Occupying Language: Inside the Global Revolutions
An Invitation to a Global Conversation
Occupying Language is an open conversation. Through it, we invite you to join us to explore insurgent movements that have been organizing in Latin America over the past twenty years, and to connect key concepts and language from those struggles with what is new and beautiful in the social relations being created by people’s movements in the United States today. There are of course many similarities with preceding forms of organization and mobilization, especially with the movement for global justice of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
However, we are choosing to ground the discussion in movements and groups that arose from and are comprised of ordinary people, rather than activists.
Language is not neutral, and words transport and express concepts and ways of thinking. They can consolidate and perpetuate hierarchies, domination and control just as they can underline equality and strengthen consciousness. Latin American struggles for dignity, freedom and liberation are rooted in more than five hundred years of resistance. Language derived from their struggles comes with historical antecedents.
Among the concepts we explore are Territory, Assembly, Rupture, Popular Power, Horizontalism, AutogestiÃ³n (self-administration), and Protagonism. Examples of each term are drawn from different Latin American communities of struggle, from the spreading of Horizontalidad with the popular rebellion in Argentina, and the concept of Territory seen in Bolivia and Mexico, to the construction of Popular Power in the Consejos Comunales in Venezuela, and the vision of interconnected human diversity articulated in the call for “one world in which many worlds fit” by the indigenous Zapatista communities in Chiapas, Mexico.
Now, on to what the new movements are doing, and their secret rendezvous with history.
New Social Relationships and a New Common Language
We are living in a time of uprisings, movements and moments against economic crises and the politics of representation. Kefaya!, ¡Ya Basta! and Enough! are shouted by millions against an untenable situation—and resonate with the powerful affirmations Democracia Real Ya! and We are the 99%! The use of the exclamation point reflects passion and determination.
These are shouts of anger, manifestations of collective power and the strength of people’s voices in the songs of joy in finding one another.
There have been numerous historic epochs in which something massive and “new” sweeps the globe: the revolutions and revolts of the mid 1800s; the powerful working-class struggles of the early 1900s; the tremendous political and cultural shifts and anti-colonial struggles of the 1960s, to name only three. We believe we have entered another significant historic epoch. This one is marked by an ever-increasing global rejection of representative democracy and, simultaneously, a massive coming together of people who were not previously organized, using direct democratic forms to begin to reinvent ways of being together.
Also new, with the direct democratic forms, are similar global ways of speaking about this new social creation. The word horizontal, for example, is used in English, Spanish, Arabic and Greek to describe aspects of these new relationships. People organize in assemblies—calling them “assemblies” and “gatherings” rather than terms such as “meetings”—use similar forms in these assemblies, and share the experience of doing so in public space, often taking it over and occupying it, even if for only a period of time. Within occupied spaces, people then organize internal forms of conflict resolution, from the mediation group in Occupy Wall Street to the “security” teams in Egypt and Greece, and a group with a very similar intention called “Respect” in Spain. If you were to compare scenes from Tahrir Square in Cairo, Syntagma Square in Athens, Zuccotti Park in New York, and Puerta del Sol in Madrid, to name only a few of the thousands, you would see very similar occupations, with elements including free libraries, child care and health services, food, legal support, media and art. The forms of organization and relationships created in the spaces, all using direct democracy, are unique to the needs of each occupation, but at the same time so much alike that they constitute a new global phenomenon.
Many words and phrases have come into common global usage through similar processes of rejection and creation. While many of the words and phrases used in the current global movements are new for movements, or at least new in their current usages, they are often, if not always, laden with context and history. And in this case, the history of the “new” language also emerged from movements seeking to describe what they were creating and doing in ways not previously used—also in many cases drawing on words and phrases with histories, but ones that then, as now, have taken on new meanings based on the new context.
openly defined: A break, actual or in the imaginary, with previous ways of being, seeing and relating change, in this case opening the way for more emancipatory relationships with greater solidarity. Ruptures can range from economic crisis and “natural” disasters to strikes, mass civil disobedience, rebellions and uprisings.
Families sat at home, many before their television sets, in an evening that began the way so many others had: what to watch, what to make for dinner, the regular nightly questions. Then a TV newscaster appeared on every channel and announced that from that moment on, all bank accounts were frozen. Silence in the house. The economic crisis had fully arrived. People sat in silence, staring at the TV. They waited, they watched and they waited. And then it was heard, outside one window and then another, outside one balcony and another, neighborhood by neighborhood: . . . tac!, tac tac!, tac tac tac! . . . Families went to theirwindows , went out onto their balconies, and saw what was making the sound. The sound was people banging spoons on pans, spatulas on pots, the sound of the cacerolazo. The sound became a wave, and the wave began to flood the streets. We heard it, and then on the television sets accompanying our solitude, we saw it; newscasters, dumbfounded, captured the first cacerolaceros, people in slippers, shorts, robes and tank tops, with children on their shoulders, entire families, out in the streets, tac!, tac tac!, tac tac tac!, banging their pots and pans.
