Belmont Club

The 19th Mansion

When the Occupy protesters in London’s St Pauls assured the public that they did not intend to use the cathedral as a latrine they lied. “We could make a unanimous statement for this entire camp – that we are not here to defecate on or in St Pauls Cathedral.” The disavowal came after church workers had to clean human waste off carpet when someone — presumably not the Occupy protesters — used it as a latrine.

But the key lie was in the use of the word “unanimous”. It was a fib sitting like cherry atop of a stack of lies, but it was the Rosetta Stone for that entire edifice of falsehood.

Labor leader David Miliband said events playing out in London’s St Paul’s cathedral werewere a “danger signal” that “only the most reckless” would ignore, referring to the ‘capitalist greed’ which he argues provoked the protesters to occupy the cathedral and use it — with some of the Church of England’s hierarchy backing  — to broadcast a denunciation of  ‘corporate greed’ to all of Britain.

It is certainly about greed, but not necessarily entirely confined to the corporate variety. It is assuredly about money, but more certainly about who gets it.

The New Statesman maintained that the foul smell emanating from the premises was really “the rotten state of Britain”. “No one who has visited the camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral can fail to be moved by the protesters’ wit and ingenuity.”

But it is also possible that the protester’s wit and ingenuity meant not that no one inside St Paul’s Cathedral could fail to move, if you get the drift.  The phrase “information dump” has many meanings. Defecation as communication has a long and illustrious history in protest discourse and in this case provides a clue to understanding what is going on.

The issue of whether to s** or not to s**t as a mode of speech has long been debated within the protest community under the heading called respect for “diversity of tactics”. Janet Conway “a long-time social movement activist” who teaches politics at Ryerson University in Toronto surveyed the “movement practices and debates from the Battle of Seattle through to the Quebec Summit” in a monograph.

What could you do to express your anger at capitalism? Was it ok to take a dump in a cathedral or on someone’s lawn? Was it ok to beat people up or break windows? The answer was that it depended. The protest community decided that within the context of “direct action” people could make up “nonviolent tactics” without pre-clearing them with anybody else. This principle was called “respect for the diversity of tactics”.

As Conway explains the outermost perimeter of acceptability was marked by the boundaries of “civil disobedience” and “nonviolence” but only as understood within the trade, as these terms had a specific meaning within the movement. Civil disobedience for example, was “the principled breaking of an unjust law” and “nonviolence” was “generally understood to mean the eschewing of the use of physical force against another human being”.  It didn’t mean that things could not be broken, defaced, marked or otherwise symbolically marked as rejected or defeated. In fact it didn’t mean anything was preventable by anything except the ultimate fear of the police as will soon become evident.

Formally, whether a tactic could be on the menu would be decided by “affinity groups”. Conway explains how this should have worked worked. The ground rules were set up by representatives of each faction participating in the protest.  But most often they would fail to reach an agreement on what was allowable and simply patched things up as they went along. Conway writes:

Affinity group organizing has its roots in feminist, anarchist, and anti-nuclear movements in which small, autonomous groups decide on the nature of their participation in a direct action, organizing independently of any centralized movement authority. Commitment to affinity group organizing often implies a repudiation of representative forms of democracy, institutions of the liberal democratic state, as well as labour unions and more bureaucratized movement organizations. Respect for diversity of tactics is part of a commitment to and practice of direct and participatory democracy in which all practitioners participate directly in decision making about tactics within their affinity groups. …

The decisive feature of respect for diversity of tactics is an ethic of respect for, and acceptance of, the tactical choices of other activists. This tolerance of pluralism involves an explicit agreement not to publicly denounce the tactics of other activists—most controversially, rock-throwing, windowbreaking, garbage can burning, and vandalism. …

In the name of creativity, resistance, and democracy, many antiglobalization activists advocate “respect for diversity of tactics” as a nonnegotiable basis of unity. Solidarity with the full range of resistance has meant that no tactics are ruled out in advance and that activists refrain from publicly criticizing tactics with which they disagree.

The practical problem at each local protest event was how to stick it to the man while presenting the appearance of solidarity in the face of internal disagreements.  Behind the facade of the united front was a seething mass of infighting. Conway noted that while “spokescouncils” of affinity groups should theoretically strive for “consensus” in reality they spent most of their time in coordination and mutual tolerance. Translated into plain English they would simply agree to cover for each others transgressions in public, however much they disagreed in private.

Respect for diversity of tactics does not necessarily imply engaging in or even agreeing with the full range of tactics; rather, it holds that everyone has the right and the responsibility to identify their own thresholds of legitimate protest and to make their own political, strategical, and ethical choices, while also allowing others to do so free from public criticism or censure.

But as Nathan Schneider pointed out in his analysis of the Occupy Wall Street tactics “respect for diversity tactics” effectively meant that no one was responsible for anything. This created problems for the police, who wanted to know the protesters ground rules only to find the protesters themselves did not know the answer, but it also allowed the leftmost fringe to hijack the show.

