Watching Wall Street burn

 This article appeared in the Gauntlet on September 20, 2012.

It was late Saturday night in Black Rock City, Nevada — site of the infamously intense Burning Man festival. As I relished in the comedown of another acid trip, I stood witness to the burning of “Wall Street,” which stood as five full-sized buildings, ironically beautiful representatives of capitalism’s financial vanguard: corporate banks. The fire that engulfed them was immense in size, ferocity and brightness, reducing the structures to smoldering coals atop the desert dust. Raw joy and satisfaction bubbled throughout my entire being, and then, as we gathered around the remaining ashes, a peaceful stillness set in.

While the entire week of Burning Man left me with countless thoughts each to be pondered in their own right, the question of the significance of Wall Street’s burning continued to linger as one of the heaviest issues. I wondered if anyone beyond the several thousand ‘burners,’ huddled together in a dusty corner of the desert, would be tripped-out by such a politically-charged artistic act. I wondered if anyone beyond we burners could care, or even ought to care. Yet surely such an intense act could not leave our hearts untouched, nor could it be ignored by mass media or those in power.

Courtesy Tim Vargas

However, when it came time to bring sage words to the question of the significance of mock Wall Street’s burning, I was initially silent, all my thoughts had become still, just as I had been as I stood before the buildings’ ashes. But, as it turns out, that is the point. That is the significance. A fire, incomparable to any other, occurred before me and I basked in its brilliance — neither thought nor action (and especially not words) were necessary. My eyes were open, as was my heart.

For those who have had the opportunity to immerse themselves in sport, there is a moment when thought and action unite, the distinction between them melts and performance becomes singular. Being ‘in the zone,’ as it were. I receive a pass, take a shot and score — neither thought nor action guided me, as it was mindless, a moment of ‘oneness.’ Our radicality, our dream of a better world, needs this same sensation of oneness.

The burning of mock Wall Street, the significance that can be drawn from it, lies in that ‘zone’ of which I speak. The fire was a figurative and literal melting of theory and practice. Practice informed theory, like the brilliance to construct and enact a mock burning of Wall Street. And theory emerged from practice, just as the flames that leapt out of Wall Street’s windows ignited a fire in our hearts and inspires us with new ideas and dreams, while also giving us the space to construct something new atop the ashes.

For those of us who dream of a better world — those of us who know a better world is possible — the burning of mock Wall Street is an incredible gift. Moving forward, my radicality is informed by the sensation of the becoming one with thought and action, of theory and practice, just like the stillness I felt in the face of the flames. That is to say, we are hopeless without theory and hopeless without action, but when the two meet and melt together — an occasion only feasible through the stillness born in opening our hearts, which sometimes takes a fire for us to feel — then our adventures, encounters and experiments begin, in their own right and on their own terms, to create a better world upon the ashes of the old.

Against disingenuous community

This column appeared in the Gauntlet on March 8, 2012

Constantly in our ears like cheap linguistic currency is the word ‘community,’ as if each of us instinctively understands the merit of its ceaselessly repeated use, as if each of us are still intimate members, comrades, brothers and sisters of one meaningful togetherness or another. It is the intensity, the vibrancy of life, the density of presence and thought that gives genuine community its critical identity. But, to adapt a phrase from the Invisible Committee: community has everywhere already disappeared.

Continuous effort is made to sell us on the idea that the problems we face in our era — the decay of social and environmental fabrics — stems from an estrangement from communities, as if we accidentally decided to leave them behind once upon a time, and that we ought to pay heed to the various calls for a new coming together. Posted on every telephone pole, newsletter and cafe message board are posters and pamphlets begging us to assemble and reintegrate into this or that community. Are we to accept this call to community without haste? Is community actually a source of meaning or value? No, it is not. Community has become false consciousness in a world long liquidated of all vital forms — genuine community has been replaced with sanitized and homogenized relationships and norms. By accepting the vapid buzzword community we co-opt ourselves into the operations of the organs and apparatuses of domination, into a logic of submission.

