For What We Will: May Day in Portland Maine

 

by NIGEL STEVENS

As we made a few last minute preparations that morning, everything felt so wonderfully familiar; it was like returning home. The strong turnout of the Philosophy Symposium, the complacency of the rain, the nervous energy filling the air, all elements were clearly present and affective, just as they were exactly seven months prior when we first set up tents in the heart of Portland as Occupy Maine. However this time when we dropped our banners and held high our signs it was not in the smooth space of a public square, but in the striated halls of the University of Southern Maine.

We filled the lobby of the USM business school, appropriating and communizing the space for assembly, thereby instituting our Free University. The media presence was thick due to the triad of Obama’s recent attention to student loans (due to the impending threat of their interest rate doubling in July), the controversy surrounding raises recently awarded—and nearly immediately rescinded—to high-level administrators by USM President Selma Botman, and the impending faculty vote of “no confidence” in her administrative capability. We touched on these issues, as we always do, but the focus of our assembly that day lay beyond them.

The event broke with a short lecture by Jason Read on the history of May Day and what lessons it holds for today’s post-Fordist context. He focused on how, when May Day began, it was constituted in “a struggle not for wages, for money, but for life—eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, and eight hours for what we will.” As Read spoke, so too did the faces of the larger assembly: this question of time still presents itself forcefully in the daily life of the precariat, as well as in the particular strategic problem of mobilization. In today’s world, where our time is cellular and recombinant, it is all too easy to convince our friends and ourselves that we “do not have time” to protest, to assemble, to occupy. Yet, as Read emphasized, “freedom is not based on law, on constitutions, but on power, on control over time and life.” It is precisely this freedom that we have lost, and so it is precisely around this loss that we shall mobilize.

As discussion unfolded during and after Read’s talk there emerged no individual, representational antagonist—no Selma Botman, no Paul LePage, no Mitt Romney, nor even a shadowy 1%—but rather there emerged a series of techniques that are used to control our time, our affective potentials, and ultimately our very lives. Herein lies Occupy’s greatest strength, found in those precious moments where we move beyond the semiotic play of the spectacular and the representational to address instead the experiential. We caught sight of these seeds of collective autonomy as we talked about the time stolen by unpaid internships, about the newfound time-conflicts (after USM cut its childcare program) between attending to one’s children and attending to one’s classes, about the affective-informative failures of the online courses forced upon us by university administration, about the time wasted navigating understaffed offices, and finally about the years of debt bondage we face in our ever-compounding student debt. As solidarity was slowly generated around these daily struggles, so too was the mass of our assembly; spectators became participants and participants collectively analyzed how this attack on time “for what we will” has unfolded. Towards the end, a few campus police arrived to inspect the scene but, apparently having no prior experience with this sort of student and community action, they seemed unsure of what to do.

As for the Occupy USM assembly, we left the university as we had planned. We took to the rainy streets and marched a mile to meet up with the larger Occupy Maine assembly at Congress Square (a public square facing acquisition by the venture capital firm that owns an adjacent hotel). After arriving to the cheers and embraces of our friends, the discussion continued. Now joined by organized labor, high school students, and other usually disparate members of the community, we continued to affirm our place in the May Day tradition by speaking out against capital’s control over our lives and our time. The so-called “job security” of yesterday was affirmed to be long gone; all that remains today is rather the precarious, always-on-call existence of emotional and cognitive labor. Yet, we refused to seek an ideal return to the old Fordist schemas. Rather, we resolved to stand fast in the present, intending to face our lost freedoms—our lost time—head on.

After the rally, May Day continued on for the rest of the evening in carnivalesque spirits. We went on to interrupt business-as-usual for our local Bank of America to throw them party congratulating them as the “Worst Company in the World”; afterwards we celebrated over a workshop dinner focused on alternative, cooperative, forms of organizing the workplace; then we ended the evening dancing at a benefit for anti-Putin demonstrators Pussy Riot. The net effect was reinvigoration, renewal, and resurgence; we were reminded that yes we had in fact weathered the winter and that summer was only just arriving. Many of our friends are ready to demonstrate, to rally, and to occupy; though some still believe they do not have the time. We have learned much over the last few months though, and as we look to our friends fighting in New York, in Oakland, in Montreal, and all over the world, we see what is to be done.

In this struggle for life-time, we must continue to research and destroy the specific mechanisms of its control by semiocapital, and the corresponding metrics employed in recombination. Just as we face, at the university-level, a crushing imperative to measure—rates of graduates, classroom sizes, job placement, and of course debt incurred—everywhere we turn there are cost-benefit analyses, cybernetic accountings of inputs and outputs, heavy examinations of profits retained, and the ubiquitous stamps of a ratings agency. These are all gears in capital’s “apparatus of capture,” and they govern our time such that it furthers the process of accumulation. As such, these are also potential sites of resistance, and as the schema of wage labor continues to break down, we can see clearly how arbitrary such imposed measures are, particularly when they govern our time. In other words, the tripartite separation of life-time into work, sleep, and “what we will” no longer makes sense in a society structured along the compossibility of debt. It is tactically crucial that we remember that what we won on May Day was not the eight hours of work, but the eight hours of what we will.  So as we look towards the summer, the fall, and all of the struggles to come, we may then rest assure in one thing: for what we will, our time has come.

 

 

 

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