Reflections on the problems and possibilities of a movement
Platypus Review 44 | March 2012
MY INITIAL REACTION to the occupation of Wall Street was generally positive. But soon that feeling gave way to doubt and unease. I still find much hope in so many people taking to the streets, but I’ve become less certain of what, exactly, is going on. From Naomi Klein and Michael Moore to Chris Hedges, David Graeber, and Slavoj Žižek—and even Kanye West—every lefty public intellectual and several celebrities have come out in support of Occupy Wall Street and its progenitors. There seems to be a left cheerleading section that has developed around Occupy, which makes me wonder why I still have doubts. Am I some sort of political dinosaur who simply doesn’t get it? Can I not see revolution when it is thrust into my face(book)? Or is the Occupy Everywhere movement (OE, henceforth) itself ambiguous in ways that raise legitimate doubts?
Here is the conundrum right off-the-bat: One of the key ideas driving OE is that democracy, as practiced today, is corrupt, cynical, and alienating. We need true democracy. Democracy has failed us—we need more of it! On some level I agree; however, by positioning democracy, no matter how radically perceived, as the way forward, one might foreclose radical alternatives. The language of democracy offers a mechanism for lots of people to understand and be drawn into struggle, yet it also provides limits and dangers. It is quite possible that the fetishizing of democracy could lead the OE down the path of democratic renewal that seeks to fix our broken system through the broken means provided within that system.
While I have been inspired by elements of the New York General Assembly, I wonder, when we engage in the General Assembly model without doing the hard work of building political solidarity first, whom does the assembly really speak for? And who has the opportunity and privilege to have their voices heard? During most of my organizing life I have been part of groups that have used consensus. It has often worked well, and often failed, too. I prefer to work with consensus models because they build trust and dialogue, but they have limits. Firstly, consensus really only works if group members share certain core values. It only works well in small groups. When you have hundreds or thousands of people, consensus will always be broken; informal hierarchies will arise as certain people dominate the discussion, typically those who already have power and privilege. In large group meetings, the facilitator tends to have far too much power, in particular, and with almost no accountability.
The persistence of informal hierarchies within the General Assemblies points to deeper problems of privilege. The idea that we can call mass meetings and begin to fight back against neoliberalism using mass consensus without addressing the serious issues of power and privilege in ourselves is a fantasy. The very call to occupy already occupied land is a case in point. People in the OE movement have reflected on this “problematic use of language,” which is a start, but to frame this as a language issue is in itself problematic, as if it were only a matter of semantics. Colonialism and the denial of indigenous sovereignty is not merely tangential to capitalism, but at its very core. Accumulation by dispossession is not a historical process that allowed capitalism to flourish once upon a time; it is a pivotal, ongoing mechanism of capitalist expansion. From my perspective, the mantra “We are the 99 percent” represents an ideal to which we aspire. But, in the meantime, one does wonder whether we are capable of forming a “we”—or if we even deserve to do so. We are not all the same, after all. We do not all suffer equally, nor are we exploited and oppressed in precisely the same ways. We don’t share the same material conditions or power and we certainly don’t all have the same goals or values, and we should not paper over the differences that exist within the movement just so that we can feel that the movement has a broader base.
In general, the OE is still grappling with how it understands itself politically. On one level, OE has actively shunned politics. It makes no definitive claim to being left or right—maybe it truly is conservative, as Chris Hedges opined. It is simply a “movement”—one that is trying to create structures of social justice as it grows. (That’s my guess, at least.) Its “99 percent” rhetoric seeks to create a broad consensus: “We are against the corporate class, against the Wall Street bankers, we are the 99 percent.” This attempt to forge broad consensus has been successful, as OE has spread throughout North America and beyond. In speaking to discontents that are as broad as possible, however, OE remains highly ambiguous in terms of what it wants. Signing an online petition, liking a Facebook page or following a twitter feed are not political acts. Capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy will not be brought down by writing a scathingly witty tweet (or blog post). Social media in some ways perpetuate the worst of aspects of neoliberalism by reducing politics to a consumer choice. The idea that showing up and presenting our anger and frustration will be enough to change “the system” is misguided. Protest can be a useful tool in building a movement’s capacities, but it is a means, not an end in itself. The OE may seek to change the current social and productive relations, but this requires dealing with the messy business of power.
