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 wonder what is going on? From Naomi Klein, to Micheal Moore, to Chris Hedges to David Graeber to Slavoj Zizek and even Kayne West (???) every lefty public intellectual (and/or celebrity) and has come out in support of Occupy Wall Street and its progenitors. There seems to be an unquestioning lefty cheerleading section developing around this and it made me wonder why I still have my doubts. Am I some sort of political dinosaur who doesn’t get it? Can I not see revolution when it is thrust into my face(book)? So I thought I would jot down some ideas of why Occupy Wall Street raised such feelings of doubt within me.
Democracy. Here is the conundrum right off-the-bat: democracy has failed us, we need more of it! This seems to be the one of the key ideas driving the occupy everywhere idea (hence forth I will use OE). The idea is democracy, as is practiced today, is corrupt, cynical, and alienating. We need TRUE democracy. On some level I agree, however, by positioning democracy, no matter how radical you perceive it, as the way forward you are foreclosing radical alternatives. Possibilities remain confined within the democratic horizon. 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 (i.e. we need to fix our broken system). While I have been inspired by some elements of the New York General Assembly, I wonder when we engage in the General Assembly model without doing the hard work of building REAL solidarity first, who is it really speaking for? And who has the opportunity and privilege to have their voices heard?
Consensus. During most of my organizing life I have been part of groups that have used consensus. It has worked lots and failed lots too. I prefer to work with consensus models, they build trusts and dialogue, however they have limits. Firstly consensus really only works if group members share certain core values. Secondly, it really only works in small groups. I am sorry to say when you have hundreds or thousands of people consensus will always be broken. Always! The third major problem is that informal hierarchies arise as certain people dominate the discussion. They tend to have already existing power and privilege. A fourth danger is that in large group meetings the facilitator tends to have far too much power with almost no accountability. All of this was uniquely demonstrated at the Occupy Toronto meeting. (Click here to watch the video). Please also read Megan Kinch’s blog post about that meeting (click here) The idea that we can some how 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.
Tokenism and Privilege. This idea that we should occupy already occupied land is troubling. I know people are beginning to pay lip service to this “problematic” use of language. And it is a start I guess, though I think to frame this as a language issue is in itself problematic. It creates a faux pas mentality, “how ignorant of us!” when in fact the issue of colonialism and indigenous sovereignty is not some mere sideshow to capitalism to be skirted around, but is at its core. Accumulation by dispossession is not a historical process that allowed capitalism to flourish once upon a time, but is a key on-going mechanism of capitalist expansion. I think Jessica Yee’s article on the Racialicious blog does a much better job of breaking down the issues around colonialism, capitalism and the OE movement. (click here to read) The use of the “we are %99 percent” from my perspective is aspirational. It does make one wonder, if we are capable and deserving to form a we? We are not all the same! We do not all suffer equally, nor are we exploited and oppressed the same. We don’t have the same material conditions or power and we certainly don’t share the same goals or values. By papering over these differences what are we missing within ourselves?
Anti-politics. The OE idea has actively shunned politics. It is not left or right (maybe it is truly conservative as Chris Hedges opined) It is simply a “movement” that is… creating the structures of social justice as it grows. (That’s a total guess) I do know that its %99 rhetoric seeks to create a broad consensus. We are against the corporate class, the wall street bankers, we are the %99. So leaving aside political analysis for now, this seeking of broad consensus has been successful. Obviously this idea has been spreading like wildfire across North America and beyond. This ambiguity of the OE idea is simultaneously both the source of its greatest strength and one of its greatest weaknesses. So a lot of people have written about its lack of goal/demands and others have derided this line of argumentation saying it would not have spread or been accessible to large swaths of people if it simply outlined goals/demands early on. [Hey Occupy Wall Street what are you? I’m whatever ever you want me to be.] At some point OE will have to espouse political positions. (it already tacitly does) It will have to be confrontational. It will have to be political. Diversity in movements is positive but not at the expense of clarity. Growth in numbers is exciting but can also be meaningless. To eschew politics (the practice of taking a position) in favour of an ambiguous strategy of growth disturbingly mirrors the worst of neoliberal ideology.
Presentation/communication. 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 on some way perpetuates the worst of neoliberalism. It reduces politics to a consumer choice. The idea that somehow by showing up and presenting our anger and frustration will be enough to change “the system” is misguided. Protest is a useful tool in building capacity, in building subjective power but it is a means not an ends. Now the OE may seek to build counter-power, to change the current social and productive relations but this requires dealing with the messy business of power. When people fetishize our increased ability to communicate and point to it as the solution to the ills of neoliberalism, say “That is neoliberalism!”
Power. When we communicate via protest who are we communicating to? An authority? The masses? Ourselves? These are questions we should keep in my mind, especially when goals and strategies are developed. We can make impossible demands to authority, we can fight for necessary reforms and 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? On some level this can not be boiled down to the level of the state – power operates on the level of social and productive relations – however, you can’t ignore the state either. At some point if the occupy movement threatens existing power dynamics it will be severely repressed (I am not just talking about mass arrests) So what to do about power? What to do about the state? I have no clear answers, but the important thing is to at least have clear questions.
Now What? So we occupy everywhere and now what? On some level I think of the OE movement as taking up Peter Finch’s call at the end of Network “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” The New York General Assembly seems to be starting to answer the now what question. It has built solidarities with some unions and it has a functioning popular assembly to make decisions. They are getting together and then figuring out what they want and how to make it happen. I am suspect of this though. I mean this idea of eschewing conflict and simply registering discontent has its limits. I think about all the different local conditions in all the different places that this OE idea has spread to 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. Maybe sustained organizational projects that can create counter-power, develop strategy and deal with inherent oppressions and power imbalances within ourselves can come from OE movement. But I have my suspicions.
The OE movement is registering popular discontent with the present order of things. What this discontent actually entails is very unclear. Obviously the symbolic symbol of Wall Street has been the galvanizing force. The banks and the elites are screwing over the rest of us. In this way the OE idea is populist. But that is not necessarily a good thing. The tradition of populism within North America was, and I guess is, fraught with problems. Many populist movements double down their hate of the elite and bankers with anti-Semitic language. When you have an analysis based on a tiny segment of the population controlling the media and banks you are bound to find yourself in trouble. The popular film Inside Job heaps the responsibility of the economic crisis on the large banks and the financialization of the economy. While this is problematic, it is more symptomatic of the workings and development of capitalism than it is the cause of the crisis. Capitalism is the problem (this is not to say that those in ruling class circles are devoid of responsibility).
While I am still wondering where this movement is going and what is truly being said and communicated, I do understand that there has been amazing things happening across North America. The use of a general assembly is an amazing thing. But I wonder if we can’t also look to the indignados and the anti-globalization movement for some constructive lessons about the current situation. What were the problems with those movements? What is this fascination about growth? Why are we opposed to developing strategy and dealing with power? What are the limits to this model? What are its benefits? The OE movement rendered visible generalized discontent, but the question that was facing us before Occupy Wall Street is the same one that faces us now: What are we going to do about it?