“We want democracy, but we don’t have the theory or skill to do it”
Like a lot of people, I stopped by Zuccotti Park in fall 2011 when Occupy Wall Street was happening. I was in New York for a few days and curious to see this mass movement that everyone was saying was historic.
On the ground, it looked more confusing than historic. While participants agreed on certain things — student loans and medical debts needed some serious reform, as did the militarization of the NYPD — they seemed to disagree on almost everything else.
Astra Taylor was one of the people who made what was happening at Zuccotti seem intelligible to me.
At the time that Occupy Wall Street began, Taylor had already worked as an editor and made two documentaries (Zizek! and The Examined Life). She helped found Occupy!, an earnest, but also caustic, publication that chronicled both the idealism and the minutiae of what was going down in Zuccotti Park — the identity politics, the drum circles, the getting deftly scammed by a local union when it came to the laundry bill.
When Occupy Wall Street shut down, Taylor and a few friends took what they had learned from the experience and formed Strike Debt — a group that published a Debt Resisters’ Operations Manual and ran something called the Rolling Jubilee, which bought bundled debt for pennies on the dollar and then discharged it, rather than trying to collect.
The Rolling Jubilee was a hit — the group collected $701,317 in donations, and erased $18,591,435.98 of debt with those funds to date, and recently launched a new initiative called The Debt Collective. Meanwhile, everything from Occupy onward had made Taylor into an involuntary expert on social media. To her, it looked like the internet was increasingly dominated by a few big media players — much like what had happened earlier with television, newspapers, and radio. She went on to write a book about it titled The People’s Platform.
I’ve been wanting to follow up with Taylor for some time, and recently got the chance. We talked about democracy, anarchy, and what happens when your activist group sets out to raise $50,000 and accidentally winds up with $700,000.
Q. What have you been working on?
A. We are still persevering in our crazy debt organizing. It is such a saga. We bought a huge wedge of debt from loans for this really evil for-profit college
The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB) eventually announced a lawsuit against them. And then the Department of Education basically just played softball. They propped these guys up instead of going for the kill and doing the right thing.
Q. The CFPB — does that mean you’ve gotten to talk to Elizabeth Warren at all?
A. No. People have claimed they could introduce us. We have talked to a lot of people who are experts. We could all put in 150 percent of the time we have. People in the group have put their careers on hold, putting themselves into debt so that they can do this crazy activism.
Just on a personal level, it’s so hard to know, when there are so many problems in the world, what to put your time into. What actually might have an effect that is tangible. Who might you want to work with. Life is short. It’s so hard to know if you’re having an effect.
Q. Especially after Occupy, which people were really excited about.
A. People from older generations tried to step in and say, “Here’s what’s going to happen. A General Assembly can’t be that open because people are going to be walking in just off the streets. Here are some horizontal structures that you can use to limit the inevitable chaos.”
And then they were denounced. There was so much idealism. I actually just wrote this big prospectus for my next film, and the working title is, “What is Democracy?” I don’t know if it will talk about Occupy. But it will talk about how we want democracy, but we don’t have the political theory or skill to do it. People are so disappointed in the existing system that they want something more pure, something totally open and equal. And then of course it fails.
Like “consensus.” It actually has its origins in Quaker meetings. In that context it makes sense, because at a Quaker meeting you quiet yourself. And when you’re calm, then the spirit moves you. But if you’re a bunch of activists in a park, you don’t necessarily agree if there is a God up there, or if there’s a metaphysical spirit that you’re going to get in touch with. There’s something funny about how that technique has been adopted.
We take these tools and we don’t know where they come from. I want to say, “Where did we get these ideas? And are they helping us? Or are we going to just keep on having these beautiful moments that totally collapse under the weight of our structureless democracy?”
Q. The tyranny of structurelessness.
A. Yeah. I want to make the movie that the kids in college can see and have better tools for their social movements. Other than “Let’s have a general assembly! The world is so corrupt that we can only be pure in opposition to it.” I think we need a more complicated understanding of political theory than that.
Q. Where do you think that comes from? When you talk to people who were activists in the ’60s or the ’70s, or the ’40s — when did that start happening, these theories of self-organizing and consensus?
A. It seems to be a relatively newish phenomenon. If you go back to the 1930s and 1940s, organizers were … organized. There were structures and titles and tasks. And hierarchies. And dues that people paid. A lot of that stuff has just been eroded. And a lot of traditional organizing skills have just been forgotten. It’s interesting to think of how we got to where we are and see similar mistakes being made over and over and over.
