The New Left zombie is dead! Long live Occupy!
Platypus Review 45 | April 2012
In the Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx disagrees with Hegel’s famous quote about history when he writes, “Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce…”
Occupy is not a return to the New Left, a farce of the sixties. Usually history becomes codified once the right academic authorities have made their case most palatable to other academic authorities. However, Occupy exasperates this by being a horizontal movement that has avoided so far being pigeonholed by meta-narratives. Occupy is a meeting and molding of older forms of thought, which is why it is so important that it remains open. It marks a paradigm shift that is, even after the eviction of the park, still reshuffling time narratives.
In this piece, “time narrative” is a story about a time period told while this time is present. This is not the story dominant within academia. But it is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. A dominant narrative about a time is different from an ideology, which would be the dominant belief system of a time. An “alien time narrative” is therefore the story of a past time reinserted out of context into the present as if the two temporal points were continuous, and even though there is a disconnect between the original commentator and present conditions. From the post-World War II years into the first decade of the 21st century, we saw the longest alien time narrative over a period of time. This was a form of narrative warfare that worked so effectively to define the concept of the Left that it constrained the Left from going beyond the discourse it had carved out for itself nearly 30 years before. The discourse of what is known as the “New Left” in part set itself up for this problem by calling itself “new.” Because of its self-proclaimed novelty, it was hard for someone to further claim that they were part of a “new” New Left. New Leftists used the word “new” to try to get beyond what they saw as the politics of the “Old” Left that had evolved before World War II. This break is best exemplified by the Port Huron Statement and American sociologist C. Wright Mills’s essay, “Letter to the New Left” (1960). But by creating this conscious break, this generation of leftists used language that allowed their narrative to be projected decades into the future when the conditions they were addressing no longer existed. One element movements from 1955 to 1975 all shared was a focus on culture and tactics, in addition to a demand for what Richard Rorty has called “a less socially sadistic culture.” While the New Left achieved valuable ends, as these politics dragged on through the ‘80s, ‘90s, and into the ‘00s, it aged into a far less useful set of concepts and into what is now the zombie of the New Left.
The experiences from a vastly different time cover up the incongruencies even within the same subject. During the first decade of the 21st century, anti-war activists compared the Iraq War to the Vietnam War, thus allowing for the continued domination of the narrative of the baby boomers. This nostalgic invocation of experience led to a blind narrative of time-warped empiricism. The slogans of the anti-war movement of the ‘00s avoided allusions to the roots of the war in a permanent war economy. Often the word “economy” was removed, and only the word “war” remained. In this way, discourse from the past helped paint over what is most important: that there is indeed a permanent war economy.
In Capital, Marx tells us that, if left to itself, capitalism will lead to the consolidation of firms until they become larger and larger. The corrosive laws of competition will make life worse (relatively, not absolutely) for the majority. After 1973, with the transition from Keynesian to neoliberal capitalism, from rigid to flexible accumulation, we saw this formula mirrored. A middle class sank into the lower class. The result was that the period of working class “prosperity” was effectively over. A huge global proletariat emerged in what we in the West call “sweatshop labor,” a phenomenon without parallel in the ’60s. While these changes occurred, further action was suppressed by the presence of the alien time narrative of the New Left.
Occupy Wall Street has freed us from the grips of the New Left and the paralysis that has prevented the arrival of a new movement aligned with the present. Occupy presents an opportunity to once again relate to our moment. This has occurred in two intertwined ways: tactics and culture. Culturally, all it took was for the Occupy movement to target Wall Street with populist rhetoric. The movement made the simple complex, and as a result it created a pluralistic and deeply egalitarian space. The simple phrases exemplary of this approach are “Occupy Wall Street!” and “We are the 99 percent.”
These two slogans were enough to end the cultural focus of the last 40 years. A myriad of different sub-narratives appeared under them, awe-inspiring in their multiplicity. Occupy is not just another call for a less socially sadistic culture with the class dimension drained out of the analysis—characteristic of most of the New Left and the whole period after it. It has an economic and populist focus that has galvanized a cultural shift in America. This could happen because the dam that had kept the alien narrative in place was not strong enough to hold back the weight of the economic recession in addition to Occupy’s novel tactics. Discourse and conditions finally met once again after a 30-year disconnect.
The different tactics aligned with these new conditions created a triangle: time narrative, tactics, and conditions. The tactics were wildly different than what the zombie New Left had supported. Instead of picking a day, getting a permit, and fighting a particular cultural battle (e.g., “End War,” “End Racism”), Occupy did not seek anyone’s permission, thus remaining deliberately illegal. And, despite all odds, people camped out and stayed in one place. This was not a one-day affair, rather it was far more permanent and drastic. It was in no way the same as the temporary college takeovers of the ‘60s or the “People’s Park,” a park re-appropriated from the University of California, Berkeley in 1969. The occupation of Wall Street was fundamentally different. By taking Zuccotti Park, OWS took a space that was open to the public, but owned privately—a great metaphor for neoliberalism right in the heart of the symbolic home of finance capital. In occupying Zucotti Park, OWS protested against finance capital, a kind of capital that has been empowered through the shift from rigid to flexible accumulation. In this way, Occupy is a movement that fits the times and has helped create time narratives that do as well.