Perhaps you consider yourself a member of an authentic community: you and your group share common goals, common language and common values. Perhaps you even see community as being outside of, or subversive to the violent and reductive organs and apparatuses that regulate the fabric of our lives. But none of these associations so calmly dubbed community contains the raw density of life’s vital essence: the heart of genuine community. Even the Occupy movement, which in many ways has been an effort to reestablish genuine community, is under constant threat of having its heart purged of the life-sustaining fluids. Just as porn mutates sexuality into violent obscenity, so too does ‘community’ render genuine forms of the vibrancy of life into disturbing obscenity, making it, as Jean Baudrillard would say, “immediately proffered for view . . . for devouring.”

Accepting the present form of community means, at best, acting out a pseudo-struggle, and at worst, harbouring a complacency to the frameworks and discourses that label, categorize, rape, pillage, reduce, package, market and sell. Furthermore, the boundless growth of different forms of community does not open up the space for authenticity. Rather, it directly corresponds to, as Agamben put it, the boundless growth of apparatuses, the extreme proliferation in the processes of proliferation, in which we living beings are incessantly captured. New types of community does not mean the formation of new freedoms, since that same newness is synonymous with the bulldozing finance-speak of ‘emerging markets.’

It is no longer enough (was it ever enough?) to turn on Pete Seeger’s rendition of Little Boxes while in the company of friends and imagine yourselves to be subversive. After all, there is a line of clothing, eco-friendly garbage, magazines and nicknacks — an entire lifestyle — available for such niche markets.

But the situation is far from hopeless. Genuine community is far from having been made impossible. It is always just beneath the surface, and it’s tiresome trying to continually convince ourselves of the dangers in engaging in anything remotely reminiscent of it. The question of tactics is still open, always open, as the ground is increasingly and incessantly shifting, allowing we clever of minds to act, respond or plan perpendicularities accordingly. If we ever hope to establish genuine forms of community then we must ceaselessly dream, experiment, participate, critically consider and most importantly, act.

Of mythic bootstraps

 This article appeared in the Gauntlet on Dec. 1, 2011.

     You did not get to university, nor got through university, nor achieved the success you have on account of your hard work and determination, and if you think you did then you’ve convinced yourself of one of our society’s most vicious, false and damaging lies. Shame on anyone who convinces himself or herself of the self-serving bias of self-driven-success.

The old adage, ‘to pull oneself up by one’s own bootstraps’, was once a hilarious metaphor used to mock those who had convinced themselves that their success in life could be attributed to their own labours and grit, and not the fortunate circumstances in which they existed. Somewhere down the line, as threads of history twisted, swelled and pulsed, the metaphor came to be thought of as a witty observation on the ‘true capacities of man,’ a metaphor encapsulating the misleading rugged individualism, and not the blatant falsity that its underlying meaning reveals it to be. Bootstrap-style arguments are guilty of the bias of self-made-success, echoing the sorts of fictional stupidities of self-determination that you’d find in one of Ayn Rand’s harlequin romances.

Yes, I’ve worked hard, and yes, many others work hard too (that said, I’m slightly perturbed at the number of suburban kids claiming that their job at the mall is hard work), but success is determined by one’s economic base and not how obsessively individualistic one can be. I consider myself quite successful relative to my peers and to many of the people I grew up with, but that success is not and should not be predicated on some absurd rugged individualism. The moral and financial support I received from family and friends, the strong ethics reinforced by my community, the fortunateness that I was born handsome, athletic and charismatic, and the level of economic stability and opportunity afforded to a white male like myself in North America are the key factors to the degree of success I’ve achieved.

No amount of personal anecdotes about one’s suffering, striving, balancing of budgets, juggling of jobs or pure determination and effort lends any support towards the idea that success is self-created. Rather, such anecdotes reveal that the giver of personal fantasies of self-created prosperity is mired deep within a complex delusion of individualized grandeur, and have failed to approach themselves and the world with any degree of critical thought or humility.

Take, for example, the following two real anecdotes. The first is from someone who, for the sake of avoiding embarrassing her, we will call Sam. It is a prime example — echoed by countless numbers of people across North America — of the fantasy of self-made prosperity:
“I’ve paid for everything myself since I was 14. My car, my education, my rent, it’s all paid for through my hard work. Considering the fact that I had nothing to show for myself other than my grades, I didn’t play on sports teams and I wasn’t part of school teams. I have multiple disadvantages against me, and to be honest, half the time I’m surprised that I didn’t end up committed rather than in an institute of higher education. I work at a fucking shoe store for less than minimum wage plus commission (which most of the time still leaves me at less than minimum wage) and I’ve cut out all necessities that I don’t deem necessary in order to pay my bills, yet for some reason I still fail to see the point of stomping around screeching bullshit and blaming the banks and ceos who worked just as hard as anyone else to get to where they are. My dad is the manager of an oil company. Do I blame him and his colleagues for the fact that I can’t afford cable and right now I work a shit job in order to pay my bills? No. I don’t.”

