By Fern Thompsett:
“The revolution will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath” – Gil Scott Heron.
I would like to talk about the politics of despair. I don’t do so lightly, or as an act of sadomasochism (that’s for a different article). But given the general climate of the conversations I’ve had of late, both on and off campus, it seems that political despair is what is up. For a quick test, pick a favourite revolutionary moment from history and casually drop it into conversation. Now see how long it takes for your interlocutor (or niggling voice in your head) to point out how short-lived, corrupt, fractious, pointless and/or brutally repressed it was. The Paris Commune lasted all of two glorious months before the French national army stepped in to slaughter thousands of communards and reinstate the rule of the Republic. The Spanish Civil War saw some eight million people organise themselves into some of the most functional anarchist communes in recent history. However after just three years, the few that hadn’t already collapsed of their own accord were destroyed by Franco’s fascist forces. The mass optimism and revolutionary zeal of the 60s and 70s all but evaporated into a cloud of bitter disillusionment, burnt out post-radicals and bad acid.
For a quick test, pick a favourite revolutionary moment from history and casually drop it into conversation. Now see how long it takes for your interlocutor (or niggling voice in your head) to point out how short-lived, corrupt, fractious, pointless and/or brutally repressed it was. The Paris Commune lasted all of two glorious months before the French national army stepped in to slaughter thousands of communards and reinstate the rule of the Republic. The Spanish Civil War saw some eight million people organise themselves into some of the most functional anarchist communes in recent history. However after just three years, the few that hadn’t already collapsed of their own accord were destroyed by Franco’s fascist forces. The mass optimism and revolutionary zeal of the 60s and 70s all but evaporated into a cloud of bitter disillusionment, burnt out post-radicals and bad acid.
More recently, of course, was Occupy. If commentators were ambivalent about the real utopian potentialities of Occupy at the time, they are even more divided in its wake. Occupy was immense but fleeting, heterogeneous but confused, democratic but impotent. Moreover, whatever global solidarity the movement evoked was mirrored by the swift and often brutal police response worldwide – not to mention later evidence of intelligence agencies’ routine spying on activist networks. Ultimately, it’s questionable whether Occupy more effectively demonstrated ‘the power of the people’, or the crushing might of state and corporate interests.
Political despair feeds on failed utopias, and our history books are their elephant graveyards.
Granted, this is only one reading of reality. But it’s the sort of view that pervades mainstream media, as well as (let’s be honest) a fair chunk of university curricula. Having tutored several humanities courses that tend more towards the harrowing than the hopeful, I’ve at times had to stop and wonder if I might be earning my keep as another horseman of the apocalypse.
University can be a school of hard knocks. We can’t theorise our relationship to nature without considering global warming, Monsanto and mass extinction. Nor can we study various political systems without confronting the hegemonic might of late capitalism. When we’re peering down the rabbit hole at a world that appears too broken to either accept or to fix, despair is one perfectly rational response. Sorry, folks. You took the red pill.
But without denying these bitter truths, there are other views to consider. What qualifies as a revolutionary movement, and when do we judge it to be over? Did Occupy end when the last encampment was cleared? Could meaningful resistance take other, more subtle forms? Could we be missing the trees for the forest?
Recently, my curiosity about less conspicuous revolutions has led me to the United States, where I’m exploring a number of different free university projects. As my interviewees (founders, organisers, and participants) explain, these projects exist within a broader suite of proto-utopian, largely anarchist ventures that aim to challenge the hegemony of capitalism by establishing spaces in which absolutely anyone can attend classes (or, as a co-founder of the Santa Cruz Free Skool put it, ‘post-apocalyptic revolutionary logistic training’) entirely free of charge. Whilst these projects are as diverse as they are numerous, I can’t help but notice a couple of key threads that crop up time and time again.
