police informers.” Another FBI directive tells agents to question those in the new left at every opportunity: “It will enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles and will further serve to get the point across that there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox”.
In short: it is best to debate tactics, not accuse each other of being “agents”. If necessary, groups should expel perpetual disruptors, but excessive factionalism should be discouraged.
Another reason why black ops are important to acknowledge and discuss: by educating the public about the existence of these “dirty tricks” we can minimize their propaganda value. This is especially relevant when it comes to agent provocateurs.
The sub-heading to my film “Psywar” is “The Real Battlefield is the Mind”. The public understandably reacts with disgust to acts of mindless property destruction and terrorism – provided it doesn’t come from police or soldiers – in which case we are trained to accept if not applaud such violence.
In response to the crushing of the Paris Commune, Karl Marx wrote, “The bourgeoisie…which looks complacently upon the wholesale massacre after the battle, is convulsed by horror at the desecration of brick and mortar!”
So it’s not a new problem. And nor is the debate about violence within activist movements.
Regarding police thuggery, one of the things I think we need to ram into the heads of our friends and neighbors is that collective punishment by the state is not justified. Ever. If some angry youth or provocateur throws an object at the police, that does not give police the right to assault the five hundred other protesters standing nearby. Yet this is what happens. Repeatedly. It is incredible that one even has to argue the point.
Perhaps the confusion owes to our “collateral damage” culture, wherein it is deemed acceptable that dozens of civilians die for every “militant” targeted in the Middle East.
The corporate media typically describes the brutalization of protesters by saying, “protesters clashed with police”. A common variant is “protesters threw bottles and other objects at police”, followed by “police responded with tear gas”.
In a recent piece on the subject, David Graeber pointed out that attempts to appeal to the “mainstream media” by embracing some sort of imagined ideal of protester propriety are doomed to failure. In the case of Occupy, resolute non-violence did not prevent massive assaults against protesters, nor engender positive media coverage.
Some activists spend a lot of time writing angry letters to people at CNN and ABC etc. I would suggest their time would be better-spent urging friends and family to cancel their cable subscriptions. The corporate media is the mouthpiece of the 1%.
Getting back to the original point, I think it was and is right of Occupy to pursue non-violence. In the following passage, Arundhati Roy cites one of the many reasons why peaceful revolution is preferable:
“But remember that if the struggle were to resort to violence, it will lose vision, beauty and imagination. Most dangerous of all, it will marginalize and eventually victimize women. And a political struggle that does not have women at the heart of it, above it, below it, and within it is no struggle at all.”
Having said all this, we should not transform non-violence into some sort of religion or reductio ad absurdum.
It is alarming that self-defense against violence by the state is increasingly considered “radical” or even immoral.
Some liberals vilified Occupy Oakland protesters for bringing helmets and shields to an occupation – this after a vet, Scott Olsen, had already been shot in the head with a tear gun canister.
Both Gandhi and MLK would be appalled to learn that many people now consider a Starbuck’s window more deserving of “rights” than peaceful protesters. Neither gentleman condemned (actually) violent revolutionaries; they placed the blame squarely where it belonged – on the architects of the system.
We are often presented with a false choice – either we engage in armed insurrection against the state, or we pursue our grievances through “proper channels” and passively accept police violence. Yet there are many potential tactics at our disposable, some of which may be illegal but nevertheless effective, and justified.
For example, pacifists often destroy military equipment. In doing so they may be saving lives. Occupations may also be illegal yet effective. Indeed we can find a reference to this from COINTELPRO:
“A student, paid by a congressional investigating committee to provide information on student radicals, has revealed how he started a Students for Democratic Society (SDS) chapter at his local college in order to keep tabs on the left and “prevent” a student takeover of buildings (Meinhausen 1969)
One question is whether these sorts of occupations – be they in a government building, or a foreclosed home, or a factory – should be defended with force. This is not just an intellectual exercise; it has happened many times in American history. Morally speaking, I believe such defensive measures are absolutely justified.
No less a “radical” than Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Whenever there is in any country, uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right”.
Saying that something is morally justified, however, is not the same thing as saying it is the ideal course of action. We are attempting to create a less violent society, not die out of principle.