The second anecdote, from Christian Louden (real name) is an excellent example of a thoughtful and honest vision of one’s own successes:
“I (more or less) dropped out of junior high, lied about my age to get a job, and helped support my family at the age of 14. I later went on to graduate from high school, and eventually university, thanks to student loans.
Hard work did not save me, luck did. I’m lucky my situation wasn’t worse, I am lucky I had friends and family to support me, I am lucky I was born white and male in one of the wealthiest cities in Canada. There are people who work much harder than I do, and they don’t get shit.”

Many of us work hard, many of us show determination. Some of us will succeed, some will not. The point is that we are not born in a vacuum, nor do we exist in one. Success is not created ex nihilo. We are born into an incredibly fortunate society, and to claim it was one’s own hard work that brought about one’s successes is to blind one self in ignorant and arrogant fantasy. The appropriate response to the amount of success and privilege our society has afforded us is first to give appropriate respect where it’s due; and second, to address why other people — those at the fringes of our society (like aboriginal peoples or those condemned to poverty) and those in impoverished conditions across the globe — don’t have access to the sorts of opportunity we do. Hard work and determination are powerful values that rightly ought to be prevalent throughout society, but don’t make the mistake of leading yourself to believe that people become poor or rich on account of laziness or laboriousness — the circumstances of success are intricately tied to economic and social fortune, and are too complex to be reduced as such. Any bootstrapper/rugged individualist who would do so is as simple-minded as their arrogant simplification.

In the interests of promoting critical thought and intellectual honesty, I urge all people to recognize that this arrogant and misleading myth, that success is predicated on hard work, that one can ‘lift themselves up by their own bootstraps,’ ought to be annihilated.

“I hate the indifferent . . .”

This article appeared in the Gauntlet on Nov. 24, 2011.

The preeminent cultural critic Antonio Gramsci matter-of-factly pointed out that the most significant hindrance to social betterment is neither corrupt corporate/bourgeois government nor looming fascism. Rather, the most sizeable obstruction keeping society from realizing higher potentials is the menacing force that is indifference. Gramsci states:
“I hate the indifferent . . . Indifference and apathy are parasitism, perversion, not life . . . The indifference is the deadweight of history. The indifference operates with great power on history. The indifference operates passively, but it operates. It is fate, that which cannot be counted on. It twists programs and ruins the best-conceived plans. It is the raw material that ruins intelligence. That what happens, the evil that weighs upon all, happens because the human mass abdicates to their will; allows laws to be promulgated that only the revolt could nullify, and leaves men that only a mutiny will be able to overthrow to achieve the power.”

I too hate the indifferent.

We, as university students in the 21st century, have an unprecedented amount of potential laid out before us. We are inundated with information. We have immediate, instant and often limitless access to any event unfolding anywhere on globe. The tools for enacting change that are available to us are greater than ever before. The level of stability and the privileges that many of us are afforded give us amounts of leverage, mobility and general freedom that few people in history have ever been witness to. And yet most of us do nothing. We are all aware, or at least have the time, energy and resources to make ourselves aware, of the crises manifesting themselves both home and abroad.

We know that other nations, geographies, cultures and people have been systematically raped and pillaged by the hands of our governments and the corporations for whom we work. We know that here in Canada our government has lost accountability. We know that our banking system, which is based on the same principles as the now broken American banking system, has burdened our society with more debt than we could ever hope to reconcile. We know we extract resources in a highly unsustainable manner. We know that most institutions exist to make profit, not to benefit people’s well-being. We know that proper political representation has become a farce. We know that racism is as alive and violent as ever. We know we’ve built our homes on land stolen from the aboriginal peoples, and that we continue to subjugate them. We know our food and water supply is poisoned. We know that our system of exchange embodies the logic of a cancer cell. We know that the education we are receiving is losing its value exponentially — that barely any of us who manage to graduate will be hirable in the near future. We know that media delivers information that is filtered through the lens of corporate and political agendas. We know that our communities are fragmented. We know that our system condemns people to poverty or to the streets. We know freedom of speech is at risk of going extinct. We know people go hungry. We know people are denied basic human dignity. But we’ve forgotten that it is the duty of each and every one of us to face the encircling storm. We are struck with, as Slajov Žižek said, “such a blindness, such a violent gesture of refusing-to-see, such a disavowal-of-reality, such a fetishistic attitude of ‘I know that things are horrible [everywhere] . . . but I nonetheless believe [in the system].’”

