Living Politically

Less than ten years ago, a day of international protests swept across the globe, involving millions of human beings for nearly a full 24 hours. It was a global protest against the United States starting a war against Iraq, and was, as far as we know, the first coordinated global protest against state-sponsored violence. A few years before that, at a World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in 1999, a series of intense, angry protests against global economic injustice began. These actions occurred repeatedly over several years, and across several continents. As recently as the winter of 2011, there were enormous protests in Madison, Wisconsin against anti-union legislation. The protests were explicitly focused on class and inequalities, not just on wealth, but also on the discrepancy of power between the very rich and the rest.

Mass protests—and especially mass protests focused on economic justice—were with us at the turn of this century. For some reason, though, the Occupy Wall Street movement (OWS) captured our imaginations and managed to become the locus of academic and public discussion about protest and alternatives to the current political economy. Why is this?

Before answering this question, it is worth briefly reflecting on the ways in which OWS has not been successful. There is no evidence that OWS will have any effect on elections or governmental policy. As best as I can tell, what OWS has done is introduced certain language into popular discourse. Most notably, a LexisNexis search reveals that discussions of income- and wealth-inequality shot up by at least two-fold during the OWS occupation of Zucotti Park when compared to the two month period before that, or, for that matter, the same period the year prior. But as noted above, mass political action resisting inequality predates OWS. Furthermore, OWS is not a movement—at least not in any sense that we would use the term to refer to other movements. OWS was, first and foremost, an event more than an organization.

Because OWS was no more than an event, it always had to be located in a determinate place. This is why the evictions from Zucotti and the various other OWS sites were seen as existential threats. A performance needs a theater, and if the theater closes, then the performance ends. Organizations, on the other hand, are abstract entities and so can coalesce anywhere they choose. OWS had moments when it appeared to be on the verge of shifting from a determinate series of events into an abstract organization, but, at least as of early 2012, a full transformation never occurred. OWS remains, first and foremost, one of the most remarkable events of 2011, but not an organization.

Alas, that event is now over. We still might benefit, though, from asking why OWS so effectively captivated our imaginations—why it was so much more successful than, for example, the remarkable protests that shut down the entire state government of Wisconsin earlier in 2011.

One might point to OWS’s occupation of public space as a tactic that set it apart from other actions for economic justice. But this is surely not significant enough to warrant either the special attention OWS has gotten or our amnesia about the recent political past. After all, the Wisconsin protesters occupied public space in a far more ferocious manner than did OWS. So, let us put this suggestion aside.

Let us look elsewhere for factors that might partially explain how OWS so effectively gripped our attention (sometimes to the exclusion of all the other mass protest movements of the past decade).

First, unlike the first few years of the twenty-first century, capitalism is now in its greatest crisis since the 1930s. This crisis has touched all of us. For some, it has been personally disastrous. In these cases, the crisis reshaped relationships with more than just the political economy within which we were born; it also poignantly affected many of our relationships with each other. People have lost jobs and homes, and as a result have lost communities and marriages. Students have lost their futures in a dark pit of debt from which they cannot imagine escaping. This immediate hardship of the crisis makes it a personal crisis. So any response to the crisis becomes personal. This is especially so given the Obama administration’s failure to articulate and pursue a vision of economic justice in response to this crisis. Unsurprisingly, then, people who were never protesters, and who did not see themselves as aligned with the Tea Party, suddenly came to see themselves as aligned with OWS. At the very least, desperation has made people more receptive to its message.

The second factor that explains our myopic focus on OWS is probably the Arab Spring. Captivating and beautiful, these pro-democracy movements were also largely—and surprisingly—successful in producing immediate, substantial change. Immediate success is a powerful force in focusing our attention. This is a bit surprising, of course, since the aims of the Arab Spring are so radically distinct from those of OWS. The Arab Spring is, in many ways, a completion of the anti-colonial movements of the 1960s. Its primary demand has been for basic democratic institutions, not, at least in the first instance, for economic equality.

