In the opening chapter of one of the most haunting works in the postcolonial literary canon, Les Damnés de la Terre, Algerian revolutionary and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon writes,
National liberation, national renaissance, the restoration of nationhood to the people, commonwealth: whatever may be the headings used or the new formulas introduced, decolonization is always a violent phenemenon. At whatever level we study it — relationships between individuals, new names for sports clubs, in the police, on the directing boards of national or private banks — deconolization is quite simply the replacing of a certain “species” of men by another “species” of men… [T]he proof of success lies in a whole social structure being changed from the bottom up…
That affirmed intention to place the last at the head of things, and to make them climb at a pace (too quickly, some say) the well-known steps which characterize an organized society, can only triumph if we use all means to turn the scale, including, of course, that of violence. (emphasis added)
The metaphor of decolonization, of reclaiming the right to self-determination for the oppressed peoples of a nation or (worldwide) community, is not inaptly applied to the recent Ocuppy demonstrations. Viewed in this light, Occupiers are calling for the “decolonization” of Main Street by attempting to carve out a space from which ordinary people may be heard. Why is this necessary? To understand that, a bit of historical background is needed. Since the birth of neoliberalism in the 1970s, there has been a steady upward flow of global wealth to a small, élite group of individuals — yes, I’m talking about the “1 percent.” Meanwhile, real wages in the U.S. and abroad have largely stagnated.
Indeed, as British geographer and Marxist David Harvey and others have demonstrated, the recent financial crisis is largely attributable to this sort of neoliberal polity. The union-busting, offshoring, and deregulation of the Reagan and Thatcher years helped pave the way for a socioeconomic order where it was possible for 1 percent of the population to control 40 percent of the wealth — but not without consequences.
This uneven distribution of wealth inevitably weakened markets as consumers had less cash to spend. The solutions devised to this problem came in the form of easy credit, subprime mortgages, and the like. By December 2007, the consequences of these “solutions” became apparent to members of the general public, though polls tended to reveal that individuals were more likely to blame themselves for irresponsible loan-taking than bankers. Few realized the systemic nature of these problems or called foul play on big money for buying regulatory infrastructure.
That, of course, was not to last. As more and more people began to realize the true nature of the problem (I suspect, though I certainly can’t prove, that academia and the radical press had some part to play in this), a growing number began to call for action in the aftermath of what was retrospectively termed a “bankers bailout,” where already economically-vulnerable working- and middle-class people were forced to prop up failing banks and financial institutions. In mid-2011 these sentiments found a suitable outlet when the Canadian magazine Adbusters issued a call for an occupation of New York’s financial district. We are now just short of two months into that occupation, and since then similar movements have arisen in over 950 cities in at least 85 countries.
Since today is supposed to be a “day of action” — and certainly hasn’t failed to deliver in this respect — I think it’s important to talk about just what kind of action is desperately needed from OWS. This is where Fanon’s discussion of decolonization becomes relevant. Make no mistake: The wholesale restructuring of the dominant ideologies and institutions of a society is always and necessarily a radically violent act. It was in this sense of the word that Slovenian philosopher and critical theorist Slavoj Žižek could say that “Gandhi was more violent than Hitler: Gandhi’s movement effectively endeavored to interrupt the basic functioning of the British colonial state” whereas Hitler merely “stages a big spectacle of Revolution so that the capitalist order could survive.”
Succumbing to this temptation — staging the spectacle of Revolution in place of the real thing — is precisely the failing of those who resign themselves to passivity and surrender from the outset according to a ridiculous and inaptly named principle of “nonviolence”: what they create is mere show, something devoid of substance — an occupation without a seizure of power or follow through. Such movements can never formulate, let alone defend what Fanon calls “the minimum demands of the colonized.” Just as Orwell claimed during the Second World War that “the pacifist is objectively pro-Nazi,” so too with OWS. The pacifist now is objectively pro-Wall Street and, regardless of intention, stands should-to-shoulder with members of the financier and rentier classes.
That being the case, what the 99 percent movement desperately needs is not the creation of Utopian communities at a distance from the capitalist state — they will be evicted from “their” parks and, when necessary, beaten to a pulp as well. Rather, it demands radical action which engages the capitalist state and challenges its hegemony. If this means resisting as well as enduring police brutality, actively engaging in the destruction of corporate property, and so on, then so be it. The richest and most powerful class of people the world has ever seen will not concede power willingly. They must be made to answer to the democratic will of the people. Nothing short of this level of resolve will be sufficient to gain the electoral means necessary to peacefully obtain the reforms and structural overhauls that the 99 percent so desperately wants.
If this kind of talk makes you uneasy, the only response I can give is to restate Robespierre’s famous question, “Voulez-vous une révolution sans révolution?” — “Did you want a revolution without revolution?”