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Spontaneity vs Preparation

Gary, Celine and Gilda on the question of spontaneity vs preparation.

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Dance StepsGary: This is long running, at least  in political circles.  This has been a long-running battle or struggle over spontaneity versus preparation insofar as  in Britain you’ve had these massive rallies opposing the cuts and the fee increases.  I want to use that as a jumping off point.

Wasn’t a lot of that spontaneous? And then it grew and grew?  I’m asking you, Celine, more than anybody.

Celine: Of course there are certain events that were organized.  Ror example, tomorrow we have what’s probably going to be one of the biggest marches this country has seen in generations.  We’ve been preparing for months, but there’s definitely been….

Gilda: We’re having a big march tomorrow too…

Celine: Oh, really?  What are you guys marching for?  Or against?

Gary: It was one of those things that was planned by the County Federation of Labor for some time and it was going to initially be in support of teachers and unclassified workers.  And then Wisconsin and then all this other stuff.  And then it also grew to include — actually,  I’m sorry –– it was going to be for the private sector union folks, but then it grew to include public sector workers.  It is an example of something that because of recent events had to obviously change course and expand.

Celine: Right.  The student movements have been very interesting because the police have a very specific preventative techniques here – what they call preventative techniques — to control the crowd.

Gilda: Kettling…

Celine: Kettling is the main one, which is basically:  the police encircle protesters when they think violence is going to ensue, and its a way, supposedly, to contain the violence before it happens.

But realistically, what that looks like most of the time is — at least in these protests — we’ve been systematically punished, I guess.  Every time we would go out and march we would be encircled by cops and then held there for hours on end, in the freezing cold usually.

So there’s been a huge level of spontaneity that has occurred as a result of that because none of us wanted to get kettled.   So the student protests have actually become these sort of really, really  fun kind of guerilla protests where we start a march and we just take over the streets and we don’t really know where we’re going.  The decisions are made on the spot and the cops don’t know what to do and they end up just basically being traffic control, because we block the streets and occupy shops on the way and then other people join us.

It’s become pretty phenomenal.  I guess that’s a pretty powerful example of how spontaneity is actually — for right now its been our force.  Tomorrow its going to be interesting because there have been so many calls for occupying and its all very — a lot of it is secretive.  The places haven’t been announced yet.  And I think the cops are a little bit concerned as to what’s going to happen.

Yay!  It should be fun.

Gilda: Isn’t that just another form of preparation?  You still have to know….Well maybe I’m wrong.  What is the preparation for that?  Is there a leadership structure?  Is there a cell?  Who do you know who to follow if there are a hundred people without a direction.  Do people text?  Is there a database of people’s phone numbers?

There are so many groups that want to organize a movement.  But to me you can’t really “organize” a movement.   “OK, we’re going to organize a movement now.  This is how we’re going to take over state power.”

But what you can do is develop leadership, develop infrastructure of relationships and communication, develop a language of alternative ideas.  And then when something hits….I guess that’s what I mean.  Then when something hits, you’re prepared.

So you know who to call.  They know to call you.   You know where to go.

I think that for people who are taking leadership in organizations or taking some responsibility –– preparation is different.  For them, that whole thing I obsess about –– Woody Allen is so wrong, 90% of life isn’t showing up.

But there are times…For example, just showing up at the march tomorrow is exactly what I’ll do.  And I will have no preparation.  The only preparation that I will have is my experience of what things could possibly look like if things get scary.  But even then, times when I did experience complete lack of preparation for what actually happened, it wasn’t because the people hadn’t prepared.  It was because were foiled.  Like the Justice for Janitors demo about 20 years ago…

Gary: But that was a cop riot.

Gilda: It was really a cop riot.  Cop riot, –– I never heard that before –– that was a good call, Gary.

Gary: That’s why I’m prepared.

Gilda: So there was a lot of preparation.  There had been conflict between the janitors and the owners of Century City for some time and they were trying to get a union contract.  And there was a march.  And prior to the march –– as these things have become very established in Los Angeles.  There’s a police detail that’s responsible for coordinating with demonstrations and public events and anything that has to do with the streets.  And there had been several meetings with the police prior to the demonstrations…

Gary: And everything was lovely…

Gilda: Everything was lovely.  We all met in a park in Beverly Hills.  And the Beverly Hills police escorted us across the street.  It was very festive.  And as we got into the Los Angeles city limits and started walking up this hill we were greeted by a kind of flying V formation of police in riot gear.   I turned to an organizer and asked “What’s happening?” because I knew they were so prepared.  And he said “I don’t know.”  And I said, “Well, they do.  They have a plan.”  And then were were rushed.  And people were beaten up.  It was pretty chilling.