If I am correct that these factors explain the popular currency of OWS, then we should be struck by how these factors are entirely out of the control of OWS. What would have happened had OWS occurred without the crisis—but with all the inequality and corruption in politics—or without the Arab Spring? Such counterfactuals are hard to answer. But if we are to take control over our futures through the mechanism of mass protest and mass movement, such questions seem well worth contemplating. Surely there are elements of OWS that were intentionally put in place by the OWS community itself, and that also partially explain the success of OWS. We ought to tease out those elements in order to avoid abdicating a certain degree of movement success to the exigencies of the historical moment.

One facile approach to this project is to treat the apparently leaderless nature of OWS as one of its unique sources of strength. Within OWS, dynamic and well-trained people operate aggressively both behind the scenes and, at least sometimes, in front of the cameras. Such people play crucial leadership roles during many of OWS’s most important events, in particular during several of the major protests in New York City, Oakland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Those in solidarity with OWS deny the existence of leadership in the movement at their own political peril. Clear eyes about the need for well-trained and disciplined organizers are essential. Successful protests and self-sustaining movements cannot function without them. And such organizers inevitably play leadership roles. Not to acknowledge this allows those very individuals to have control, but without the concomitant accountability. Fortunately, members of OWS themselves seem aware of this and, as far as I know, do not take themselves to be leaderless in this sense. (On the other hand, since OWS was just an event, and not an organization, these leaders played only operational or tactical roles—the protests, and so their organizers, aimed at very little beyond successful protesting.)

It follows from this that another erroneous but common view of OWS’s distinctiveness is that it lacks discipline or organization. Most OWS encampments and events appear to have been extremely well organized. OWS actions appear also to have been fairly well executed. This was no leaderless mob. There was structure, albeit an inchoate structure.

This, then, suggests a particular element of OWS that was intentionally and carefully nurtured—namely, its very structure. I am not referring to some apparently decentralized order one might see typified especially in its self-generating media presence. This is a distraction, as it is nothing more than a reflection of the Internet’s structure on which OWS is, at least in this way, parasitic.

Rather, the structure that is so inspiring and important is the way in which it engages the practical and political questions of its own future. This is most obviously manifest in the collaborative, participatory democracy of both the general assemblies and the spontaneous, democratic decision making that happens on the ground during protests and marches.

This was evident in many of the most dramatic challenges to police power. These challenges occurred not when people took to the streets and were arrested but instead when protesters made collective decisions on the fly, often right in front of the paramilitary police force. Faceless, robot-like stormtroopers surrounded by people openly debating and ultimately deciding their next move produced powerful spectacles of political imagination made concrete, standing in hopeful contrast to the simplistic, brutal order of the cops.

With the emergence of this decision-making process, many people were introduced to an unfamiliar form of non-hierarchical, structured democratic engagement with practical questions. This is important. Democratic movements cannot succeed only through winning certain determinate policy goals; democratic movements aim to transform more than just certain political institutions or leaders. Rather, movements for democracy aim to change people’s conceptions of their own political agency. This personal process involves the alteration of one’s self-understanding. One learns not just to stand up and fight—that is easily and disastrously taught. Rather, one learns to see oneself as having a unique power in concert with others—namely, the power to collectively shape the world in the image of a political ideal. One no longer thinks of oneself as a patient or a lone figure in struggle against injustice. Rather, one begins to think of oneself plurally and democratically. That is, one understands oneself as part of a democratic ‘we.’

Simply watching through various media as OWS unfolded, it was hard to avoid encountering the radical order embodied by the protesters. When visiting encampments, especially Zucotti, it was hard not to be drawn into this radical order. Many people showed up and then just found themselves caught up in OWS activities. Radical, democratic decision making means that even those at the fringes can easily become involved, invested, and inspired. A few more visits, the simple act of participation in a working group, or just toting flyers back to one’s apartment and then dropping them in the neighborhood—each of these actions can initialize a reconception of oneself as a political agent.

