May Day in Context
This article is based on May Day—The Secret Rendezvous with History and the Present, by the Occupied Media Pamphlet Series, and the forthcoming book, Occupying Language.
The Walk of the New
- Kefaya! (Enough!) Is declared in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt.
- In Syntagma Square in Athens, Greece they hung banners declaring, in Spanish, Ya Basta! (Enough!)
- Democracía Real Ya! (Real Democracy Now!) Is the framing in Spain.
- We are the 99% is announced in the US.
New Social Relationships and
a New Common Language
2011 has been a year of uprisings, movements and moments—all against an economic crisis and the politics of repression. Kefya! Ya Basta! and Enough! are shouted by millions against an untenable situation—and simultaneously they are met with Democracia Real Ya! and We are the 99%!—powerful affirmations. The use of the exclamation point reflects the passion—It is the shout of anger, the manifestation of collective power and the strength of people’s voices in the songs of joy in finding one another.
There have been numerous historical epochs where something massive and “new” sweeps the globe—moments such as the revolutions and revolts of the mid 1800s, the massive working class struggles of the early 1900s, and the massive political and cultural shifts and anti-colonial struggles of the 1960s, to name only three. We believe we are in 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, not previously organized, using directly democratic forms to begin to reinvent ways of being together. These global movements are connected in ways not possible in the past with the use of immediate technology, such as the Internet, Twitter, and Facebook. These new technological forms have helped form something that in Latin America is often referred to as “contagion”, a spreading of an idea in a horizontal way, more like a virus than a political program. This should not be confused with a “social network revolution,” a description many in the media have used. The communication tools helped, but the essence and the new in the movements is the collective construction of new social relationships—creating new territory—and the similarities of this phenomenon globally.
Also new, with the directly 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, all as a way of describing aspects of these new relationships. People organize in assemblies, calling them assemblies and gatherings instead of terms such as "meetings"—and use similar forms in these assemblies, as well as all share the experience of doing so in public space, often taking it over and occupying it—even if for only a period of time. Many of these occupied spaces then organize internal forms of conflict resolution, from the mediation group in OWS to the “security” teams in Egypt and Greece, and a group with a very similar intention called “Respect” in Spain. To look at the images from Tahrir Square in Cairo, Syntagma Square in Athens, Zuccotti/Liberty Plaza in New York, or Puerta del Sol in Madrid, to name only a few of the thousands, is to see a very similar occupation, including everything from libraries, child care, health services, food, legal, media and art. The forms of organization and relationships created in the space, all using direct democracy are massive, growing and globally consistent—not the same of course—but so similar as to be a new global phenomenon.
Also similar globally is a reterritorialization of the movements after a few months. Since the intention of the movements in not to only change a plaza or square, but society as a whole, the plaza is more of a starting point, and over time people begin to move more and more into spheres that relate more directly to beginning to retake and control their own lives. Thus, around the world there has been a shift into neighborhoods and workplaces, to focus on local needs, yet at the same time come together to coordinate. As, for example, in Athens, where there are now a few dozen neighborhood assemblies that then come together each Sunday to have an assembly of assemblies to coordinate the resistance and refusal to pay newly imposed taxes. Or the powerful eviction preventions that are coordinated throughout Spain, based in neighborhoods and then networked regionally. In the US there is also an increase in neighborhood based organizing as well as neighborhood and city wide eviction preventions. People continue to use the plazas and squares as a place to gather, have assemblies and sometimes occupy, but the form of territorial construction is shifting—and again doing so in a way that is consistent globally.
Recuperating Language and Voice
Many words and phrases have come into common global usage through common processes of rejection and creation. While many of the words and phrases that are used in the current global movements are new for movements, or at least in their current usages, they are often, if not always, with a history and context. 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—again—also often drawing on words and phrases with histories—but ones that then, as now, have taken on new meanings based on the new context. The retaking and rediscovering of words and language is a part of the same process of the people finding their own voices with the new usages of direct democracy. As people recuperate their voices, having not had them under representational forms of democracy, they find themselves as well. The movements recognize this new agency and protagonism and name it—as naming things is a powerful process in the retaking of history and life. The claim for voice and language is a claim for real democracy.