But my point is…you can’t — what is that bumper sticker — “shit happens.”  You can’t predict a tsunami, you can’t predict a police riot, you can’t predict getting robbed, you can’t predict the moment when people who have never taken action before are so moved to do so.  In Egypt or Tunisia or Wisconsin.

But you can be prepared.

You can be prepared with your infrastructure.  You can be prepared with your procedures.  You can prepared with your leadership.  You can be prepared with your confidence in your ideas.

Gary: And just to spin it slightly differently.  Or think about it slightly differently.  It seems to me that the tension –– at least in political circles here –– you know the old guard or the established guard even in the left was a little afraid of spontaneity, because spontaneity was something they didn’t plan. They had no way of controlling it.

So spontaneity is a good thing, because obviously you want people involved.  You want people fired up.  But sometimes if there’s no leadership to it, then where does it go?  What happens to it once it reaches a certain point?

And I’m sure that’s the lesson in the UK, like you said, there’s a certain amount of fluidity — because there just as to be, that only makes sense — its easy to tap cell phones and text messages and all this other stuff.  So the less of that stuff is in memory and memory chips and whatever it is; obviously, the better it is in terms of moving people around and making things happen on a more instantaneous level.

Or like you said, only a certain number of people know and they keep that stuff in their head, and they know it.  And they act on it.

Gilda: That also was the difference between in interpretation in terms of what democratic centralism was (an oxymoron if I ever heard one) between Lenin and Rosa Luxembourg.  In terms of …

Gary: Lenin liked to be prepared a lot.

Gilda: Liked to be prepared a lot and like for everyone to be prepared in the same way.  And liked the notion of cadre-driven decision-making.  And I think that Rosa Luxembourg might be mis-interpreted a lot, but had a much more horizontal idea of how things can get done. Perhaps a more feminist approach of what democracy can mean.

Celine: That stuff is also echoed with what is happening here (in London).  Because it isn’t all just spontaneous street takeovers by students.  There is also a lot of preparation that happens.  One could even argue there isn’t enough.  There is also the same tension here.

A lot of issues are happening with the unions because the unions are really bureaucratic and are very reluctant — its a huge process before they can call a general strike.  To get the ballots going.  And when you talk to a lot of the union members who are working locally…  For example, in my community we have support from several different unions and they are trying to push for something like a general strike.  And there is a huge disconnect between what the guys higher up are envisioning and what the people on the ground are doing.  So those union members who are with us, who are occupying –– we all occupied a town hall together.  And when the time came to talk about how long we were going to hold the town hall for, the union leaders who were higher up said “Let’s exit now.”

Whereas the people were saying — we were having discussions about 24 hours.  Its the eternal universal question.  It’s definitely about finding a balance.

Personally, when I was in the occupation of the town hall, I was a bit — well, not annoyed.  I guess I was a little annoyed that one of the union leaders took over the conversation and kind of  decided “We’re exiting now.”  At the same time that there were mommas and babies and students and people who maybe had other ideas.

That was a rant.

Gary: But you’re right.  That crystallizes the point as to whether the “old guard” on the one hand hope for spontaneity to a certain extent.  Because obviously you always want numbers and people and want to galvanize the public on these issues.  And then on the other hand — its the bain and the boon — then you also figure out that “this could get away from me.”

The classic joke being Robspierre and Danton having coffee at the outside cafe as the people rush by in the French Revolution. And they have to get up and say “We must lead them.”  But of course they are leading from the rear.  Because the people have passed them by.

Gilda: I guess the origin of this theme in the first place was the recent natural disaster events in Japan — the whole idea of why we’re talking about preparation right now . Could Japan have been more prepared?

That made me think, of course, “Could I have been more prepared.”  Every time there is an earthquake, I pull out a list that looks like “Here are 340 things you can do to be prepared in case of a natural disaster.”

So I went to our block club or our coalition of block clubs in our neighborhood where they had the police telling funny stories.  It was kind of like police stand-up.  But there was one woman who was starting a preparedness committee.  So I signed up for that.  And I just met with her.  And apparently there are people — and I might become one of them — I might take this CERT training — for Community Emergency Response Teams — which kind of starts out,  shockingly, with triage.  You only spend 30 seconds on each person, so that you can see as many people as possible, and if someone has not breathed for two minutes, put a black thing on them, and we’ll tag their toe….It’s shocking for a typical little housewife person.