What they were saying was not expressed in words—it was done, bodies spoke, and spoke by the thousands and hundreds of thousands. Tac!, tac tac!, in slippers tac tac!, old people, tac tac!, children, tac tac tac!, the cacerolazo had begun. The institutions of power did not know what to do, they declared a state of emergency in the morning, falling back on what had always been done. Law and Order. But the people broke with the past, with what had been done, and no longer stayed at home in fear, they came into the streets with even more bodies and sounds. And then the sounds, the tac tac tac!, turned into a song. It was a shout of rejection, and a song of affirmation. ¡Que se vayan todos! (They all must go!) was sung, and sung together with one’s neighbor. It was not just a shout against what was, but it was a song sung together, by the thousands and hundredsof thousands. People sang and banged pots and greeted one another, kissing the cheeks of neighbors, really seeing one another for the first time. It was a rupture with the past. It was a rupture with obedience, and a rupture with not being together, with not knowing one another. It was a rupture that cracked open history, upon which vast new histories were created.
Rupture is a break that can come from many places, always shifting both the ways people organize, including power relationships, as well as the ways people see things. Sometimes the detonator is something that happens and produces unexpected or seemingly surprisingly consequences, as in Argentina or the Caracazo in Venezuela, and sometimes movements facilitate the rupture, as with the Zapatistas in Chiapas or the Occupy movements.
Rupture can be a break that occurs because of external circumstances, things like earthquakes, floods, fires or economic collapse. These ruptures often inspire thousands, even hundreds of thousands, to come together and help one another. When massive collapse happens, often those formal institutions of power also collapse, or go into crisis. People then look to one another, begin to try and find solutions together, and often do so in ways that are more “effective” and definitely more empowering, “affective,” than had it been done elsewhere or by others.
In the current movements, arising in 2010 and 2011, rupture came upon us, seemingly surprisingly, though in many places around the world there was some organization in advance. This includes the New York City General Assembly organizing throughout the summer in response to the Adbusters call, and ¡Democracia real ya! In Spain meeting and gathering others for the first assemblies, before the occupation of Puerta del Sol—yet not imagining that there would be such a lasting and massive occupation. Rupture can be when many things break open—our imaginations, societies’ imagination, the idea of the possible and impossible—and this can shift the public dialogue about what is and what is possible. Central to the idea of rupture is that ways of seeing things fundamentally change, and in response people start to organize and relate with one another differently. To speak with movement participants around the globe now, in 2012, many use the same language to describe what took place with the Plaza and Park occupations, the same word even, translated everywhere as rupture. From ruptura in Spanish (literally rupture) to kefaya (enough) in Arabic.
Throughout Latin America the language of rupture is used to describe the decisive moments when things break open—freeing new relationships, creating new landscapes and shifting relationships of power. In Bolivia the “Cochabamba Water War” was a clear rupture. Protests in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba broke out after the government privatized the water and gave the concessions to a U.S. transnational company, Bechtel. Bechtel raised prices immediately, so that people had to pay water bills that were up to 35 percent of their monthly income. Bechtel also forbade the traditional irrigation systems of peasants, prohibiting the collection of rainwater, considering it their property, essentially privatizing rainwater. The people of Cochabamba and the surrounding peasant communities began organizing in response in 1999. Between January and April of 2000, many thousands of people organized in the streets, resisting both the police and the military, with the result that the city streets were effectively controlled by the protesters. Finally government authorities did not dare to show themselves on the streets of Cochabamba, and the police and military retreated to their camps and bases. The central government was forced to turn back the decision to privatize water. It was a massive victory for the people, and a rupture in the relationship of power between the “people organized” and the government and its forces of repression.
For the people of Venezuela, the rupture that has led to the current process of struggle and creation began on February 27, 1989, with the explosion of El Caracazo. The rebellion was caused by a situation of dramatically increasing poverty. Annual inflation had reached 100 percent. There were shortages and speculation with regard to food and most basic necessities. More than half the population was hungry. These abysmal conditions had resulted from a program of austerity and structural adjustment, following International Monetary Fund (IMF) guidelines. The final detonator was when on the morning of February 27, people went to ride their neighborhood bus and found that the fares had doubled overnight. Public rage was immediate. Throughout Caracas people responded by destroying buses, and then setting them alight. From there, people began to walk down the hills from the poor neighborhoods, taking what they needed and wanted— looting. The rebellion spread to all Venezuelan cities, involving more than one million people. In response, the government ordered the police and the army to suppress the uprising, killing thousands. It is said, even if not officially confirmed, that the government had left the country and come back after the uprising was suppressed.
The Caracazo was a rupture. People suddenly realized their potential collective power, and that with it they could even chase out a government. But it also showed that if they could not build their own structures of self-administration, old forms of institutional power could again return.