The consensus stuff — that has a history that’s been traced before, through feminist organizing, and ultimately there’s an aspect of it that does go back to these Quaker meetings. It goes back to Students for a Democratic Society and the enthusiasm for participatory democracy. Then they were juxtaposed with the Marxist-Leninists who were really into hierarchy. And the Marxist-Leninists kind of made fools of themselves. All of the problems with hierarchical political organizing and the history of the USSR really seemed to weigh on people.
Q. I’ve been reading Taylor Branch’s history of the civil rights movement, and one thing that I’ve noticed so far is how ridiculously well organized Martin Luther King’s church was. There were all these committees and subcommittees.
A. Being on a committee that you’re responsible for is one way to get people to show up. If I am on a subcommittee of a committee, I might do a lot more and feel a lot more invested. There is something about the experience of making something.
But especially after the fall of communism and the failure of the Weather Underground, the anarchist alternative started to look more appealing to people who wanted to be idealistic and pure of heart and involved with political stuff.
The argument can also be made that it’s part of people being brought up and immersed in neoliberalism. There’s this suspicion of institutions and this atmosphere of individualism. There’s this ideal of everyone thinking for themselves and nobody being told what to do. One the one hand, it’s romantic and anarchist, and on the other hand it’s very libertarian and in keeping with the ideology of our time — every man for himself. No one can tell you what to do. All of those threads weave together in this strange way and have brought us to where we are.
The other thing that’s sort of contributing to it too is this romance of the internet. This idea that now we have these new networked technologies that allow us to have open movements of individuals organizing without organization, because we can just communicate with each other. It’s fueling the fire of this tendency to unite without any formal connection, or even strategy. There’s a lot of power in that, in the sense that you can get people to come out into the street and have a spectacle that is amplified through your social media and ideas can go viral or fundraising campaigns like the Rolling Jubilee can kick off online.
But it still doesn’t address how you capture the attention you’ve gotten and get people who’ve come out for one demonstration to come again or do the hard work of talking to their neighbors or their colleagues. I think the technological aspects are part of it, too.
Q. Are there situations where social media is useful and situations where it isn’t?
A. The Rolling Jubilee is an interesting example in terms of what good attention is. We had very modest goals. We wanted to raise $50,000 back in 2012 because we wanted to buy a million dollars in medical debt and make a point about the secondary debt market and about how corrupt and morally problematic it is. People should not have to go into debt for basic things. People should not have to go into debt and have their credit score ruined and go bankrupt and lose their house because they have cancer.
What happened is that it went viral. We raised $700,000 until we eventually pulled the plug on the fundraising. We were this little group that was almost overwhelmed by its own success. Instead of moving on to what we thought were the next phases of debt organizing, like beginning to put into place the basic structures of a debtors’ union, we ended up having to respond to the public’s enthusiasm for spending a lot of money, and putting a lot of time into making sure that $700,000 was spent wisely and responsibly and ethically. And so in a sense we became professional debt buyers, when we wanted to do other things.
Q. How many of you were there?
A. We’re a fluctuating group, but maybe 10 or less. And people have had to come and go. Strike Debt was and is a bigger group. People cast a really large shadow with technology — if you are good at making your argument and good at using imagery and connecting with people, you can really reach a lot of people. But your shadow is larger than who you actually are.
That’s one of those things you need to be aware of — because you can be seen all over the world, people can almost invest too much hope in you. We all need to do things like the Minutemen. Everyone needs to start a band on their corner. Or a Rolling Jubilee campaign.
The shadow thing also describes Occupy. When you think about that first day — Sept. 17, Zuccotti Park — there were only a few hundred people, if that. But it reached around the world. It was able to amplify in this way that was really good and exciting and inspiring, but kind of distorting too.
Q. And how did you wind up doing a newspaper at Occupy Wall Street?
A. There was a group of us where quite a few of us had been to Zuccotti on the first day and didn’t know how to integrate into it. We could show up and hang out, or we could march if there was a march, or we could volunteer, but we had to figure out what we could contribute in a way that used our skills. It turned out that the one thing we could do was write and edit.
And it really satisfied my documentarian impulse. In those first few months, I would be asked by everyone that I met, “Are you going to make a movie of this?” I wanted to challenge myself to actually cross the line and be part of something, just because I’m such a loner anyway. I’d also done enough studying social movements and theories of social change to know that these things don’t happen very often.