So people who do this.  There are people who go through the trainings and then become citizen battalion leaders.  They are like preparation-istas.  And they want everyone to be VERY PREPARED.  ALL THE TIME.  And to be very aware and conscious all the time and to have meetings all the time about the inevitable holocaust.

My thing, of course, is to Dr. Pop that up.

How can we make things as easy as possible and as convenient as possible?  How can we assemble kits and let people pay for them? I’m trying to think of what would I want?  How would I want to be prepared?  Well I would just want to pay my money and take my chances rather that go to 17 hours of training.  (laughter)

But I will go to the 17 hours of training to know that my neighbors are more prepared.  Because the one thing that you don’t want in an emergency is to be the only one with their wits about them.

Gary: You don’t want panicky neighbors.

Gilda: Panicky neighbors.  People who are so freaked out about scarcity.  There is this consciousness and expectation — which is contrary to all studies — that in an emergency that people will grab their guns and go into their bomb shelters and keep you out and  not want the neighbor to know that they have extra bottles of water.

I guess my Dr. Pop thing is that we should make preparation as simple and enjoyable and social as possible.

Celine: …and as un-depressing as possible.   When I grew up in L.A., my mom was really good at that stuff, and we had, in every closet, a kit. And in the car we had a kit.  And we had water.  She’s super, super prepared.

Gilda: I love your mom!

Celine: We had our names written on the kits.  And then maybe as a result of that…or maybe because I’m afraid of a lot of things (laughing)…

Gilda: You would have to be SO prepared…

Celine: I try not to think about it.  I don’t like to use the word prepared because I’m not prepared.  And thinking about it is going to freak me out about how I’m not prepared.  It’s kind of pathetic.

My mom  grew up in Africa where there’s this expression that if you put a word to something, it makes it real.  So in my family we never really use words like cancer.

Gilda: If you use the word it evokes the reality?

Celine: Yes.  It becomes.  It’s like word is bond.  It becomes a real thing.  There’s part of me that if I don’t think about or talk about the tsunami or the big one…  That’s how unprepared people deal with the apocalypse.

So, yes.  I will be the neighbor that will be screaming and hanging on to the one sane looking person on the block.

Gilda: So you will be so lucky if you are in L.A. and I am nearby.

Gary: That’s it.  Gilda will be prepared.

Celine: But you’re right.  I guess if there was a way to make it kind of sexy.  Or less terrorizing.  It definitely is important.  (my mom is going to freak out when she hears this),  Just send me kits.

Gilda: If you think about marketing.  When the words “Are you prepared?” come up, they are always referring to “are you prepared for death?”  Sometimes the message comes from the door-to-door evangelists who sometimes frequent our block.  About whether we’re prepared for the Final Days…

Gilda: The other place where you are likely to get an “Are you prepared?” message is really about do you have a will.  So after my parents died — and they had [a will] — my mother was very prepared.  She was a very neat and organized person and wouldn’t want anyone to clean up her mess.  She was, and it absolutely made life very easy for other people.  It could have been absolute chaos.  So inspired by that, just like I’m inspired (temporarily) by the tsunami to be a community prepared person — I went out to Nolo Press and bought Willmaker.  And started filling out the forms for that.  And that lasted for about ten minutes, because you get to a point when you are married, in this process, where you have to talk to your husband about it.  And he wasn’t talking.  “Can we do that another time.”

Gary: Didn’t we fill that out?

Gilda: No.

Gary: I though I said I’ll sign anything you tell me to sign?

Gilda: It requires some conversation.

Gary: Well, I have to say that I too have been sobered by the events in Japan.  So I have more incentive now to pay attention and fill out the forms.  If only because they will find it after the atomic blast.  The singed papers.  After the big one.

Gilda: Well, then the other positive impact of the events in Japan is the awakening of dormant awareness of the possibilities of nuclear disaster that are generated by human indecision rather than decision.  We were always afraid about someone pushing the button, but this is more like “No, I forgot to push the button, and now everything’s broken.”  So now all these nuclear plants are going to get inspected.

Gary: There still is a leak in one of those nuclear reactors in Japan and they don’t know where the leak is coming from.

Gilda: But what we’re not prepared for, infrastructure-wise, is even the consideration of what would be an alternative.  And there’s so much to do. And we’re the worst country about consideration of it.  One is of course to consume less energy.  And the other is to use alternative forms that don’t destroy the world.

