The Politics (and Anti-Politics) of Occupy Wall Street
This started as a quick reply to an overseas friend on Facebook about the possibilities contained in Occupy Wall Street, after I wrote a note on where organizational help was needed. After making some observations about some organizational and logistical aspects of OWS, I wanted to turn to the politics. The editors asked me to adapt my piece for the website.
What's important to keep in mind with Occupy Wall Street, first and foremost, is that Wednesday's march may change everything. It raises the possibility of an influx of students from the city's major universities and activists most powerful labor and community organizations. Many of these activists would bring the political common sense (which is in itself uneven as well) and skills that come with having been collectively organized for some time to the occupation. The occupation, while regularly attended by several hundred activists, is shaky in some aspects of coordination and smooth in others. But building inside the unions, campuses and community groups, while utterly necessary, shouldn't be the only recourse that people have—as we've seen with other political moments with occupations at their center, it's a wager that may not pay off and is limited to the immediate moment. Politicos need to join the occupation itself, if only to influence the political and organizational direction of the extremely dedicated activists involved after it inevitably ends, rather than losing them back to apathy or even reaction if it ends badly.
At present, the occupation reveals a lot about where people's politicization begins in the United States. The lack of any kind of collective subjectivity except shared victimhood, the slave morality, the uncritical nationalism (people actually spontaneously sang the National Anthem and Yankee Doodle Dandy sometime before I got there, and contention over "true" patriotism is a regular feature of the occupation): it's all there. But so is an anger at the crisis that has cohered a group of people who are losing their respect for the rule of law more and more as each day passes. Given that the banks—and not the state—are the primary target, it's brought together people who are coming from both right and left-wing shades of libertarianism (which is a common, if not the dominant, starting point of any kind of oppositional politics here). And what's prevalent is the studied anti-politics that I understand has pervaded the youth-led occupations in continental Europe.
Photo credit: Adrian Kinloch
Though the message that has emerged as the stronger one is something that everyone you and I work with would amplify: bring free public higher education back to NYC, make healthcare affordable, defend the right to organize, resolve the crisis of state revenue by ending the war and taxing the rich, jail the investment bankers. There are also noticeable absences: immigrants rights have been the visible focal point of a lot of committed and daring organizing lately but it's not there—and this is an anti-poverty demonstration with no explicit references to how racialized poverty is in this country. And all of this remains on placards or in ad-hoc speeches and hasn't taken the shape of demands. People forget that the now sacrosanct Egyptian revolution began with a small (if ambitious) set of demands. Many people at the occupation have said that they feel like their presence “is a demand in itself,” an end rather than a means, and have a “good guys win in the end” attitude.
Photo credit: Nick Gulotta
But as I've discussed with people on the socialist left here, this kind of occupation is a real challenge to the way the left does its usual business here—even anathema, whether people want to admit it or not. It's diffuse, atomizing, the focal points constantly shifting, and any impulses to bloc together, to politically “intervene” are totally thwarted (whether you want to do that on a socialist or identitarian basis). You can't really “project politics” in any way that will stick according to your intentions. With the exception of the general assembly sessions, there are a ton of mini-rallies and presentations going on at once, where only a few people really get a chance to speak because of the outlawing of amplification (the “people's mic” method involves at least one or two layers of the crowd repeating back what the original speaker has said). Things are really framed around the tactical rather than the strategic, which frustrates. And how that would be further transformed by a great influx of people is totally unknown. That uncertainty is exciting but daunting.