Even if I was critical at times, I felt like it was important to be a part of it, instead of sitting on the side and watching it flailing. It ended up that I still had the documentary impulse of talking to people and saying, “What brought you here? What happened in your town?” and writing for the paper. I really enjoyed reaching out to people all over the world and getting their perspectives and getting them to write about what they were seeing. A lot of Occupy involved people who had never been part of a movement before.
Even though Occupy is over, the ground is still really fertile. Thomas Piketty — these ideas are still in heavy circulation. I think the question of how to organize in the wake of that experience is something that people are grappling with in different ways.
Q. Are there offshoots for the movement that you’ve noticed beyond Occupy Sandy and Strike Debt?
A. Those are the two that I’ve most kept up with, because I live in New York. And you’ve seen what’s happening in Hong Kong. One thing I learned from doing the paper is that there is stuff happening, but if you don’t go out actively hearing, you won’t find it. The stuff with eminent domain in California is still happening.
While it’s important to have that attitude of appreciating what people are doing at local levels, I think what Occupy initially promised and what got people so excited was that it was this big tent on economic issues. It managed to contain housing and student loans and affordable healthcare. So to me to point to all of these smaller offshoots isn’t that satisfying, because they aren’t the big-picture thing. I think that’s still the movement the left needs.
Q. I remember that in the early days of Occupy I got a lot of my information off Facebook, through you. And then you left Facebook. When was that? Was there a big idea behind it or did you just leave?
A. I don’t think it’s the best advice for organizers or artists to invest heavily in those platforms, because they are being steadily transformed into ever more advertising-friendly mediums. Why would I invest in a platform that is ultimately going to take the audience away? I’d rather just go back to email, where you know the message is going to land in the inbox because you know that the protocol is interoperable.
I’m still on Twitter, but I would never put so much into Twitter that I would have to think twice about quitting. When activists or artists are told to go there to build your audience — I don’t buy that.
Q. So if people use Facebook or Twitter now to build their audience, what was the old way?
A. It’s funny — When I was doing the Occupy Gazette I spent a few days in Montreal at the student protests. They have a fascinating tradition of student unionism, but they have very strong organizational structures. But the other thing they said, other than that they didn’t have to reinvent the wheel every time they had a protest, was that they flyered. Even these kids born after 1990 were saying, “We need to flyer.” Because it’s about seeing your fellow students out in the street, saying “You need to go to this.”
So maybe the new way is the old way. Not to fetishize the ink or the paper that it’s printed on — more the work between you and your friends and the commitment that people who are passing you by see. It’s all teaching you skills. Skills of political organizing. Which are not the same skills as being good at social media and being a marketer. I have more of the latter skills than the former skills.
Q. I keep hearing this idea that young people aren’t particularly interested in environmentalism. Obviously, there are exceptions like 350.org and their work with climate change. But they’re still a pretty small group.
A. Do you need them to be a huge group? This is one of the problems with hindsight. Taking your microscope and focusing it on one aspect of something that happened and thinking it was the whole world at the time. One thing I learned doing research on the ’60s were how few people were involved in these different movements, and how small a lot of their protests were compared to some of our protests now. The great anti-war hits weren’t always at the top of the charts. There were all sorts of young people and teenagers who didn’t give a fuck about the anti-war movement, the feminist movement, the gay rights movement.
The question is more how to mobilize the people who are interested and how to mobilize them effectively. Metrics are so tempting, like “How many people liked our stupid comments today?” Especially when you’re in the nonprofit world and need something to show funders. Even with Strike Debt. We’re not a nonprofit. None of us are paid. But we’re still like, “Oooooh! 50,000 people liked our Facebook page!”
When you think about it, what you can do with a small group can be just as effective as what you can do with a large one. We’ve had some of the biggest marches and protests in public outpourings in history in the last 15 years, and it doesn’t just magically have a political consequence.
Half a million people who can come out without being organized are not going to be as effective as 50,000 people who are highly organized. I’d trade numbers for organization every day. That’s the lesson we’ve learned from the right and their think tanks.
There are some revisionist histories of the ’60s arguing that the focus on SDS and the left wing was less important than focusing on the new right. Conservative youth were watching their generation being defined by freaks and communists and they started getting their shit together.