The OE movement is registering popular discontent with the present order of things. What this discontent actually entails is very unclear. Obviously, the symbolic occupation of Wall Street has been a galvanizing force. The OE idea has tapped into a popular (and populist) sentiment. But that is not necessarily a good thing. The tradition of populism within North America was, and still is, fraught with problems. Many populist movements double down their hate of the elite and bankers with overtly anti-Semitic language, but any analysis of society that explains everything on the basis of a tiny segment of the population controlling the media and banks exhibits similar problems. While financialization of the economy is indeed problematic, it is more a symptom of the workings and development of capitalism rather than the immediate cause of the crisis. Though the members of the ruling class are hardly devoid of responsibility, capitalism itself is the problem.
When we communicate via protest, whom are we communicating to? An authority? The masses? Ourselves? We can make impossible demands to authority, we can fight for necessary reforms, we can even just register blind frustration. These may prove useful in certain circumstances but they all tacitly or explicitly rely on existing authoritative power. The questions is, how do we move from complaint and frustration to the point of asserting explicit ideas as dominant? How do we create hegemony? This problem cannot be reduced entirely to the question of the state, for power is always operating on the more fundamental level of social and productive relations. At the same time, of course, we cannot ignore the state. At some point, if OE sufficiently threatens existing power dynamics, it will be severely repressed, far worse than mass arrests. So what to do about power? What to do about the state? It may take the OE a long time to reach any conclusions to these questions, if it ever does. But, for now, it is imperative that we at least have clear questions.
The broad appeal of OE’s message is its greatest strength, but perhaps also one of its greatest weaknesses. The lack of goals and demands has been defended on the basis that OE could not have spread as far nor been as accessible to many people if it presented a list of goals early on. For better and for worse, this allows “Occupy Wall Street” to mean almost whatever one wants it to mean. Even if only tacitly, OE already does espouse political positions. If the movement is to continue, it will have to become more confrontational. It will have to become more political. Diversity in movements is positive but not at the expense of clarity. Growth in numbers is exciting but can also be meaningless. For OE to eschew other considerations in favor of an ambiguous strategy of growth disturbingly mirrors the worst of neoliberal ideology.
Within the anti-globalization movement, the number of people coming out for protests became something of an obsession among many of the organizers. Without an ongoing articulation of other political goals, growth in and of itself became the key metric of success. Similarly, a naïve faith in the power of social media exaggerates the effect of the movement’s “exposure,” as if politics is simply a matter of “getting out the message” to enough people. In spite of its many merits, the indignados also need to be considered in terms of the potential limitations of a populist social movement that is reluctant to articulate any long-term political goals. While in some ways the anti-globalization movement has been more focused—speaking out against this or that trade deal or policy, for instance—it confronted similar problems. Its greatest success was the politicization of many young people, but it has not been able to translate that into a tangible movement with meaningful long-term continuity. Although anti-authoritarian in its ethos, the anti-globalization movement ran up against the limits of protest politics that seek social change primarily through simple appeals to authority.
So, we occupy everywhere…. And then what?
On some level the OE movement reminds me of Peter Finch’s famous call at the end of Network: “I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!” As part of its development thus far, the movement now seems to be broaching the question, “Now what?” The New York General Assembly has established solidarity with some unions and it had a functioning popular assembly to make decisions, before things went dormant for the winter. In large part, the future viability of OE will hinge on whether the movement realizes the limits of fetishizing tactics and simply registering discontent while eschewing conflict and creativity. I see all the different local conditions in all the different places that OE has spread as the true source of counter-power. Taking a square without organizing your workplace and community seems to take the focus away from sources of real of counter-power and place an emphasis on temporary occupations.
While I am still wondering where this movement is going and what is truly being said and communicated, I do recognize that there have been amazing things happening across North America. The formation of general assemblies in so many cities is extraordinary. The OE movement has rendered visible a generalized discontent, but the real upshot of the last six months may simply be that OE has brought forth one question: What are we going to do about it? |P
. All of this was uniquely demonstrated at the Occupy Toronto meeting, an account of which can be found online at <http://megantron.blogspot.com/2011/10/no-consensus-on-occupy-toronto.html>.
. Jessica Yee's article on the Racialicious blog does a great job breaking down the issues of colonialism and capitalism with respect to the OE movement. It is available online at <http://www.racialicious.com/2011/09/30/occupy-wall-street-the-game-of-colonialism-and-further-nationalism-to-be-decolonized-from-the-left/>.