In a social theory graduate seminar about a year ago, Peter Marcuse, a radical lawyer and urban planning prof, came by for a chat. He asked us what social theory was for. First came embarrassed silence. Then convoluted soliloquies. Eventually he gave us his take: The role of theory is show people hurt by capitalism the unity of their opposition.
This is what #OWS has done. Except instead of working with a coherent theory, it’s created and sustained a positive feedback loop between symbolic and practical analogy, between asserting our common cause and building coalitions. Together, they form open-ended and creative ways of thinking and doing.
The original analogy here is the 99%. Not in the sense that the 99% is like something else,—rather, that all those who belong to the 99% are like each other. Banality is avoided because of a second analogy, between the 1% and Wall Street, which argues that the rich aren’t just those who have a lot—they’re those who profit from the dispossession of everyone else. It’s good strategy to line up against Wall Street. Even Republican pollster Frank Luntz told Republicans not to defend capitalism, because these days most Americans think capitalism is immoral. His preferred analogy is to imply that all rich people are job creators.
#OWS’s practical piece is the occupation and the actions that have sprung from it. For years, unions, NGOs and community activists had little in common other than the frustrations of working with the Democratic Party or competing over foundation grants. The practical analogy of the “progressive” concept boiled down to raising money and lobbying the system. When progressives banded together, it was usually under a centrist banner. With the notion of the 99%, #OWS has offered a different unifying banner—at once more radical and more inclusive.
Comparing an #OWS event to the marches through Wall Street that I remember from last spring is telling. The crowds now are more diverse, less dominated by sectarian socialists or union bureaucrats, younger, and more sprinkled with curious middle-agers—not to mention happier, louder, and less predictable.
Expanding coalitions has also become a point of pride, and not just a hoped-for horizon. On November 17 organizers beamed the 99% in light on the Verizon building, site of a massive labor dispute to which they’re lending support. And they did this from a public housing tower’s apartment whose tenant had come to believe in what #OWS was doing. #OWS activists also joined locked-out Sotheby’s workers on the picket line, while some activists did something useful with their white privilege, disguising themselves as buyers and disrupting auctions from the inside.
#OWS’s simple anti-Wall Street, anti-1% message has helped build a global 99%, inspiring actions and occupations across the country and around the world. I was in Toronto on the first day of its occupation and it was funny to watch people trying the People’s Mic for the first time—interrupting each other, speaking in too-long sentences, addressing groups of five or six and attracting zero attention. But of course, at the international scale it’s more accurate to point out that #OWS actually built itself on the symbolic and practical bases established by the Tunisian revolutions and the Spanish indignados–or as the slogan now goes, Arab Spring, European Summer, American Fall, Russian Winter.
On December 6 in East New York, #OWS joined local community organizations to help stage a beautiful home-reoccupation, maybe the tightest feedback loop yet between sign and act, between the symbolic assertion of alliance, and its enactment, and between the small-print of the daily lives of the 99%, and the large print of the destructive business practices of the 1%. I saw a fair number of community members in our march through the neighborhood, and many more waving from windows or looking on encouragingly. At one point an activist said through the People’s Mic, to huge applause, that the eviction was the best thing that could have happened to Occupy Wall Street, because since then the movement has become a lot more colorful. But of course, there’s a very long way to go. One Black student I met in front of a school told me he supported us, but didn’t want to get arrested.
Because analogies are central to #OWS, lots of the big arguments have been phrased in terms of analogy. Right after the movement’s birth, some tried to erase a history of racial oppression by pure symbolic fiat, declaring that we were all of one race. But the wisdom of the crowd knew better—thanks to passionate interventions it has opted for symbolic and practical analogies informed by practices of anti-oppression. On a cold and damp Wednesday night this month I attended a session on organizing for racial justice with over two hundred people in attendance.
A bunch of times I’ve seen people try to call the cops part of the 99%. Others always disagree. Meanwhile, many of the strongest critics of police brutality forged a different and powerful analogy, comparing a campaign against Stop and Frisk to the long civil rights struggle. A Council of Elders, veterans of social movements, have heartily agreed—while a FOX affiliate returned the favor in a segment titled, “Reality Check: Why the Occupy movement is not like the Civil Rights movement.”
At a recent General Assembly I learned that you could modify the hand signal for point of process to form the shape of a heart—this is called a point of affection. There’s something wistful, something a little cheesy, about the People’s Mic, the twinkly fingers, the constant assertions that we’re all in this together to make a better world. But the amorous analogy at the heart of the 99% isn’t heart-warming because of its naiveté, but rather because it’s become the basis for concrete projects of solidarity.