Counterpower’s Long Game

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The Illuminator on the Verizon Building, 2012. Photo by Mark Read.

Today, my review of Manuel Castell’s Networks of Outrage and Hope went up at Public Books, an online curated review. I had wanted to compare the book to a deli’s sandwich, whose filling was more satisfying than the enclosing bread (its introduction and conclusion). But in the end we went for less visceral metaphors. I’ll just add here, quickly, that it’s an intriguing book, both in its own right as a study, and as a kind of concrete political intervention by Castells, a longtime towering figure. My reaction to the book, in brief, is that Castells is a touch off base. In his concern for pinpointing a radical departure from an old left he dislikes, he misses the most promising trends in activist organizing. Speaking of which, I wish I’d said something at the end about indigenous sovereignty organizing and Idle No More. Just goes to show: you always pay a price for leaving out developments North of 49.

March 18, 2013 — “This is the Beginning of the Beginning” flashed in white light on Manhattan’s Verizon Building. The message seemed to jump out of nowhere and Occupy Wall Street marchers crossing the Brooklyn Bridge broke into ecscatic chants. This was the Illuminator’s debut, just two days after New York police had brutally evicted Occupiers from Zuccotti Park. Hours later, we would find out that the Illuminator, aka Mark Read, was projecting from the apartment of Denise Vega, a public-housing resident sympathetic to Occupy. The target was no accident: Verizon was attacking its union, seeking to slash workers’ pay while accumulating record profits. Over a year later, the Illuminator is still active. And a portion of New York’s Occupy movement revived itself as Occupy Sandy after last fall’s hurricane. In the process, some of Occupy’s insurgent edge has dulled, while the larger Arab Spring and the Indignados movements that preceded and inspired it have lost momentum and influence. At least for now.

It is a good time, then, to reflect on whether we have really witnessed a “new species of social movement,” freed from old Left fetters, as sociologist Manuel Castells claims. Or whether these movements are better understood as novel instances of an older, more plural left tradition—characterized by complex relationships with unions, political parties, and community groups. For public social science, the distinction’s political and analytic stakes are high.

Read the rest at Public Books.

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