Gandhi was anarchic in his philosophy (“the ideally non-violent state would be an ordered anarchy”) and indeed he borrowed much of his philosophy of non-violence from two anarchist philosophers (Kropotkin and Tolstoy). He also deemed politics a necessary evil, calling it “wrestling with the snake”.
Perhaps, due to the new technologies, we may now be able to take a different course – rather than wrestling with the snake, we may be able to outwit it. Wrestling with a snake is a bit of a fool’s game to begin with.
There is a tradition in anarchist and libertarian thought known as mutualism. The idea is not to capture the state but to replace it – to build the new society in the shell of the old. Writing on the subject of worker co-ops, Gar Alperovitz from YES! magazine described such a process as “evolutionary reconstruction.”
R. Buckminster Fuller said: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
By coordinating on an international level, we may be able to beat the masters simply by power of numbers. And really, aside from the justness of our cause, that is our greatest advantage. Hence the slogan about the 99%.
If the (r)evolution is to be successful it must be global. I was struck by the fact that the NYPD went to the trouble of raiding Globalrevolution TV at the height of Occupy. The station was streaming footage not only of events in New York but similar uprisings around the globe, explicitly linking them together. Authorities claimed the GRTV site “hosted conditions imminently perilous to life”, a laughable justification. I think the very term “global revolution” strikes fear into the hearts of plutocrats everywhere. They are accustomed to living in a transnational world, while we the people are confined within borders.
The new technologies allow an unprecedented degree of international coordination and communication. If and when we are linked together on a sufficient scale, we will begin to become far more effective. It is for this reason that out of all the proposals I have seen regarding Occupy, my favorite is the idea that delegates be elected to represent each town and city across the nation; activities could then be coordinated on a national and eventually international level.
The digital revolution may permit us, for the first time, to create a true international.
Equally important, if the movement remains decentralized and directly democratic, increasing our numbers will not automatically produce hierarchical power structures.
The emergence of independent work cooperatives organized around principles of equality may be the single most important determinant to our success. Most people will not join a movement simply because it is the right thing to do; and they will certainly not join a movement if the only perceived “benefit” is getting beaten up by the police; yet offer a real alternative, where they are treated as human beings, as equals, and not forced to toil all day for subsistence, and can really make a difference – they will come.
I was surprised to learn recently that over 1 billion people around the world are currently involved in work co-ops. Granted, not all of these co-ops are created equal; there are varying degrees of adherence to hierarchy and capitalism and statism; but the very nature of the co-op is conducive to sustainability, equality and individual liberty.
There is a gargantuan amount of untapped potential in these decentralized units. Perhaps it’s time to recapture the spirit of the Wobblies and the idea of “one big union”.
Such an organization needn’t imply lock-step conformity. Groups should be free to adopt certain measures and reject others. What works in one location may not work in another. Again, I think the anarchists have it right on this score. As George Barrett wrote, the anarchist economy “starts from below, not from above. Like an organism, this free society grows into being from the simple unit up to the complex structure.”
Or, as Tom Brown argued, the “syndicalist mode of organisation is extremely elastic, therein is its chief strength, and the regional confederations can be formed, modified, added to or reformed according to local conditions and changing circumstances.” [Syndicalism, p. 58]
The cybernetic mathematician John B. McEwan, writing on the relevance of anarchism to cybernetics, explains: “Libertarian socialists, synonym for non-indvidualist anarchism, especially Kropotkin and Landauer, showed an early grasp of the complex network of changing relationships, involving many structures of correlated activity and mutual aid, independent of authoritarian coercion. It was against this background that they developed their theories of social organization….”
“The self-governing associations will be flexible enough to adjust their differences, correct and learn from their mistakes, experiment with new, creative forms of social living and thereby achieve genuine harmony on a higher humanistic plane. Errors and conflicts confined to the limited jurisdiction of special purpose groups, may do limited damage. But miscalculations and criminal decisions made by the state and other autocratically centralized organizations affecting whole nations, and even the whole world.” (http://soldiersforthecause.org/2012/05/23/the-power-principle-an-interview-with-filmmaker-scott-noble/)