Occupy Wall Street Isn’t the Same Old Political Crap—It’s Much, Much More
When Thomas Friedman names his op-ed for the Buffalo Springfield anthem, “Something’s Happening Here,” juxtaposes Tahrir Square and Zuccoti Park, then treats an Australian Marxist with the utmost respect, you know the time is out of joint. When Kalle Lasn, the crazy culture-jamming founder of Adbusters, sounds to Salon like a moderate, liberal guy in search of incremental change—my good man, let us merely reinstate Glass-Steagall—you know your times have become interesting. When David Brooks and Rush Limbaugh suggest that the Occupy Wall Street crowd might be speaking “an anti-Semitic code,” you know the times, they are hysterical. And when Niall Ferguson, the acclaimed historian of banking, claims that the origin of the Great Recession is an excessive welfare state, so that the proper targets of OWS are the baby boomers who invented it—not the bankers who concocted credit default swaps—well, you know it’s time to say, shut up, boyo.
What is happening here? Charles Blow chastising the OWS crowd for not having specific demands and political goals, as if any social movement that mattered got started that way, and Thomas Friedman diagnosing the same diffuse symptom as an attempted cure of deep structural change and crisis, and this odd couple disagreeing while the editorial board of their employer leads last Sunday with an endorsement of the occupation? Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh waving the bloody shirt of totalitarianism, and Mr. Moderate, David Brooks, chiming in, coyly hinting that Adbusters has a thing about the Jews? Fox News [sic] unleashing the dogs of class war, as if the barricades are built, the peasants are storming Brown Brothers Harriman, and capitalism—free enterprise, whatever—is somehow in mortal, immediate danger? Naomi Klein practically swooning over the still-small crowd convened on Liberty Street and Broadway, while Slavov Zizek is reminding us that communism is not our goal?
Hello? Or “duh,” Homer style. Something is definitely happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear. Except for the following.
- The response to OWS tells us more about the limits of our political discourse than about the content of this protest or movement, call it what you want (hereafter I’ll call it the Occupation). No demands, no politics? Look at the website, look at Occupied Wall Street or The Indypendent, look anywhere or just listen up, these people know what they don’t want—oligarchy, economic royalism, inequality, lack of opportunity. The huge difference between the articulation and the reception of the Occupation’s agenda is itself a function of politics—in other words, a definition of what counts as political action, or where the public sphere resides. If you think politics is by definition a matter of state-oriented, policy-relevant, electorally measurable steps toward legislation, you’ll probably see a lot of pot-smoking slackers in Zuccoti Park. If you think politics reaches beyond dutiful citizenship, sober conversation, and drafting programs, if you think it reaches into the culture of music, dress, and demeanor, you’ll probably see something else, and something more.
- No leaders, no organization? Who cares? Or rather who cares? You want a vanguard Third Party to accommodate the best and the brightest, OK, get one or rent one, the rest of us can live without your covert liberal Leninism. You think the American Revolution started because a small group of masterminds willed it into being? You’re wrong, it started, it stopped, it died between 1770 and 1773, and until 1786 there never was a locus of leadership outside of the unwashed, unruly Crowd that enforced the Non-Importation Agreements with extraordinary violence when necessary: George Washington himself deferred to the egalitarian urges of his rag-tag troops, and won the war as a result (and in 1787, Daniel Shays notwithstanding, the urban constituents of the Sons of Liberty ended up on the side of the Federalists).
- This is a leaderless movement because the people who compose and support the Occupation elected Barack Obama to lead in their direction, toward a more democratic America, a more perfect union, but he orphaned them (probably on the mistaken assumption that there’s still a big difference between an electoral and a governing coalition; Karl Rove knew better). Now these people have recovered their voice and their confidence, and, with both The Nation and the Times on their side—not to mention all those “middle Americans” who think the big banks got away with murder—they will make a difference. (I don’t know that this difference will be for the better or the worse, mind you, just as I don’t know what difference these words will make.)
- Antonio Gramsci got it right: after Lenin, revolutions would be “wars of position” in which the stakes are cultural, intellectual, and ideological rather than “wars of maneuver” in which electoral and/or armed struggle over control of the state is the pivot of social change. The Left has been winning this war of position since the 1950s, while the Right has been fighting, and mostly winning, the war of maneuver (using armed struggle into the 1960s against nonviolent resistance to Jim Crow, then using control of executive and judiciary branches of government when and where it could to stem the tide of cultural revolution). The Occupation is a new instance of this strategy—the strategy of the “organic intellectual”—using all the media available to portray the oligarchic opposition as the real, material, sometimes violent constraint on what America is about, which is how to make both liberty and equality the regulative principles of this body politic, how to preserve what James Madison called “the two Cardinal objects of Government, the rights of persons and the rights of property.”
- In our time, the war of position makes more sense than the war of maneuver because we’ve witnessed a dispersal of power from states to societies, as new media have sutured different times and spaces, even epochs—but before that, as NGOs and trans-national movements or institutions made effective demands on the wealth and the laws of nations, not to mention identities. Politics becomes more or less cultural when the consent of the governed becomes a self-evident, self-justifying principle—when the legitimacy of power becomes a question that can’t be answered by divine right or noble lineage. But it’s not until the twentieth century that private associations—corporations, to be sure, but trade unions and non-profit interest groups as well—acquire the capacities they need to regulate the market and shape society even in the absence of public policy or state power: the capacities they need to make their consent a constant, practical limit on state power. It’s also not until then—not until the 1920s, to be exact—that public and political discourse could be reshaped by subaltern voices because mass communications media change the production, delivery, and reception of every sound, every idea. And it’s not until our own time that such media reach so deeply into our everyday lives that power itself becomes a metaphysical question or a map quiz rather than a premise of serious thinking: what is it, and where does it come from?
- Vaclav Havel, the DJ of the Velvet Revolution, also got it right: “dissent” and “opposition” were pretty useless, even lifeless notions in resisting “post-totalitarian” power, and with this locution, he wasn’t referring only to the Soviet bloc—he understood the U.S. as the farthest outpost of post-totalitarian society The means and the end of resistance was not to draw up more just demands, write up more pristine platforms, or do more good on behalf of the benighted (“direct political work in the traditional sense”); it was instead to try to live your life free of the claims of necessity, in a “pre-political” space where you learned how to distinguish between the truth and the speech of power.
In “The Power of the Powerless,” the 1978 samizdat manifesto that inspired Solidarity in Poland, landed him in jail back home, galvanized Charter 77, and led directly to the Velvet Revolution, Havel called this space a “hidden sphere,” an “independent life of society,” a “parallel structure”—parallel, that is, to the state—or just “culture” as such. It wasn’t a retreat available only to the bohemian, the diffident, and the affluent (“an act of isolation”), it was where the real life of the future could be glimpsed, maybe even experienced. And so he concluded:
The real background to the movements that gradually assume political significance does not usually consist of overtly political events or confrontations between different forces or concepts that are openly political. These movements for the most part originate elsewhere, in the far broader reaches of the ‘pre-political,’ where living within a lie confronts living within the truth, that is, where the demands of the post-totalitarian system conflict with the real aims of life. . . . Such a conflict acquires a political character, then, not because of the elementary political nature of the aims demanding to be heard but simply because, given the complex system of manipulation on which the post-totalitarian system is founded and on which it is dependent, every free human act or expression, every attempt to live within the truth, must necessarily appear as a threat to the system, and, thus, as something which is political par excellence.”
James Livingston is Professor of History at Rutgers University. He blogs at Politics and Letters, where this was cross-posted.
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