Stephen Collis: What has your involvement with OWS been, and what is your background?
Sara Burke: My involvement with OWS began before OWS began. My answer to your question might make more sense if I tell you a little bit first about my background and then my activism with OWS.
I work as an economic and social policy analyst for a foundation involved in international development. I work on understanding why inequality destabilizes economies, on the social impacts of different fiscal-monetary-and-financial regimes, as well as on the quandary related to pursuing sustainable development within the current multilateral order. Two years after the initial financial meltdown I surveyed national and international efforts to hold banks and bankers accountable for the financial crisis and tried to quantify some of the wider social costs of the crisis, costs for which the banks were never asked to compensate society.
Three and a half years on, most of the world understands that the subsequent national and international financial “reforms” (under the limited cooperation of the G20 and adopted variously in the US and several European countries) were nowhere near adequate to prevent the banking and financial sector—which experienced only one quarter of negative profits before rebounding, by the way, at least in the US—from jumping right back into in the same risky, high-volume, socially destructive trading as before.
This state of affairs led me as an activist to join New York City Uncut actions around occupying banks early in 2011, then in May and June to help form new coalitions toward organizing people’s town halls in opposition to austerity measures in the New York City budget, and then to materially support the occupation of the streets near City Hall in a 3-week “dress rehearsal” for Occupy Wall Street known as Bloombergville. (Bloombergville activists spent three weeks in June/July living on the sidewalks around the Woolworth Building to protest budget cuts, public-worker layoffs and other proposed budget austerities.)
These interrelated experiences were a crash course in the kind of “we-can-organize-ourselves, thank you very much, and don’t-need-outside-experts-or-professional organizers” autonomy that has blossomed in and been magnified by Occupy Wall Street. But it’s also significant that OWS took form first in New York City, because it is here that the local, national and international struggles merged, as it is here that many of the financial firms that are at the heart of this crisis have their headquarters.
Stephen Collis: When did the concept of the commons come onto your radar, and where did the notion that the commons was something OWS should be looking at or even thinking about/acting through come from?
Sara Burke: I was active in OWS’s Labor Outreach Committee last fall. They are members of over 30 unions and labor groups. I helped out as a global-union-federation point person. This winter my efforts have gone into helping to organize “Making Worlds: An OWS Forum on the Commons.”
The commons came onto my OWS radar because of people I met when they were organizing the Empowerment and Education Committee’s Open Forum. (I spoke at an Open Forum in early October on how inequality destabilizes economies and how the International Monetary Fund works.) These folks (and some others from OWS) also came to a forum I co-organized in December at the UN that included activists critical of the global financial system. In December these same people sent a very interesting and provocative invitation to me and others inside and outside of OWS who were working on issues like housing, health care, education, food and water, energy, and communication/knowledge resources to challenge us to develop a vision of these resources as commons for a forum they wanted to be a “deep reflection on the strategic objectives of our movement.”
Like many people, I’d become frazzled by what seemed like a relentless chain of activities, one protest or solidarity action after another, and with working groups having less and less contact with each other after the clearing-out of the occupation itself in Zucotti Park. I welcomed the call to reflect and strategize, and particularly to do so in a context that was trying to bring disparate groups together, rather than focusing on isolated activities.
My perspective, based on the call to bring one’s own practice to the forum, was that the global economic system is a key aspect of the commons—and as with other kinds of resources—we have a right to design and manage it for the common good of all. I’m also on the steering committee of a group called the Union for Radical Political Economics. Its members share a critical perspective on the capitalist system, while holding a wide variety of political views and interpretations of this system. The Union doesn’t advocate any particular design of the system. Also, because of the ideological control exercised by the 1% not only over the global economic system, but also—critically—over orthodox economic education, the organization believes it is imperative to help provide facts as well as heterodox perspectives and analytical tools. This motivated me to join the Making Worlds effort, because I think these are perspectives that can help the movement understand and gain control of our economic commons.
Stephen Collis: How do you see the relation between the Occupy movement’s claim upon “public” space, or a new “agora” (Zuccotti park as shared democratic space) and the idea of the commons? Can we describe what occupiers have been doing as “commoning”?
Sara Burke: Certainly the claiming of public space by the Occupy movement has been not merely important, but defining. Occupying a space we do share or can share—either because it is public or because (like Zuccotti/Liberty Park or 60 Wall Street, where a number of NYC working groups meet) it is a “privately owned public space” that exists in the legal interstices between public and private—has been about saying, “we exist.” We are a unity, a collective existence. We who have been treated by the international financial system and by our political systems as non-entities, as people who “don’t count”, have made our voice heard by coming together and proclaiming our existence. This is true not only of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement in NYC, of course, but of international protests throughout 2011-12 as well, from the sit-ins in Tunis’s Kasbah Square, to the massive occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo, the occupation of the state capital building in Wisconsin, the encampments in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol or Syntagma Square in Athens, and many others. It is also true of “Bloombergville,” the 3-week encampment on the streets of New York City last June that was a “dress rehearsal” for Occupy Wall Street. All of these acts of occupation and unity were acts of “commoning,” but they were also something more: they were “truth events.” This is an idea that arose during the Making Worlds forum, that the truth event meant that those who “do not count,” suddenly did count.