The Secret Rendezvous with History and the Present
Walter Benjamin wrote of memory and history as a “secret rendezvous between past generations and our own” (Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History, 1955). The secret is not something that is known and not told, but something a great deal more subtle and ambiguous. When we speak of things being “new” in the movements, it is a reflection of our experiences. And when we write various histories and groundings to these experiences, which we argue are often very similar and sometimes so remarkably so it seems as if one is just taken directly from the other, we are in no way expressing that this takes away from newness, or that the people in the movements don’t know what they are talking about. The opposite really, we are trying to find a place where the new meets the old—and is not a museum—but a live and useful interactive conversation. We do not challenge newness, but offer places of encuentro, of meeting, of the new social relationships and our many hundreds if not thousands of years of experimenting with the various forms of relating.
We offer this meeting place so as to best learn from one another, and especially so as to learn from our various positive experiences as well as the negative ones. It is not about fearing a repetition of history, since history does not repeat, but so as to see more clearly some of the many places from which the movements come so as to walk along further together, from different parts of the world and our many generations.
In our forthcoming book we offer only the slightest of glances, and only into the past 20 years of creation and resistance in Latin America. This could be a multi-volume project—especially considering the radical and revolutionary history is not often available to us, and particularly the more autonomous movements and understandings of our collective history.
let us retake our history and bring it with our present—so as to learn more—and find more places of encuentro and rendezvous that can be less secret.
Openly defined, May Day is International
Workers’ Day. It is celebrated every year by tens of millions of people in most
countries around the world. It originated with the struggle for the eight-hour
workday, and in particular with the experience of the police repression against
workers in Chicago in 1886. In the 1980s more diverse movements began
organizing around May Day, and since 2001 the concept has shifted to one not
only celebrating workers, but also for immigrant rights, social justice and
against capitalist globalization and war:
Over one hundred people fit into a room meant for 50—it is a union hall and we are planning for May Day 2012 in New York. The air is stale, but the energy high. The room is filled with Occupy movement participants, immigrant rights groups and communities, progressive labor organized in unions, and those from labor not representing their unions, or without unions, but identifying as labor, and a few people from neighborhood workers centers and other community based groups. The form of organization the May Day planning has taken is a spokescouncil. (Inspired by the global justice movement, and rumor is also the Spanish anarchists of the 1930s.) It is a directly democratic form of organization that can be used so that decisions are made, or ideas shared, based on those people speaking who are already involved in some form of organizing, reflected in things such as working groups, affinity groups or organizations. No more than one person from each group has a formal “voice” though everyone has “ears” and contributes to the idea of what their voice, technically a spoke, says to the group. Often there are constant whispered conversations up and down the line of a spokes to figure out what the “voice” should say, based on what others in the group feel and think. Consensus or agreement is reached in each group before ideas are shared and proposed. (See spokes council drawing in this pamphlet.) It is only early March and the people in the room are confident there will be at least tens of thousands of people on the streets of New York for May Day. And we know from our very composition that it will be organized and unorganized workers, the precarious, immigrants and all sorts of radicals.
This is not a “typical” May Day, or better said, it is not being planned to be typical, but rather is a vision of May Day coming from the new movements, together with the changing concepts of May Day and work that are described below. This is just one of countless examples of a current form of organization and practice that has antecedents, though most of those organizing do not know of the various histories. Below we share a glance at some of it with regard to May Day.
Why This May Day Matters
This year, the day is about occupying the space and the time to create a different world.
While May Day began as a day of struggle that included the mobilization of all sorts of workers, immigrants, leftists, socialists, communists, anarco-syndicalists and anarchists, since WWII, particularly in Europe and the US, it became characterized more by reformist union marches. In 1958 in the US, the government even tried to hijack the date designating it as Loyalty Day and attempting to physically obstruct mobilizations. With the decline of the industrial labor force in the later 1970s in the global north, May Day seemed to be increasingly less a point of reference for movements, especially in the global North.