The left has resisted writing about this because they want to believe that there’s this flowering of utopian democracy that’s about to emerge. But it hasn’t and it isn’t going to. I love a spontaneous rebellion as much as anyone, but we still have to get organized.
Q. You grew up in radical culture and have written about your unconventional education, and really not having to go to school at all. For me, school was a part of who I was — it was the thing that I rebelled against. Since you didn’t have that, were there other bureaucratic structures that you had to navigate?
A. I think my general relationship to institutions is a bit different than most people’s. Most people live in institutions their whole life and don’t even think to rebel against them. They go to school, they get jobs. Their lives are institutionalized. My life was very anarchistic in that we were unschooled and taught that not only should we not be a part of institutions, but that we should be suspicious of them and their intentions. Schools were jails for kids — that sort of thing.
But I still chose to try it. I went to fourth grade and tried it for a while. There were reasons for wanting to go to school — like friends. Staying at home all day and having to educate and entertain myself was a lot of pressure. I felt that even as a kid.
I do feel like what motivates some activists is this real disappointment in institutions. This is something I understand, and that was cultivated in me. Schools aren’t about learning, they’re about learning to sit still in a chair and take orders.
Ultimately the point isn’t to destroy institutions but to figure out how to make them more accountable and just and more fair and worthy of our participation. Just saying “no” all the time and wanting to burn the model to the ground is not enough. I may be critical of our educational system and student debt, but schools are still a bulwark. They are still places where you are supposed to be learning and professors are not obligated to come up with money-making ideas.
Maybe the things I am rebelling against are certain aspects of my own upbringing. Ultimately, everybody can’t live like that. Everybody doesn’t want to. There’s a larger public good that needs to be attended to. You can be a freak family and go your own way, but you’re still a part of larger social structures. We still need a government to build roads and provide water.
Q. When you think about democracy — are there certain groups you know that really have it? You mentioned the students in Montreal.
A. I did a piece for the Baffler about Chicago’s New Era Windows Cooperative. It’s the only worker-owned factory in the United States. In the piece I say that part of the problem of Occupy Wall Street was that it wanted to be a democracy but it didn’t have any resources. One of the tricks if you want a democracy is that something has to be at stake — you need an incentive to stick together.
You can’t just have a democracy of people debating abstract principles in a park. Because then you’re just going to fight. This group in Chicago — they wanted to have a job that gave them time to see their families. They put themselves in danger to get that. They built a factory when they could have been out there looking for other jobs. But do they give those rights that they fought for to a new hire who just comes walking in off the street? That’s what a democracy is about — it’s about who has rights. Who has responsibilities. How do we share resources?
This is the tricky thing about democracy: It’s both an ideal and an actuality. So when we say “democracy,” we also have to say what we mean by it. It’s an ideal, and it’s also the current corrupt system of elections and representations that we have.
In fact, the Founding Fathers went out of their way to make sure the president wasn’t directly elected and made sure to call it a republic and not a democracy. This tension between the ideal and the actual is always going to be there.
Q. Have you ever gotten advice from crusty old activists that has been useful?
A. Before I made my films I had this book project about the legacy of the ’60s, which never went anywhere. I never could figure out the beginning and the middle and the end. It was all this research, and all these isolated chapters. But it was this great excuse for years to talk to movement veterans and their kids.
It wasn’t really advice from people that I got. What I gleaned from people is that the reality of something is never as pretty as the image you get in historical hindsight. I can’t overstate how important that is. They were just like, “We were lost. We were fighting. We had no idea what was going to happen. We were totally depressed.” It was this reality check that was really helpful.
When I first went to Zuccotti Park, I was not, like, “Oh my god! These are the people I would cast in the revolution of Astra’s dreams!” I was, like, “This is it. It’s never easy, and it’s never pretty.”
I was on a panel once with Tom Hayden. And he said, “Make sure to have other things going on in your life that make you happy while you’re doing this work. Then it won’t be so emotionally upsetting.” A life of pure outrage is not something to stick with all the time.
UPDATE: After this interview was posted, Taylor wrote in to clarify the extent of the Debt Collective’s current organizing:
“We’ve been organizing with students who were scammed by Everest College and their parent company, Corinthian College. We think all of their debts should be discharged and the school should be shutdown. Last month we flew some people out for a Department of Education hearing and a small protest on a campus, and we’ve got more actions planned. We are moving on from the Rolling Jubilee, since we know we can’t buy and abolish all the unfair debts out there. We need to build power and address the problem at the root.”