In this sense, what does it mean to count? Who are those who don’t count? If we think of the term “proletarian” in its original sense (the Latin “proletarius”), it refers to the property-less workers in ancient Rome who were only counted—who only mattered—by the number of children they had. In other words, they counted only according to the number of proletarians they produced. Those of us involved in Occupy enacted a truth event by creating a radically new situation in which the fact that we really do count could not be denied by those who only “count” us by our ability to work for suppressed wages and to produce others who can be exploited for their ability to work as wage slaves or—in the case of the vast number of the incarcerated who are compelled to produce goods and services for sale while in prison—as literal slaves.
Now with regard to the relation between the Occupy movement’s creation of a new agora, a central gathering place—for communication, politics, trading, sharing—and the idea of the commons, I think there is a direct connection, but not an uncomplicated one, because of the pressures put on a commons by capital and by the state due to the potential for state violence. We have seen this to a certain degree in each of the recent protests just mentioned. And in some sense, the unity and strength of the collective efforts have been measured by their response to this challenge.
I hesitate to think that the occupation of the privately-owned public space known as Zuccotti, or Liberty, Park in NYC, a legal loophole that was cleverly exploited by OWS after the lessons learned during the Bloombergville occupation (which took place on the sidewalk) can become what someone at Making Worlds called a “wedge” to open up space for the commons between the private and public spheres. I say this for two reasons. The first is that legal steps are already being taken to restrict these loopholes even further. The second is that the experience of some of the other “occupations”, offer perspectives we need to reflect upon.
With regard to Spain and the M15 movement, Amador Fernández-Savater, a participant in that movement and a very interesting and provocative thinker and writer about the movement and its politics, recently held a conversation in the 60 Wall Street space with participants from Making Worlds and other OWS activists. He discussed the evolution of the occupation of the Puerta del Sol where, unlike the forced clearing of Zuccotti Park by the police, Madrid’s indignados themselves—non activists who came out in the millions to participate in M15—decided to disband the encampment by consensus after three weeks because it had become “unreal, like a bubble, too intense, and unsustainable.” People wanted to bring M15 into their everyday lives, to hold assemblies in their own neighborhoods. Over the winter, participation in neighborhood assemblies waned. Now the conversations in Madrid, he said, are about how people miss the encampment, the common frame of Puerto del Sol, where “we can be different without forcing unity.” But people also came to recognize that what they achieved was not primarily an organizational structure tied to a place, but a state of mind, a “climate” of empowerment and a rediscovering of the commons. The challenge now is “how we can be together without physically being together in the streets.”
With regard to Egypt the story is different. I had the opportunity to talk with Egyptian human rights activist Marwa Sharafeldine in New York on 1 February 2012. She was here for less than 24 hours before she had to rush back to Cairo for demonstrations that were met with police and military violence. First we exchanged stories about how people spontaneously brought food to Zuccotti Park like they did to Tahrir Square. Then we viewed pictures from each other’s cell phones. She showed me images of Cairo’s “popular local committees,” which formed in the first days of the revolution to protect their families and neighborhoods. She described how these committees have since evolved in the past year: “After you’ve realized your power, you need to see what you can do with it, and in Cairo, a big issue is garbage, because it is also a health issue.” She then showed before and after pictures of a small river that flows through an ordinary Cairo neighborhood. In the “after” picture there was so much garbage you couldn’t see the river at all, and the area was crawling with rats and insects. She said the local government councils always regarded ordinary Egyptians as “pests,” but a few months after the revolution had begun and the rivers had filled with garbage, the popular local committees dumped some of it on the steps of the council offices. When this didn’t get a positive response, the committees took more garbage to a rich neighborhood (where the garbage is picked up) and dumped it on their steps. This got a response!
Next I showed her video on my phone of a standoff between police and OWS direct-activists last November trying to march on Wall Street. We were behind police barricades that confined us to the four corners of an intersection, with police in riot gear in the street itself. OWS facilitator Shawn was right in front of me, and he began a 4-part mic check that went, like a musical round, from one corner to another, coming back to our corner and uniting us—who were divided by the police—in voice and intention.
This sharing of these experiences was wonderful, especially the examples of what Silvia Federici in Making Worlds called “public accountability structures” of the commons: the “popular local committees” and the 4-part mic check. But what we talked about next were the differences between OWS’s experience in New York and the experiences in Cairo that had to do with the degree of challenge to the status quo, and the level of violence that comes with that. The revolution that began with the occupation of Tahrir Square on 25 January 2011—which was built upon three years of labor strikes and other demonstrations, and which is still going on, still directly challenged the ruling government—was met with brutal state violence that the BBC reported (as of last summer) had killed more than 800 people and injured more than 6000.
Stephen Collis: How might we be able to incorporate “commoning” into the movement?
Sara Burke: These experiences show how this is already happening in the most vital way. In Egypt, in Spain, in the U.S. and elsewhere, we are claiming what is ours. We are asserting our existence. When we share these different experiences more directly with each other, we gain a fuller understanding of the potential threats to the new organizational forms we are creating.
In Making Worlds we had a fantastic, 3-day conversation. I hope that our emerging commons coalition will encourage us to further explore not only ideas of what spaces for commons we can create alongside the dominant paradigm, but also to become more keenly aware as a movement of how capitalism and the global economic and political systems work, so that we are fully aware of the potential for violence we face when our unity threatens the status quo.