Instead of loosing its importance in the past decades however, May Day has begun to be re-signified by the movements and has begun to move again into one of the centers of massive mobilization.
One thread of the re-appropriation of May Day can be found in the “Revolutionary May Day” demonstrations in Germany and parts of (mainly) Northern Europe. They trace back to May 1 1987 when police stormed a peaceful street festival organized by revolutionary collectives and neighborhood organizations in the Kreuzberg neighborhood of Berlin, an area characterized by a strong immigrant and leftist population. Radical activists and inhabitants of Kreuzberg started to fight back against police attacks, setting up barricades and burning police cars. It was then that the battle turned into an urban uprising, which eventually forced the police out of the neighborhood for the night. That night the streets in the heart of Kreuzberg were filled with massive street parties, while simultaneously there was looting of shops and grocery stores. The Kreuzberg uprising became a symbol, and ever since “Revolutionary May Day” demonstrations are held in Kreuzberg, often with up to 20.000 participants. The police mobilize for every one, and there is almost always repression and skirmishes. Over the years “Revolutionary May Day” has spread to other cities in Germany and throughout northern Europe.
Another appropriation of May 1st by the more recent movements is with the EuroMayDay. EuroMayDay began in 2005 in dozens of European cities, including Milan, Naples, Berlin, Hamburg, Paris, Helsinki, Seville-Malaga, Lisbon, Vienna, Maribor, Zurich, Copenhagen, and Liège, and then spread to other cities around the world, such as Tokyo and Toronto, loosing its prefix “Euro”. The MayDay Parade emerged from the global justice movement in October 2004 during an autonomous event organized parallel to the European Social Forum. The basic idea was to unify the struggles of precarious workers and migrants for social rights and the freedom of movement across borders, as well as to create a trans-European network for mobilizations beyond the, up until then, one day of mobilization focus. The first coordinated EuroMayDay was held in 2005. Its origins go back to 2001 in Milan, Italy, when an alliance of labor activists of precarious workers, Rank-and-File Union Committees (CUB) squatted social centers and migrant organizations unified efforts for a May Day of the “precarious”. The term “precarious” refers to all people living with income and work insecurity, uneven or a total lack of access to social services, and/or often being subjected to repressive migration laws.
One of the central characteristics of May Day is to understand the diversity of the subjectivities engaged as an enrichment of the struggle—therefore the concept of unity is a different one than in traditional workers and leftist organizations, where the concept is based more on homogenization. This diversity is often expressed in the form of a parade—drawing upon the tactics of the global justice movement—where joy and celebration were core, as shown with groups such as Reclaim The Streets and The Pink Block, but also simultaneously mixing this joyous celebration with direct actions, such as temporary occupations of institutions, expropriation of food and other goods from chain food stores, and the use of public transport without paying. Some of the May Day networks became places where precarious workers, migrants and other workers, came for support around particular issues, struggles and actions—not related to May 1 actions. The rubric and actual networks of May Day became central places for organizing around issues such as the struggles and protests of precarious workers, such as those in call centers or short time contract workers in the service industries, as well as struggles against deportation and detention centers, against copyright and for general access to services understood as commons. The different May Days around Europe met regularly for discussion and coordination and made transnational calls for demonstrations. As of 2010 this form of organization began to shift, and while they still exist they have also again begun to change form.
The practices that grew out of May Day spread beyond the mobilizations for May 1 with, for example, satirical inventions, such as the popular icon of “Saint Precarious” or the “Precarious Superheroes” who would appear in other campaigns and movements. The “Precarious Superheroes” for example stand for the amount of “superhero capability” precarious workers have to have in their jobs and lives. Dressed in colorful fantasy clothing, like traditional superheroes, the “Precarious Superheroes” have been participating in demonstrations and direct actions. For example, in Hamburg in Germany “Precarious Superheroes” expropriated expensive food from a luxury store and distributed it for free to unemployed, homeless and poor workers in the days preceding May Day in 2006.
