In Jamaica Plain, anarchist writer Cindy Milstein speaks to radicals on Occupy’s roots: “There is a pre-history to this that we understand”

Cindy Milstein smiles and talks with her hands to a room of 25 attentive listeners, mostly twenty-somethings and some older, all sitting in folding chairs. Standing in front of the floor-to-ceiling glass storefront  at Jamaica Plain’s Lucy Parsons Center, a radical bookstore and community space, the anarchist author and activist speaks of her experiences in with Occupy Philly, anarchism, and the intersections of the two.

“Implicit in the very beginning of this movement is that it's completely, completely indebted to anarchism and other horizontal and anti-authoritarian movements around the world,” she said during her two-hour talk, holding a single sheet of paper, barely looking at it. “And it wouldn’t have emerged if it hadn’t have been for all of us. But nobody knew that at first … there’s a pre-history to it that we understand but that almost no one who is in a lot of the Occupy movement understands.”

Milstein is a board member of the Institute for Anarchist Studies. She is the author of Anarchism and Its Aspirations, published by AK Press in 2010.

“I’ve been a big proponent of direct democracy for a long time,” she says. For Milstein, direct democracy has always been key within her own discussions of anarchism. “We don’t like the state, but we have to have a replacement … Direct democracy. It’s what I’ve always dreamed of,” she adds, explaining that although the Occupy movement has revealed how difficult direct democracy is in practice, it also reinforced that it's “the right thing to do.”

Milstein regularly talks on anarchism. On Thursday night, she recalled giving a talk on anarchism at Occupy Philly. It was met with the common reaction: “I don’t understand how anarchism works,” attendees told her.

“I never in my life thought I would be able to say this, but this is how it works,” she told them, staring around at the Occupy encampment. “This is it. I mean, this is what anarchists want.”

Anarchist principles provided the framework for the Occupy movement, she said, drawing from her experiences at Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Philly. As the Phoenix outlined in October, “Many of the national Occupy movement's organizational tools — the lengthy general assemblies, the finger-waggling exercises in consensus-building, the free food and clothing available throughout camp — come from anarchist models of direct action, horizontal organizing, and gift economies.” That article also pointed out that Occupy Boston specifically drew from local activists, anarchists, and DIY enthusiasts who have “long organized non-hierarchically in collective houses and radical book shops.” The Lucy Parsons Center -- founded in 1969 and recently re-opened on Centre Street in Jamaica Plain -- is one of those shops.

“Every single working group that started, all the working groups were structured by anarchists, not because we had a secret plan or because we coordinated it or even talked about it, but because this is what we do well,” said Milstein about Occupy Philly, her face growing red as her talk proceeded. “We love doing collective projects. We had all been waiting for this moment.”

“Its all so indebted to our experience and our histories, and other people who are revolutionaries who are interested in horizontal experiments,” said Milstein. “So implicit is a debt to something that people don’t even understand.”

But Milstein pointed out that it wasn’t necessary for people to totally understand anarchy or even understand "Occupy" to feel moved by it -- even without words or language or understanding of horizontal politics, it was the “feeling of shared suffering under capitalism” that drew the masses together over the past five months.

“Its probably the only time in human history that capitalism is so not only globally dominant but so deeply entrenched in shaping who we are, in the very fibers of how we think about who we are, our gender, our sex, it commodifies everything,” she said. “Capitalism seems to have become triumphant in a way where its almost hard to see what would be beyond it.  And in a way that’s created this sense of possibility for people to have a sense of shared suffering under capitalism … Capitalism so structures how we feel about the world that it does feel wrong to most people now.”

Coming to Occupy as an anarchist, Milstein said she had to reflect upon what she wanted her understanding of anarchism to do within Occupy. “That, to me, has been really perplexing from the first minute.”

“I’m so excited we’re going to do this here, I’ve been at OWS since the first minute,” a young woman told Milstein at the first meeting of Occupy Philly.

 “What brought you to Occupy?” Milstein asked.

“I don’t know,” she responded. “I’ve just had this intuition since I was a baby that something, something … I don’t know, just everything’s wrong, I’ve always felt that everything’s wrong .. Everyone in NY was mad at us because we didn’t have answers for how to fix it ... how would any of us know how to fix it?”

Milstein recalled this initial memory on Thursday night -- a moment that made her rethink her position as an anarchist at Occupy. “If someone can’t even describe where they are and why they’re there, to try to get them to do things that anarchists would do and feel really comfortable doing felt odd, and has continually felt odd in this whole thing.”

The convergence of anarchist ideas with mainstream activists forced radicals like Milstein to take a wide view. “Even though we have been at the forefront of this whole thing ... in a certain way, we almost are at the back.”

Milstein doesn’t want to turn everyone into an anarchist, but rather, wants its aspirations to be recognized. “I hope we can live in a society where it has the values of an anarchism as a political philosophy as a way of organizing society, self-governance, self-determination and self-management  .. but I don’t care if everyone is an anarchist or not.”

Even so, she does not plan to drop the word “anarchist” for another term. From Milstein’s perspective, anarchists still maintain necessary critiques of power and hierarchy, and its relationship to capitalism, gender, and class. She said, “I wouldn’t hold on to the label if it was meaningless.”

More thoughts from Milstein on Occupy and Anarchism can be heard via’s “Anarchism in Thought and in the Streets” podcast.

| More

 Friends' Activity   Popular 
All Blogs
Follow the Phoenix
  • newsletter
  • twitter
  • facebook
  • youtube
  • rss
Latest Comments
Search Blogs
Phlog Archives