Rediscovering Politics

Matthew Noah Smith and Todd Gitlin have written terrific reflections on Occupy—so good that, when I was first asked to contribute to the conversation, I worried there might be nothing left to say. Smith has tapped out a powerful reminder of the gap between theatrics and power, and Gitlin’s sketch of the spirit of Occupy fits my sense of the mood in Zuccotti Park last fall.

We all agree that we—participants, sympathizers, observers—should be thinking on how to make something of the chord that Occupy struck—the actual or potential connective tissue tying the symbolism and inner life of the movement/event/spectacle to the larger landscape of American politics. Here are a few thoughts in that vein.

Occupy made vivid two mainly neglected strands of political sentiment. First is the wish for democracy to be more immediate, engaged, and responsive. People drawn to Occupy, like those drawn to the Tea Party, tend to feel that their government, the people’s government, has been taken from them. Unlike the Tea Party, Occupy folks don’t suppose that either party, or any mainstream politician, is poised to retrieve it. At its most radical, the idea here is that representative government—government by faraway officials who are elected from time to time—is a deep compromise for democracy, and that our representation is so captured and corrupted as to be scarcely democratic at all. This only gets worse when representative government—Congress and the President—adds a layer of delegated government—the agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, and quasi-independent entities like the Federal Reserve—that doesn’t answer directly to the people at all, and is quite imperfectly responsive even to elected officials. The spirit of conversations around Occupy was that the people’s business should be done as much as possible by the people themselves.

There’s plenty of debate about whether this can be a good idea in a sprawling, diverse, and complicated society, where many issues, from pollution to financial regulation, involve considerable expertise. At the same time, with a federal government constitutionally designed to be ineffective and unresponsive, there’s plenty of room to imagine a more democratic politics. Occupy imagined this concretely, in its General Assemblies, and more diffusely in the complaints about corruption and the failure of democracy that swirled around the movement. This sense that stronger democracy is possible is terribly important, even where it is inchoate. Our thoroughly clogged and money-sodden democracy teaches that voting doesn’t matter and political hope is futile—an awful lesson that desperately needs counter-examples and awareness of other possibilities to keep it from becoming permanent.

The impulse to stronger democracy has been around in the United States since before Thomas Jefferson, who, late in life, proposed a nested set of elections all the way down to local “wards,” in which people at each level would directly govern as much as possible of their common lives. It is not hard to imagine, today, a different political culture in which the government could not launch or sustain a non-defensive war without approval in a national referendum, at the outset and in each year thereafter. (I don’t say that this would have stopped our recent, disastrous wars, nor that it is necessarily a great idea; but it is the kind of thing Occupy invites us to imagine.)  Probably the most concrete proposal to get some wind in its sails from Occupy is the effort to reverse, by constitutional amendment, the Citizens United decision that extended strong constitutional protection to corporate spending on elections, along with the other money-is-speech decisions that preceded it. All of this goes to the idea that democracy needs to get stronger, or government will keep getting away from it.

The other idea that Occupy revived is that economic life has moral and political dimensions that we can’t afford to surrender to market logic. As Gitlin says, the voluntary, non-hierarchical, skill-pooling of the encampments is both an aesthetic and an ethic. The ethic includes the idea that our material lives—making things, using and exchanging them, doing what needs to be done to keep things going—should be organized around a greater respect for the individuality and equal freedom of each person. On the one hand, this is play, a wish for more joy in day-to-day activity, rather than its current reservation for evenings and weekends. On the other hand, it takes tremendous discipline and responsibility: in the encampments, if you saw something that needed to be picked up, cleaned, cooked, or whatever, it was your job to get on it—yours and everyone else’s. Maybe surprisingly, it often seemed to work pretty well. This is a reminder that an economy is also a form of community, which asks different things of its members and gives them different things, depending on its organizing ethic. The encampments were experiments in shaping a different economic ethic.

Economic life includes the quality of work people get to do and the kind of relationships they have around that work. These are legitimate political concerns, as much as the unemployment rate. Occupy shares these thoughts with Abraham Lincoln, both Franklin Roosevelt and his cousin Teddy, and Lyndon Johnson, as well as the great Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, to name a few. These ideas were somewhat eclipsed for much of the twentieth century, especially after World War Two, when economic policy focused much more on overall growth and the increased consumption that it brought. Concern for the quality of work remains central to American aspiration: it is just that is has mainly stopped being a political goal, becoming instead a personal hope. Whether individuals can have good work, though, depends importantly on the political decisions that shape their economy. The parade of American luminaries that trekked across an earlier line of this paragraph never doubted that. By building a movement partly around a different way of organizing work and play, Occupy is a reminder of this point—though maybe an oblique one.

Anarchist movements, not surprisingly, have trouble erecting the political movements and legal structures that could protect, even extend, their small-scale achievements in cooperation and equality. Indeed, the trouble is a matter of principle for those who reject large-scale and extensive governance altogether. There is good reason to think, though, that any political success today will have to join its local vision and experiments with a broader effort to adjust the political institutions and legal rules that shape a complex society. Otherwise, every local food movement ends up as a luxury item or a sourcing system for Whole Foods, and every effort to work together differently is a flower that blooms in spring and dies in fall.

Occupy’s aversion to this kind of politics chimes with the spirit of the age—libertarian, skeptical, personal, and reflexively oriented to “the market,” as if there were no space between the present economy, exactly as it is, and some kind of Maoist nightmare. This is a superstitious view of both economics and politics, which deeply shape each other, above all through the medium of law. Unsurprisingly, this superstition fosters other forms of magical thinking, especially the fantasy that local, personal, and voluntary creativity, like we see in Occupy, can overgrow the larger system in which it’s set—or just persist indefinitely as a kind of utopian archipelago. Partly because Occupy embodies this widespread fantasy, it is beautiful, by today’s political aesthetic, as the more traditional and realistic efforts that Smith praises are not. It can succeed on its own terms, and its playfulness can be a joy to watch and join. But, as Smith and Gitlin write, this success is a glimpse of larger and more complicated goals, not a program or a strategy, or even the beginning of either.

So let Occupy be Occupy, a reminder of radical hope and the power of imagination and cooperation, a reminder that longing for the future is legitimate and necessary, even when we can’t see our way there. And let’s also remember that part of its charm comes precisely from its forgetfulness about politics, which many more of us will have to overcome if Occupy’s reminders are going to matter.

Tags: , , , ,

One Comment

Leave a Comment

  1. aaron says:

    I’ve really enjoyed this series of essays, and I think the point in this one that economic life has moral and political dimensions is particularly good. A little while ago I was reading this essay ( that basically claimed that the “economy” as such was a misleading abstraction, ignoring the political, social, and cultural context of economic activity.

    A little shameless plug here: I wrote up a response at greater length at Blue Rondo à la Turk:

    Check it out if you’re interested.

Leave a Comment