There is no valid excuse for looking at the world’s situation and responding with indifference. It is not enough to wait until things are finally so bad that we can no longer possibly continue — which is the failed logic of those, like so many amongst us, who only dream of potentials, of brilliant future histories, rather than realizing them. Or is it the case, rather, that even the imaginations of the many have also become indifferent?

Each and every one of us must realize that we are utterly accountable to ourselves, to one another and to the world as a whole. No one gets off the hook. We are waging a new war against the system of injustices — with only one goal in mind: annihilation. Indifference is what holds us back. But, at least, I am here, as Tiqqun proclaimed, to “[alert] the stoned citizenry that if they don’t join in the war they are at war all the same . . .”

Why we ought to occupy

This is an offering to the world, on why we occupy, by James Jesso, Evangelos Lambrinoudis II and myself — autonomous individuals — speaking on our own behalf. This is NOT, in any way shape or form, an official statement from Occupy Calgary itself. Occupy Calgary expresses itself through the myriad of voices that comprise it. It speaks for itself. As participants, occupants, individuals, and authors of this offering, we speak for ourselves. Our offering speaks for itself too.

Courtesy: Chelsea Pratchett. People left to right: Evangelos, Remi, James.

Occupants of Calgary, of Canada, of the world, this is our offering to you.

We wrote this piece with the help of several other individuals. Thank you immensely.

We have come united as autonomous participants of the occupation of Calgary — in solidarity with the multitude of international occupy movements, and with deep respect to the indigenous lands on which we stand — to create the conditions necessary to give birth, incubate and bring into the public eye a conversation. A conversation that is essential in awakening Canadians to the storm that encircles us all, and realizing our potential for a better world. We are intimately linked to the crises manifesting both home and abroad, and out of apathy or lack of awareness we have failed to responsibly address this for far too long.

We, Occupy Calgary, want change.

We want a Canada that is not looking down the barrel of the same economic rifle that has already fired on the United States. Where the fiat currency with which we currently operate — a currency with a value based solely upon government regulation and law — and the fractional reserve banking system through which it operates, where the required reserves are defined as “nil” by the Bank of Canada Act section 457 (4), are brought to an end. Where the Canadian government is no longer allowed to borrow from Chartered banks money those banks don’t actually have, and where the majority of our taxes are no longer used to pay for the interest accrued on those loans, but are used to fund services that better our quality of life. Where our currency is based on tangibilities, not on illusionary abstractions monopolized upon by greed within a corrupt system.

We want an Alberta that grows its wheat, raises its cattle, cuts its timber and pumps its oil in a manner that is sustainable and to the benefit of the land and to every person, not to the benefit of corporations abroad. Where the debt per capita does not double in the next decade, as it had in the past ten years. Where we are no longer blocked by red tape — created in the interests of corporate monopolization — from exploring and utilizing sustainable alternative sources of energy and methods of resource extraction.

We want an accountable government — one that understands that there are consequences to its actions. A government whose intentions are to progress human welfare, not to seek profit or international prestige.

Liberated from the Calgary Herald

We want an end to a system that allows political parties to be corrupted by the tens of thousands of millions of dollars given publicly and secretly by corporations as campaign donations every election. Where a wealthy few no longer hold power over our government. Where politicians can no longer obtain sweeping power through just 24 per cent of eligible voters, as our present Conservative majority has done. Where economic power cannot buy political power. Where every single person is given the democratic representation they deserve, not a representation based on mob rule of the majority, wealth, status or connection.

We want a government that is transparent. where senators and supreme court judges are democratically elected not appointed. Where there are no closed doors. Where empathy is the official policy both home and abroad, taking seriously the duty of international amnesty, not furthering global conflicts.