Firstly, anarchist organising is about as easy as it is photogenic – which is to say, hardly ever. For every story someone has told of triumph, I’ve heard three of struggle. And for every free session that has opened its doors, I’ve come to assume hours upon hours of involved, conflict-ridden, and often dull background work from a group of dedicated, but otherwise ordinary, human beings who have learned to survive on the very brink of burn-out. Anyone who might have expected a utopian project to look or feel utopian all of the time probably gave up on utopia altogether a while back.
Secondly, and perhaps more surprisingly, it seems that we cannot underestimate the ongoing importance of Occupy. For example, Chris, who teaches free Portuguese language classes at the Bay Area Public School in Oakland, California, told me how Occupy effectively tore a hole in reality from whence the school emerged:
‘When Occupy happened, it was like – I’m 55, and finally. Holy fuck, it’s here. Let’s do it. And it just kind of changed everything… This place here is pretty much a direct result of Occupy… It’s a real collective. You know, communalism, mutual aid, real anarchism, radical generosity – all that stuff is very, very much alive in that room. And that is really inspiring to me.’
The Bay Area Public School hosts classes almost daily on subjects as diverse as Arabic language, Ayurveda, Herodotus’ Histories (in the original Greek) and Deleuzian theory. More importantly, however, it provides a space in which people can come together freely without any entry requirement or agenda – a utopian ideal that many could only consider seriously after Occupy.
Two of the school’s co-founders, David Brazil and Sara Larsen, told a similar story: ‘What I experienced down at Occupy Oakland was something I had never seen in my life before, where there was this instant community of people from all walks of life, all races, all classes, coming together. It just doesn’t happen in the United States – and yet it happened. And it opened up something.
‘Something potentiated with Occupy that released a lot of social energy and made people more willing to work on collective projects, it seems, and made the stakes of those projects seem more clear – the importance of gathering at all, almost irrespective of what you’re doing. The gathering is [itself] a radical act.’
Free universities are nothing new. In fact, autonomous student-run universities were the norm in parts of Italy as far back as the twelfth century. My interviewees referenced scores of other examples, from the anarchistic Escuela Moderna of late eighteenth-century Spain, to the Mississippi Freedom Schools of the 1960s, which opened classes to African Americans at the height of the Civil Rights movement. But if these historical precedents provided the ideational frameworks for current projects, Occupy was the catalyst. As William Blake once wrote, ‘what is now proved was once only imagin’d.’ For many, Occupy recast the reach of the possible.
I’d like to imagine that rather than being extinguished outright, many revolutionary movements evolve, or, rather, mutate. Certainly, some might go extinct, and at times with good reason. Others end tragically and prematurely. But surely there are equally as many that subdivide and rematerialise quietly in the background. Free universities, for instance, may not be as conspicuous or carnivalesque as the Occupy encampments were, but if you were intrepid enough to venture into the odd subterranean car park of a Tuesday evening, you might find that the same utopian principles that sparked off the Occupy movement are still fuelling a litter of its mutant offspring.
I don’t intend for this article to be a preventative against political despair. But if despair is predicated on the perceived failure of movements like Occupy to achieve meaningful change, then I would argue that we are misreading the map. Revolutionary movements will never retrace their own steps, and nor should we. On the one hand, this means they can be difficult to follow. On the other, it means they are more fluid, adaptable, and resilient. If we are to seriously consider the tenacious hold of free universities worldwide (and there are many), Occupy was anything but a dead end.
The revolution will be no re-run; brothers. The revolution will be live.
*‘The Revolution’, whilst a rather grandiose term, is also deeply ambiguous. Here I use it simply to signify any organised, popular movement away from the relevant (usually dominant) socio-political norm(s). As befits the subject of this article, as well as my own personal politics, the ‘revolutions’ I’m referring to here are of the political Left.
Fern Thompsett is a UQ graduate of anthropology and a co-founder of the Brisbane Free University, another mutant proto-utopian project. See http://brisbanefreeuniversity.org
Join us for a panel discussion on student activism and the Bankstown Occupation on Wednesday 23rd September 2015 10:30am at Bankstown Campus.