Schneider argued that the “radical flank” tactics which often brought so many media benefits to protesters did not apply in the Occupy Wall Street situation because the laws the protesters ought to break — whatever financial regulation they hated — were beyond the reach of street theater.  What it was within the power of the protesters to violate every traffic, public health and the criminal act on the books. And this was understood as inevitable long beforehand.

Schneider notes that in anticipation of the public masturbators, rapists, defecators and the inevitable assault on bystanders “the committee responsible for media relations for Occupy Wall Street has already begun preparing messaging—down to specific tweets—to use in case someone in the movement ends up using violence.” Nothing in the assaults on bystanders, public indecency or epidemic-generating behavior was a surprise. It was just the cost of doing business, if the expression can be pardoned. With  this background in mind, it is easy to interpret this enduring Occupy Wall Street protest image: defecating on a police car.

From both barrels

Although people like Schneider preferred a ramp-down in tactics because he believed they were more politically effective, the bottom line is that his opinion counts for nothing. The “diversity of tactics” approach meant that each event was just barely under control. The affinity groups, for all their outward unity, were living under an uneasy truce within a strategic civil war; one which would be flare up with vengeance on the day after whatever Revolution they imagined they were  waging.

Nothing in this is new. Readers of my novel No Way In will remember the debate between the characters over why some factions in the Philippine underground refused to join with the dominant Communists. It is a tension is as old as the hills. Every clandestine or semi-clandestine movement is riven into “affinity groups” who are supposed to coordinate but who in practice simply fight to survive — not the simply the police — but more often, their fellows.

“Are you even Communists?” Justine asked. “Can you explain what you’re playing at?” Alex looked towards Ramon.

“The answers are ‘no, we are not Communists’ and to the second, the answer is, ‘we don’t know’.” Justine looked puzzled.

Ramon continued. “First of all, there are many undergrounds, not just one. Underground life is as much about competition between revolutionary factions as it is about fighting Marcos. We are united in our disgust for him. Otherwise, we hate each other’s guts.

“This is perfectly normal. The most famous of all the modern undergrounds, the French Resistance of World War II, was simply the collective name for a whole bunch of groups engaged in fighting Nazis in some form when they weren’t fighting each other. Cooperation among them simply took the form of an agreement not to disagree. …

“I guess you can say that we haven’t any definite ideas about what happens after we get rid of Marcos,” Alex added, “and personally, I think the answer is best postponed. I don’t much care what, so long as it leads to a society where people are free to choose. What I’m not willing to do is swap one dictator for another.”

In this fundamentally Darwinian world the advantage lies with the “affinity group” with access to the most money. In the Philippine case, the Communist Party’s dominance was largely based on the monetary and technical resources it got from Russia, China and North Korea. Under the veneer of “nationalism” the way things worked was to sell out to the highest bidder in the business.

Similarly whichever faction inside the Occupy Movement gets the big bucks from whoever is nonpublicly supporting it will probably wind up on top.  For although the Occupy Movement claims to be spontaneous, that is almost certainly as big a lie as the excuse tweets prepared in advance  for the crimes that were about to be committed.

The way things actually work (once you get past the fantastic and fairy-tale like statements of people like Miliband and the ignorant and deluded Church of England sympathizers) is remarkably tawdry. There’s a 19th mansion somewhere.

A former Philippine Communist recently wrote a book called Secrets of the Eighteen Mansions after the compound in Beijing “where the Chinese Communist Party in the 1960s and 1970s housed delegations of communist parties all over the world to facilitate its clandestine aid to their own insurgencies. … Mansion No. 7 housed the living quarters and offices in Beijing of the delegation from the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) founded and led by Jose Ma. Sison, aka Amado Guerrero.”

Somewhere, someplace the contractors — or spokespersons if you prefer to call them that — who are running the ground operations of the Occupy Movements are in some version of the 18 Mansions getting instructions and money from somebody.  Whichever group gets the most funds has best chance of becoming the biggest “affinity group” on the block.  The more things change, the more they remain the same: sell out to the highest bidder.

It’s a tale of greed, lust for power and conspiracy. But not exactly in the way it is reported in the newspapers. That is not to say the banksters aren’t running their plots, just that they are not the only ones.

When you come right down to it, the real ordure isn’t being deposited on St. Paul’s or on an NYPD police car.  Most of it is smeared on the public narrative. Occupy is nothing like Barack Obama says it is, when he compared it to the Tea Party. Rather it is a united front action that is ultimately led by an inner framework of activists and funded by persons unknown, neither accountable to itself, except in the most notional sense, nor even known to its lowest ranking members, except in the broadest definition of the word.

It is, as Janet Conway said, “a repudiation of representative forms of democracy, institutions of the liberal democratic state”. The real s**t is on all our faces. But as long as you don’t mind and understand what’s going on, you will find it easier to endure. And remember: the best is yet to come.

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