Occupy’s openness is also in no way a return to the ’60s. Douglas Miller’s New York Times Op-Ed best expresses what Occupy is not. With the New Left in mind, Miller writes that Occupy’s horizontal process could lead to what he calls “extremists”—insert “Weathermen”—taking over. But the horizontal process does exactly the opposite. It discourages any unpopular faction’s interests or narratives from being pushed through unilaterally and, furthermore, is more clearly worked out than ’60s “direct democracy” was. People involved in the present movement are well aware of the issues from the New Left and understand that their failure then was largely a result of the lack of proper definition and process. From the start, Occupy did not make these mistakes. Occupy set up a system that, by having a clearly defined process, will avoid SDS’s 1969 convention. This is why there is no need for a defining document explaining what Occupy is since this has already been done through praxis and a clearly defined process. Although the ‘70s saw the initial formation of something like a consensus process in response to the splits of the ’60s, this process was never as clearly defined as it is within Occupy.
The Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Žižek, has written that Occupy has retained a “carnivalistic ’60s element.” On the first day in New York, September 17, this was certainly true, but as Occupy developed it started to lose this carnivalistic element as an overt feature while allowing for this strain of activism to develop internally. By merging with an already more serious and economically focused protest environment, this form of protest politics turned into a comedic release in a populist environment with a different tone to it.
The Occupy movement has, however, retained some elements of the ’60s. These are the things about this era that I, and many others, see as overwhelmingly positive: Occupy continues to see fighting racism, heterocentrism, ageism, sexism, ableism, and cisgender privilege as important battles. In short, Occupy has left behind the negative elements of the alien narrative while upholding, and pushing even further, the positive demands fought for by the New Left.
One form of thought that has had a considerable influence on Occupy is anarchism, but this too has undergone a transformation in and through the Occupy movement. During the last ten years, anarchism has been mainly preoccupied with culture. This focus was an attempt to push politics even further in the direction of what the New Left established. The politics of this counter-cultural anarchism supported small-scale cultural production. Within the movement, anarchism shifted the focus to economic issues, thereby shedding its earlier counter-cultural form. The new focus of this form of anarchism is economic as well as populist. Populist appeals counter the fetishization of small-scale production to create the perfect balance of plurality and focus. This is why anarchism in Occupy did not do what all other politicized counter-cultures do, retract into themselves and shut out outside influence.
There have been some writers on the Left who see anarchism as the primary ethos in Occupy Wall Street. But really it was a coming together of progressive, “leftish,” economic reformism with anarchism that helped shape Occupy in its early days, coupled with David Harvey’s and Henri Lefebvre’s respective views. Marxists and unaffiliated socialists were also part of the movement from the beginning. A dialogue between Marxists and anarchists is as old as the ideologies themselves are, with both originating from post-1789 France. This dialogue is now going through yet another round of mediation and re-negotiation in and through Occupy.
This is why I think it is problematic when I see Marxist or socialist writers in socialist newspapers, or the Platypus Review itself, trying to decide how they can insert their perspectives into Occupy. Their influence is already there, and so is Marx’s analysis. But it simply does not dominate. When socialist papers make the statement that there needs to be a place for Marxism within Occupy, it seems like they are trying to subvert what is at its bottom an essentially plural movement. Occupy is based on a methodological ethos, not ideology. This is essential for the constitution of a new time narrative. Therefore, the Left should not get so caught up on the fact that the word “left” itself is not being used.
After the corporate era ends, and perhaps even after the fall of nation-states, the words “left” and “right” will still be useful since the cultural norms and views shaped by former politics will still be present. The common anarchist “post-ideological” claim that they are neither left nor right does not entirely make sense to me. However, it is possible that this will help clear the ground for a pluralistic reconstruction taking place within Occupy. In the same way that the French Revolution gave us these new terms, “left” and “right,” Occupy may do the same.
After the corporate order falls, we will not reach the end of history. We will not come to something that we can somehow call “history” any more than we can call the period we live in today, history. We will meet new problems, have new ideas, and discover new ways of thinking. All major shifts of a new era take from the preceding era its ideologies and mixes and molds them into something new. Occupy is coming out of an era with material conditions that no longer fit the dominant narrative of struggle. It has answered the Platypus question of when a “significant left” will return, although perhaps not in the way many Marxists are happy with. It is self-evident that Occupy is rooted in ideas associated with what is called the Left. The movement does not identify itself with the term “Left,” but this should not trouble us. Perhaps the term’s abasement will aid in the feeling that something new has come.
It is worth considering Occupy as another major turning point in history. In response, we need to let go of alien narratives and work within the new paradigm shift. Perhaps only now, in and through Occupy, can we free ourselves from the zombie of the New Left. |P
. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852). Available online at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/>.
. C. Wright Mills, “Letter to the New Left,” New Left Review, I/5 (September–October 1960): 18–23.
. See David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1990).