When I think about the politics of powerlessness, it feels clear as day to me that the source of all of it is fear. Fear of leaders, of the enemy, of the possibility of having to govern, of the stakes of winning and losing, of each other, of ourselves.
Excerpted from Yotam Marom:
(we will follow-up with a 2nd excerpt on countering the politics of powerlessness)
“The truth is, it wasn’t the state, or the cold, or the media. The real problem underneath it all was a deep ambivalence about power. In fact, all of the things that made Occupy Wall Street brilliant had this paradox built into them, this politic of powerlessness woven deep inside, like a bad gene or a self-destruct mechanism.
For example, the mantra of leaderlessness came from a genuine desire to avoid classic pitfalls into hierarchy, but it was, at the same time, a farce, and divorced from any sense of collective structure or care for group culture. It foreclosed on the possibility of holding emerging leaders accountable, created a situation in which real leaders (whether worthy or not) went to the shadows instead of the square, and made it impossible to really develop one another (how, really, could we train new leaders if there weren’t supposed to be any in the first place?). Similarly, the refusal to articulate demands was brilliant in opening radical possibilities and sparking the popular imagination, but it also meant we didn’t have a shared goal, meant the word winning wasn’t even part of the movement’s lexicon. In many ways, it was an expression of a fear of actually saying something and taking responsibility for it, and it encouraged the often-repeated delusion that we didn’t even want anything our enemy had to give, that Wall Street and the State didn’t have any power over us. The vigilance against co-option came from honest history of movements falling prey to powerful forces hoping to dull or divert their aims; but it ultimately became a paranoia more than anything else, a tragic misunderstanding of the playing field and what it was going to take to build popular power. Instead of welcoming other progressive forces and actually co-opting them, purists shamed “liberals,” cultivated a radical macho culture more focused on big speeches at assemblies and arrests in the streets than the hard organizing behind the scenes, and turned Occupy into a fringe identity that only a few people could really claim to the exclusion of the hundreds of thousands who actually made it real.
Occupy Wall Street created a new discourse, brought thousands of people into the movement, shifted the landscape of the left, and even facilitated concrete victories for working people. But at the same time, a substantial chunk of its leadership was allergic to power. And we made a politic of that. We fetishized it, wrote articles and books about it, scorned the public with it. Worst of all, we used it as a cudgel with which to bludgeon each other.
Sure, the cops came for us?—?we invited them, after all. But we were the problem: When the state tugged hard enough, we tore at the seams.
I spent years being angry about it. I was angry at the people who had attacked the group I was part of from the inside, the people who bullied me into giving up every piece of leverage I had by making me feel like I didn’t have the right to organize the folks I had access to, who punished me every time I was quoted or interviewed, who came to the meetings I facilitated and intentionally disrupted them. The stories are too long and too many to recount here, and anyone who was in the middle of it has their own share of war stories too.
But more than anyone else, I was angry at myself for letting it happen. I spent months waking up in the middle of the night, replaying the different moments I had capitulated to cool kids and given up real opportunities to grow the movement out of fear that I’d be iced out if I didn’t. And the truth is, I had no excuse. I had already learned this important lesson at the New School in 2008 when a couple hundred of us occupied a building to get a war criminal thrown off the board, win back student space, and push forward student self-governance and responsible investment: Bad politics don’t go away on their own, you actually have to fight them.
Maybe it’s counter-intuitive, and it’s certainly unpleasant, but it’s true. In those moments, when we refuse to engage in these fights because they feel childish and below the belt, we forget that the majority of people are standing in the middle, wondering what the hell is going on and looking for people they can trust. When those of us who are thinking about power and trying to grow the base don’t step up to that challenge, the folks in the middle assume that the people bringing in toxicity are the leadership, and they don’t want to have anything to do with it. They find no other voices providing leadership they can feel a part of. So they go home.
And that’s kind of what happened. The state upped the ante, raised the heat on us. Shit got ugly, and directionless, and toxic. The self-destruct mechanisms went off, the politics of powerlessness played out to their logical conclusions. The folks best equipped to offer leadership in that moment didn’t step up. So everyone went home.
And as I think back on the mistakes I made?—?among them, this grand mistake of shrinking from the responsibilities of leadership, however personally costly?—?I can’t help but feel a little bit ashamed. We did a tremendous amount. But we could have done more. We could have lasted longer, brought more people into the movement, established more powerful institutions, won more material gains. If we understand the prison industrial complex and climate change and wealth inequality and the foreclosure crisis as hard and tangible threats to people’s literal survival, then we have to see, with equal clarity, that our movements are nothing short of an attempt to save lives. And we could have saved more lives.”
” the politic of powerlessness doesn’t only live on social media, but in our organizing spaces as well?—?and it’s in the realm of identity that so much of the battle takes place. We confuse systems like white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism with individuals we can use as stand-ins for them. We use the inevitable fuck-ups of our potential partners as validation that we should stay in our bunkers with the handful of people who make us feel safe instead of getting dirty in the trenches. We imagine identity as static and permanent, instead of remembering that all of us?—?to borrow terminology from organizations like Training for Change?—?have experiences of marginalization that can help us support one another, and experiences of being in the mainstream that can help us understand the people we want to shift. We forget that, while identity gives us clues and reveals patterns, itdoesn’t fully explain our behavior, and it certainly doesn’t determine it. We abandon the truth that people can transform, that ultimately we all?—?oppressed and potential oppressors alike (if such simplistic frames should even be entertained)?—?can and must choose sides. So we shirk this ultimate responsibility we have as organizers: To support people in making the hard and scary choices to be on the side of freedom. In all of this commotion, we turn inward. We forget the enemy outside, and find enemies in the room instead, make enemies of one another.
And here, just as from Occupy Wall Street, the vast majority of people?—?those great many on whom this system relies and the very same ones we will need to organize to make it come to a screeching halt?—?grow tired. So they go home. And we lose.”