In 2006 in the US May Day was again placed on the national agenda as day of struggle. Migrant communities and organizations called for a May 1st national boycott and in some places a “Day Without an Immigrant,” with many millions of immigrants and migrants participating across the US, from the major cities to small towns. In Los Angeles alone, close to one million people were on the streets. Solidarity actions were organized in Mexico as well, with a “Nothing Gringo Boycott,” intending to show the cross-border solidarity with migrant communities. Since 2006, every May Day in the US is one where immigrant rights and power are a core part.
And then in 2008, in the U.S., the West Coast Dock Workers Union (International Longshore and Warehouse Union ILWU) called for a strike on May Day, demanding "an immediate end to the war and occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Middle East." 30,000 members and tens of thousands of other supporters, shut down the port that day. This resulted in bringing back the question of class, as a possible militant force, into May Day.
While in most of the global South May Day never lost its appeal as a significant day for struggle, both with militant resistance, as well as joyous celebrations, in the global north it is only in the past decade being increasingly reclaimed, from below, as the day of the struggle for dignity of the oppressed, the silenced and marginalized. May Day is also being recuperated as day of joy, of celebrating together the vast diversity of protagonists and participants, and of the changes to come—it is a moment where one catch a glimpse of tomorrow. What began as a recuperation of May Day’s radical tradition by activists of political groups and precarious workers, has increasingly turned into a broader movement, with May Day as a central symbol.
Now, in 2012, the planning for May Day is a combination of all of the above. There are traditional workers’ unions, especially the more progressive segments, there are immigrant rights organizations and communities, and many working groups from Occupy, such as: mutual Aid, planning to make a prefigurative day with food, some directly from local farmers and producers, child care, tutoring, medical consultations and direct medical aid; messaging, making sure our message is the one that gets out, interacting with mainstream media as well as creating our own media; direct Action, planning to shut down major road arteries, but doing so theatrically and with joy; the plus Brigades, also planning direct action as clown blocks; art and culture, organizing so anyone can create art that day, as well as making the action beautiful.
The conversations about strike, what it means to be a worker, and even the meaning of “stopping business as usual” is a changing one, and one that now encompasses work as precarious, using the language of precariousness – including various migrations statuses and abilities to risk a work strike. The call for a General Strike takes all of this into consideration and is interpreted as many things, from a labor union shut down to a non consumer day, or one without housework. Already, as we write this in March, coming from Europe and the U.S. we can see the influence of the global South and our own history on our current practices – not linearly perhaps, but nonetheless, there exist many aspects of the past 20 years of a shifting May Day.
An Invitation to a Global Conversation
With our forthcoming book we hope to help ground what is new and beautiful in our social creation today in relationships and concepts that have been developing and evolving in Latin America over the past 20 years in particular. There are, of course, many similarities with preceding forms of organization, especially most recently with the globalization movement of the late 90s and early 2000s; however we are choosing to ground the discussion with movements that arose and are comprised of more “regular” people, rather than movements and groups that came about and were made up of more intentional “activists”.
Explored are concepts such as Territory, Assembly, Rupture and Popular Power, and relationships such as horizontalism, autogestión (self-administration), and protagonism. These forms of organization and ways of relating are described based on more than two decades of practice and experience in Latin America, from the spreading of horizontalidad with the popular rebellion in Argentina, to the concept of Territory, grounded in Bolivia and Brazil, or the construction of Popular Power in the Consejo Comunales in Venezuela and the understanding of our many diversities, creating a world in which many worlds fit, of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico.
In this article, we used only one example, that of May Day.
Happy May Day!
Marina Sitrin is a participant in the Occupy movements, the editor of Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina and author of the forthcoming, Everyday Revolutions: Horizontalism and Autonomy in Argentina. She is a postdoctoral fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Committee on Globalization and Social Change.
Dario Azzellini is an activist, writer and film maker. His latest film is Comuna Under Construction about local self government in Venezuela, and latest book, together with Immanuel Ness, Ours to Master and to Own: Workers' Control from the Commune to the Present. He is a lecturer at the Institute for Sociology at the Johannes Kepler University in Austria.
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