Gary: But this comes at a time.  One of those damned polls.  I don’t know what the control group was, but one out of four people who watch TV News watch Fox.  And they believe Fox.  That’s a frightening thing to think about.  Here’s  a channel where you have people on it that believe that we live like the Flintstones.  Cheek by jowl with dinosaurs. Global warming is only because of sun spots.  Whatever.  Good God.  Here we are in the 21st century and you think, well, wow, what does that mean.  Maybe its only a reaction to…It is probably a reaction to that there is so much stuff happening so people can only then simply these things and think about them in a weird retro way because they can’t even handle the fact that the world, frankly, is beyond their ken to deal with.

Celine:  Well, beyond that — since you brought up Fox News — its a way to keep the masses ignorant about what the world really is.  So that those who are in power — and have money and who do waste the most energy and who are responsible for these environmental disasters — stay in power.  Its all linked to inequality.  Its sad, because in a way, to be prepared for the environmental change that are happening, we have to have really huge conversations that deal with capitalism.  For the real preparation.  So that people have a complete picture of what is going on.

I guess that is what kind of scares me.  Well, not scares me, but I think this is such a huge task.  Because we do need to be prepared for these environmental phenomena that are coming and becoming bigger and worse.  But how do you do that when we are all in denial — of a big proportion of people are in denial.  About how our life-styles have to change.

Gilda: I agree with that because you cannot predict a tsunami.  You cannot predict an earthquake.  You cannot predict the Ice Age.   You cannot predict the plague.

There have been historical moments when huge percentages of the human population have been eliminated.  In Europe during the plague.  In prehistory at one point we were down to a couple of thousand people on the planet.  That actually happened.  There was a chance of extinction of human beings.  That didn’t happen.  It was close but no cigar.

So you couldn’t predict the tsunami.  But could prepare for it, for example, architecturally, which apparently Japan was relatively great at.  But you cannot prepare for the unknowable. So when they say, “What if we drill for oil, 100 miles under the sea?  What’s the down side of that?”  They fudged that analysis.  They really didn’t take that analysis really seriously.  Nobody had ever done it before.  And there was hell to pay.

Celine: I feel like that is going to keep happening.  So now we’re going to inspect Germany’s old nuclear plants, but, I don’t know…Obama’s  still talking about nuclear as clean energy policy.  I feel like is kind of like we are dancing in front of this giant phenomena.  I’m not sure how that ends.  How do you get the oil drilling to stop?  Is it just when there is no more oil in the world?

Gilda: Well, that’s the other thing.   We are past peak oil.  Oil is finite.  We are at peak oil.  We have used up over half of the supply of oil that exists in the world.  And the rest of the oil that is left is finite.  And it is also harder to get to. And more expensive to get to.  And more BP-oil-ish, in terms of its potential.

There’s a film.  Its not an excellent documentary.  But its an excellent premise.  Its about how Cuba survived peak oil.  It uses as an example — well, that we can learn a lot from Cuba.  Because after the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba had no oil.  They had no oil delivered.  They had no energy.  They had no gasoline.  There was no refrigeration in the stores.  People lost 20 pounds or 40 pounds.  Adults.  People had serious nutritional diseases.  And then they created a more austere but more self-sustaining economy, which was a long time coming.

It is true. There is a lesson to be learned from that.   Its kind of like the anarchist planet and the capitalist planet in Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. (well, here it is a communist planet).

So one of the better preparations we can have is doing with less in a manner that doesn’t punish.  So that less doesn’t mean that you don’t have a job and I do.  Or that I use less oil, but you’re rich, so you get to have three SUVs.  So how can we all live with our bellies closer to the ground so that when things do happen, we can survive.

We have to end on a cheerier note.

On the Woody Allen tip, getting back to Woody Allen.  I do agree that there are times when just showing up is a wonderful thing.  Like just showing up at a funeral.  For a wedding, for a birthday, for someone being honored.  Like the march that I’m going to tomorrow.  Just to be seen and counted and paying your respects.  Those are moments when you can count on other people being prepared — or not.  That you’re just going to be there.  Those are all really good things.

Then there are other things like school or work or organizing where you can just show up and that’s an empty promise.  Because you’re totally unprepared. The body’s here but the eyes are vacant.

Celine: I think I can agree on that.