 This also occurs during the best union-organizing and community-organizing campaigns. People who never understood themselves as having any say, much less any significant role to play, in the political and economic structures shaping their lives slowly begin to step forward. They see their strength not as individuals, but as members of a group. They do not see themselves as victims but as part of a people that has power as a people. This is not accomplished in a stirring, cinematic moment. Rather, it occurs via a slow evolution, whereby the stories people tell themselves about themselves subtly alter. New themes emerge; new futures begin to appear to be natural options from which they might choose.

But what is a (perhaps inevitable) shame it is that OWS did not move beyond being an event and transform itself into a standing organization that can systematically generate these sorts of transformations in self-conception. The compromises one must make in the course of metamorphosis from discontinuous performance to stable organization are substantial. Most notably, democratic organizations ought to be transparent, and this requires a certain level of bureaucracy. Bureaucracy, in turn, can be difficult for the young or newly politically active to accept.

On the other hand, perhaps OWS is serving as something like a Millian experiment in living, or perhaps better described as an experiment in living politically. People are recognizing that political agency is not manifested only through voting and protesting, only through money and violence, but also through participation with others in the decision-making process that determines their futures. The more who experience this—with its many frustrations—the better.

My criticism, articulated throughout this essay, is that this transformation in political agency has not been accompanied with a genuine vision of how to create, on a larger scale, an alternative political order. Street protests, the establishment of squats, the encouragement of people to move to credit unions, and so on, are all valuable events. But these are just events. Challenging power requires meeting the political order at least partially on its own terms. In particular, challenging power on a mass scale requires building-focused loci of power.

Does that mean running candidates or participating in electoral politics?  Perhaps. But it most certainly means moving from espousing abstract principles to building an abstract collective that is an organization. Events like an OWS encampment cease to be ends in themselves, and instead become tactics used to build this collective. Alternatively, instead of building a new organization, OWS partisans can occupy established progressive organizations like labor unions, think tanks, and so on, and bring the practice of participatory democracy into those organizations. Regardless of method, this sort of organizational engagement with the political order, with an aim towards bringing a radical vision of the political self into existing sites of institutional political significance, would mark a transition from performance to power. Of course, whatever course of action is taken is for the OWS community to decide together, autonomously, and rhizomatically.

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  1. Joan Donovan says:

    In LA, we adopted a slogan of “leaderfull” opposed to “leaderless” early on, which helped us deal with issues related to empowerment, and representation. But, there remains distrust between those who seek reform and those who want to continue with radical tactics. The future depends on the ability for participants to generate creative ideas and enroll allies that will turn those ideas into a course of action. That is to say, the way forward is through tiny insurrections on a daily basis that, if coordinated, amplify the effects of those actions. For example, Valentines day is now, “break up with your bank” day, where many groups will be doing flash-mobs to raise awareness about banking fraud. Occupy’s style of protest reflects the workings of Anonymous and their operations, much more than any established organization.

    As for becoming an organization, some are panicking that the effect of the camps will be lost without recourse to the familiar political games and institutions. I don’t know if that getting involved in the current political spectacle could be thought about as a means of resistance, given that the camps actually accomplished something significant by teaching a method of direct democracy. But, as seen in Oakland, the occupation of public spaces will continue to provoke state power and in doing so create the conversations about the nature of property and debt that make it a citizen’s obligation to act rather than rely on their representatives.

    But on another note, your final thought has been tried with mixed results. During the Take Back the Capitol action in DC last December, hundreds of occupiers were sent to DC by SEIU to participate in a rally. Occupy DC was not involved in this decision and the SEIU set up a ‘mock’ camp with tents and food, but all the traveling occupiers were put up in hotels. This led to a confrontation between union organizers and occupiers on the nature of transparency and the need for horizontal decision making in unions. Those occupiers who were flown to DC ended up leaving the union camp/hotel and staying with people in Occupy DC for the rest of the trip. As a result, the unions are distancing themselves from the name of ‘Occupy’ and are organizing under the meme of the 99%, which I am sure we will hear a lot about during the DNC.

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