We want to see a justice system that is not based on punishment and revenge, as the Conservative government is presently reinforcing, but is based on principles of restoration. Where no law can be legislated that shall deny us our human dignity or capacity for radical self-governance.

We want a healthcare system based on healing, not on the perpetuation of illness for the sake capital gain.

We want a Canada where the voice of the indigenous peoples — on whose land we occupy — are no longer ignored; rather they are given the dignity, respect, and acknowledgement they deserve. Where we respect the many ways of knowing.

Liberated from the Vancouver Sun

We want a government, society, culture and economy that thrives in its connection to the land we live with. Where we no longer exploit our resources in an unsustainable fashion but respect them for the lifeblood they are. Where we respect sacred geography. Where our food and water-supply is no longer poisoned by corporate profit-seeking and monopolization. Where mono-cropping is a thing of the past and we respect the boundaries of nature and all things within it. Where we no longer trample entire ecosystems. Where our system of exchange no longer embodies the logic of a cancer cell.

We want a media that delivers information honestly, no longer filtering it through the lens of corporate or political agendas.

We want a society and culture that encourages relationships that result less frequently in divorce, as 70,000 do in Canada every year. Where our communities are no longer under the constant threat of fragmentation. Where people are not condemned to the streets because they had no where else to go.

We want to cultivate in our brothers, sisters and most importantly in our children, the power of creativity, curiosity and forward thinking.

We want a world where housing, healthcare and education are universal human rights, and nobody goes hungry.

We are at a pivotal point in time as a species embedded within a living planet. Collectively we are facing the mass extinction of ecological life and of the multitude of cultures that once diversified the globe. It is in the face of this crisis that we are opening our eyes to our vast potential and interconnectedness to one another and to the planet. We are awakening to a self-awareness — long termed enlightenment — that can now be recognized as a universal human capability at this possible turning point in our history.

Liberated from the Metro

As technology enables an instant connection to each other and to information, we have begun to evolve out of an obsolete paradigm and into an integral understanding of the universality that exists across humanity’s vast story of cosmologies and cultures. A recognition that redefines our connections to each other into a new paradigm of inclusiveness — where mutual humanity transcends the archaic values that judged on the basis of race, religion, sexual orientation and other facets of who we are, which we are now coming to see are reason for celebration.

We are here to give birth to a system that reflects the human values of compassion and mutual development within and without. The established values of seeking profit above all else, at the sake of not only the resources and integrity of our planet, but also the integrity of our bodies and our communities are outdated and unwanted. We want a world of co-independent communities and not the metropolis of consumption that is devouring the essential human spirit.

We are autonomous people participating in Occupy Calgary. This has been our offering to you. We would like to invite you to join in this conversation.

… [E.L., J.J., R.W., et al.]

It’s time we occupy Calgary – speech

On Saturday Oct. 15, 2011, participants of Occupy Calgary hit Banker’s Hall on Stephen Avenue to begin the noble movement. I was given the opportunity to speak following the smudge ceremony that started the event. The following words are the script of the speech itself.

Liberated from CTV

Right now, we are saying to our parliament, to the media, to corporate interests, to the world, that we are here to participate in a conversation of change.

 “Our politics caught up with who we are,” were the words of our new premier, Alison Redford, touting her election victory. While it is certainly momentous that a woman has finally come to power here in Alberta, it is incredibly embarrassing to hear politicians and media alike believe and announce that our present politics have in any way, shape or form caught up with who we are. In contrast with Redford’s remark, I find myself sympathetic to sociologist Jean Baudrillard’s astute observation that “today, power itself is an embarrassment and there is no one to assume it truly.”

Our political sphere continues to survive on the fiction that it represents we the people, and not neoliberal interests. In our globalized world held hostage by corporate forces the need to subvert the system and bring about serious and legitimate change has necessarily gone viral. We stand at a juncture in history where through participation in this grand act of enthusiastic emancipation we can become the terminal illness that brings an end to a system that has long propagated massive global injustices.

The Arab Spring, Tahrir Square in Cairo, the acampada in Spain, protests in Greece, London, Iceland and Portugal, the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Occupy movements across America and across Canada, and we here in Calgary are all united in the desire to open up new social, economic and political dialogues, avenues, and opportunities.

