Debating Occupy Wall Street

I went to this Jacobin magazine panel debate Friday night on Occupy Wall Street and the umbrella of associated “Occupy” protests. It was pretty dispiriting. In the process of trying to address a shared concern that the protests would dissipate, the participants seemed to be instantiating the dissipation. People talked past one another and seemed to be trying to cast suspicion on the good faith of other leftists rather than articulating their differing sense of how to defeat common enemies. It made me wonder if there is enough of a shared sense of what the problems are for there to be coherent demands. But the various possible diagnoses of what is wrong with politics, the economy, rampant financialization and inequality and so forth, did not get discussed much. The word “precarity,” somewhat surprisingly, was not mentioned.

The core disagreement of the panelists seemed to be about whether the movement needs clear demands in order to grow, or whether the lack of demands allowed the movement to be flexible enough to assimilate more people and ideas, and attract more attention. One side argued that people won’t make sacrifices without knowing why they are doing it, and the necessity for real sacrifice was going to become more and more palpable as the state experiences more and more pressure to shut the occupations down. The other side seems to argue that the occupations give the generalized feeling of discontent in society a practical ontology, a concrete, recognizable being that materializes a specific something to fight for and make sacrifices for. From that point of view, the demand is the protest’s existence: As long as the protests continue, they open a space for dissent and disseminate the possibility of an inclusive collective identity. But to the older, more traditional leftists, the OWS movement threatened to become merely an expression of protester narcissism, an opportunity to live a fantasy of political potency that didn’t move beyond individuals having meaningful personal experiences. From that perspective, the idea that the “occupation is the demand” is silly. What’s important is that the energy that has been summoned be put to specific political use before it loses its urgency.

This is a reiteration of the inevitable debate over whether one should try work within the system to reform it or build a movement strong enough to dismantle the system and replace it. Making any sort of precise demands would arguably commit OWS to the reform position. And I suspect most of the 54% of people who support OWS (according to this Time poll) have something like this in mind — they hear “protest against Wall Street” and can get on board with that. They don’t like Wall Street’s power and wealth, and they think protests could get the existing government to change the system to take some of it away.

But of course that doesn’t address the underlying problems with capitalism, neoliberalism specifically, and corruption in the political system in which policy can be bought with campaign contributions. It doesn’t address the problem capitalism faces in providing full employment, broader opportunity, and a sufficient sense of security to give people a sense that they are thriving, that their children’s lives will be better than their own. And at the far end of dire portents, it doesn’t address the possibility that the unfettered pursuit of profit may well lead to apocalyptic environmental disaster. I thought Justin E.H. Smith explained the stakes of OWS well: “Anyone who wishes that life could be based on the proposition that there are things of value that nonetheless lie outside of the scope of this nebulous thing called ‘the Market’ ought to be pushing back now, if there is to be any hope for future thriving.” A reformist set of practical demands doesn’t seem to touch this question of how society addresses collective notions of what is valued.

In trying to explain the experience of participating in the protests. Natasha Lennerd, one of the panelists, introduced the idea of “governmentality,” which derives from Foucault and has to do with the ways in which we police ourselves to play by society’s rules, accept incentives which reinforce the status quo, frame our personal goals in ways which presume the society continuing as it already exists, with its flaws taken as unalterable givens. Taken further, the critique suggests that our ability to experience pleasure is structured by cooperation with a social system which makes such pleasure possible — a given system, no matter how corrupt, will find a way to allow its subjects to experience enough pleasure (including pleasures of security, or sense of self, or sense of recognition, etc.) to invest themselves in reproducing it. In other words, we are socialized into a certain kind of highly individualistic subjectivity (always a work in progress, always being reconstituted ideologically) that suits the perpetuation of capitalism and the hegemonic assumptions that allow it to perpetuate itself. Neoliberal capitalism offers the pleasures of “freedom” and “free agency” and “convenience” and “choice”. It exerts what Marcuse called repressive tolerance, leveraging what Martha Wolfenstein called fun morality.

You can see from the jargon I’ve already introduced that this critique is hard to put across without some buzzwords that have come to crystallize some often complex poststructuralist arguments and assumptions, and that leaves it open to being dismissed as so much outdated, impractical academic bullshit. Lennerd was suggesting that the protests were meant to disrupt the kind of subjectivity that supports neoliberalism, manifest an alternative, posit different ideas of what value is and how it is produced and shared, open up the possibility for more durable experiences of collective identity in resistance. But other panelists wondered how collectivity could form in the absence of a unifying goal; without the unifying goal, the new subjectivity would just reiterate the old one’s individualistic narcissism. And alas, once you open up the possibility that one can’t trust one’s own feelings or subjectivity, it’s hard to argue from experience that what you are doing is politically effective. Your feelings can always be interpreted as another illusion of the same dubious self-consciousness. We can’t know we have radicalized our own subjectivity. That seems especially the case considering the way neoliberal subjectivity privileges novelty, flexibility, the potential for radical changeability.

So basically the debate seemed to go in circles for me. I think the governmentality critique needs to be taken seriously. I think that the protests do form a material basis for the articulation of a different kind of subjectivity, and the longer the protests persist, the more plausibility and ideological heft that subjectivity has. But I also think that inability to measure the degree to which that emerging alternative is actually changing people’s sensibilities and changing how they live and conceive what is possible makes the protests hard to sustain, especially in the face of empiricist critiques and the practical demand for tangible accomplishments.

It seems like the powers that be don’t feel especially threatened by the protests and have decided not to crack down on them. Presumably the consensus among elites is that the winter will chill the exuberance of the protesters and cause everyone to gradually disperse uneventfully. But it seems to me nonetheless a tactical achievement for OWS that it has managed to seem powerless enough to politicians and powerful interests to be left alone while seeming powerful enough to continue to attract media and popular interest. Perhaps that nebulous, self-denying space is the only one in which new social possibilities have any real chance to incubate. Aa long as the protesters can maintain that space, the possibility remains alive, which itself is more than I would have thought possible in August.

UPDATE: In this excellent post, Jason Read gets at some of the things I was trying to get at here, namely that the protests have the potential to kick off a much larger ideological project, though one which is hard to quantify and which is necessarily riddled with contradictions as it proceeds.

Many Americans identify with the 1%, or the 10%, or whatever, the entire media, entertainment, and political establishment is practically dedicated to such an idea. The entire Ideological State Apparatus, is caught up in one chorus, singing a song that tells everyone that they too can and will get rich. For the 99% to become the 99%, for it to become at the very least a broad popular basis for change it must confront the entire ideological underpinning of our society, the underpinnings which make it possible for the poor to identify with the wealthy. As one recent blog post points out, this underpinning is not just ideological but affective as well. Anyone who has lost a job, who has been downsized, understands the shame that this carries in our society.

The question then is whether a consolidation behind specific demands upends this underlying ideological project, the fantasies about social mobility and the vicariousness we all use to get by.