Gilda: But I am very curious.  I really do think that there is a difference between a horizontal form of organization and the cell organization of the Battle of Algiers that is so fascinating or other kinds of groups that remain hidden or not from each other.  Affinity groups.  I do think there is a difference between that — because that is organization and preparation.  And there are processes and  methods for people to be schooled in for things to work.  That’s different than just showing up.

Celine: Absolutely.

Gilda: Even a flash mob. Someone has to call the question for people to show up at 2 o’clock on Thursday. And what you’re going to do.

Gary: Celine, so what’s the big rallying cry for tomorrow?

Celine: Tomorrow is just a march that’s against all of the cuts, of which there are so many of.  So there will be unions, teachers, students, people from disability groups, housing groups — because the government is literally decimating the welfare state.  They are completely getting rid of everything that’s public.  There’s going to be SO many people.

We’re all very excited. I think for now —  well this is in line with the theme of this conversation — the big question for a lot of us who are working, who are organizing, anti-cuts groups and students who are organizing — the big question is what happens after tomorrow.  There has been a lot of preparation and a lot of hope going into tomorrow which I’m sure is going to be just an amazing day.  I’m really, really looking forward to it.  I just think we’re all wondering what happens next. And is there going to be some amazing spontaneous action tomorrow night.  There’s been talk of sleeping in Trafalgar Square, but knowing the cops, I don’t think they will let that happen.

Gilda: Its so Egypt inspired…

Celine: Yes, the slogan is “Turning Trafalgar Square into Tahrir Square.”  Of course, beyond that — is something going to emerge organically out of this.  Are people going to be inspired.  We are expecting over 500,000 people.  Because people who have not been involved in any other protests or movements or anything are coming.

But then the other question is are groups going to prepare.  Afterwards.  Are they going to get together and really think long-term about a struggle to win this battle.

One Comment

  • Stu says:

    I’m not sure where to start with such a fabulously eclectic conversation. Celine’s final para is, for a Brit with a bit of activist burn-out, incredibly pertinent. Individual groups have historically been incredibly prepared, particularly in terms of direct action. The thought and planning in environmental actions for instance has been military in precision.

    The movement (if I can resist a minor up-chuck and use the term) is hugely factional, and has been hampered by the need for participants to know the password and the secret handshake to get involved. This, however, seems to be shifting. They aren’t named above but UK Uncut are comfortably one of the most exciting developments in political activism in the UK for aeons, because they have a model or resistance that is inclusive, witty and effective. That their actions involve first-timers (not just in terms of direct action, but first time protestors) participating in teach-ins, setting up creches in bank branches to name a couple is inspiring. Throw in the fact they got a favourable opinon piece in the Daily Mail of all places and you’ve got a group that can truly start to transcend a little.

    I don’t have a solution on leadership to align what is happening in the UK, but it’s not going to come from the Unions, who are in hoc to the current political system and heavily aligned with a major political party. I’ve not seen stats, but the cuts demo in London (a few weeks ago now) was massive because union members are rightly fearful for their jobs. A sizeable student component aside there was no significant or obvious show of solidarity from people employed outside the public sector (there’s a point here about individualism that I’ll resist a rant on), and the unions have no means or imagination to pull this in. Marching and union-organizing for resistance is dated, cumbersome, and uninspiring. I’m frankly amazed the TUC managed to co-ordinate a march, but then it took them almost a year. The prospect of a general strike is so remote as to be laughable. Unity is Strength, but between the different unions there are gulfs that show no sign of closing. And whether you like it or not there is an avesion to unions by non-unionised workers fuelled by Thatcherism that makes it even less likely that union-led resistance will broaden.

    Ultimately, in terms of preparation, my point is perhaps one of protest demographics. The Woody Allen demographic if you will. The non-affiliate, Guardian-reading, showing up demographic. Non-unionised, not participating in direct-action. They’ll pack a picnic, not a bust card. They’re marching because they have a vague sense of obligation, or they aren’t there and then they’ll realise they meant to be. But they aren’t thinking about that now, but they sometimes do. This is not a spontaneous group, but for me its a key group, one that would need to be more active before any hope of the movement (vom) spreading beyond its current cohort. Preparation, structure – these are probably essentials to activate them. But some spontaneity, creativity and wit to capture the imagination too. A means of greater, more effective participation.

    Some of my phraseology is a little off here. “Activating” as a term in relation to humans is slightly sinister, but I hope you’ll see my meaning. The tension between spontaneity and preparation is key to the wider debate on participation in resistance, and I’d not really thought about it in that context – so this is appreciated.

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