When the Arab Spring ignited the stations of politics and media were caught off guard. They struggled to make sense of what was happening, what it meant and what brought it about. Observing the mainstream media sources’ coverage of the events past and event present reveals, on their part, a severe lack of understanding. Only three days ago the Herald ran an article written by Ric Mciver that called this movement a “gang,” the flavor of the month,” “wannabe Barak Obamas” and “Socialists.” Ric Mciver doesn’t want to understand. The world of media and politics have shown themselves to be utterly disgusted and confused by the idea of regular people expressing their autonomy by camping out on public property to participate in an attempt to create an altruistic, alternative space wherein a dialogue for serious change can be conceived and incubated.

Liberated from the Calgary Herald

When the mainstream media speaks about the Occupy movements you will hear them say “this movement doesn’t know what it wants” … “it has no real plan” … “it has no serious goals.” What we want — our goal — is straightforward: emancipate ourselves, our economy, our society and our politics from the crushing grip of corporate control.  Our plan, to echo Naomi Klein, is to allow people to speak for themselves — rather than having corporations speak for them as they presently do — because we believe that people, when given the opportunity, are smart enough, and capable enough, to make decisions that are the best for them.

Many of our fellow citizens, our brothers and sisters across the province, across this country, often revert to the ‘Canadian’s are calm’ card. You hear platitudes about how easygoing and peaceful we are, as if our very genetics somehow expressed a desire for non-confrontation. This is a mask too easily worn. A mask that blinds us from the very real and pressing concerns that surrounds us all.

Calgary is a colonial outpost of the corporate network in a literal sense.

The ground we stand on right now is Blackfoot land. The Blackfoot people were barriers to the interests of the few and were removed accordingly. And I assure you the injustices did not end there. Crowfoot was a great chief and the Peigan were a people before we assimilated them into roads. In the past few weeks alone, the Harper government has tabled an omnibus crime bill that is determined to enhance the extreme prejudice — the overt racism — contained in Canada’s justice system, where 70 per cent of inmates are aboriginal peoples. To say that Canada, through residential schools, the reserve system and eugenics board, merely has a legacy of racism against its indigenous populations suggests that that racism has been acknowledged and is being corrected as best as possible. Well that is bullshit, brothers and sisters. Racism is as alive as ever here in Canada — aboriginal peoples, having been violently divorced from their lands and their heritage are no longer blockades of the ‘free market’ and make great serf labor for industrial expansion. I implore you to remember that we stand on Native land. Please do not forget it.

Alberta’s economy, while providing many of us a degree of stability, is, in fact, not much of an economy. All of our resources, whether it be oil and gas, wheat, cattle, timber or people –as we too are seen as commodities — are crudely extracted without due care to the environment, are refined for transport, and are sent south to the benefit of the ultra-wealthy abroad. Our natural wealth is exploited by the wealthy. When regular Albertans attempt to speak for themselves and develop legitimate larger industry to their own benefit, and not corporate benefit elsewhere, they are promptly shut down. Borders of supposedly ‘free trade’ conveniently close. Loans are refused on the grounds that our province lacks the real capacity and manpower to develop much beyond primary and secondary industries. The oil refineries, meat and food processors and lumber mills are not in Alberta and are not owned by regular Albertans — we have absolutely not say in any of it. The economic destiny of our province is in the hands of the wealthy who do own those industries, and who extract and exploit our natural wealth at their own leisure and our detriment.

Liberated from the Calgary Sun

Our brothers and sisters who have camped, are camped and will stay camped in the plazas of Madrid, parks across America and Canada, central squares of Arab cities and the streets of Greece believe that now is the time to start the conversation. Revolutions of the past doomed themselves to the repetition of history through traditional modes of coercion, incomplete methods of representation and a tendency towards violence. We can change that too. The injustices we face — locally and globally — propagated by the behemoth of corporatist hegemony that enshrouds us can be brought to their ends through encouraging, incubating and realizing the conversation around us.

Maybe by gathering here we will give our brothers and sisters who are stuck in that a malaise of mutual indifference the courage to stand up and speak on their own behalf too. Because here we are, peacefully assembled, declaring our autonomy, and creating a space to conceive and incubate the dialogues and opportunities that will give way to the essential changes needed to set our city, our province, our world down a healthier path.