So much ink has been spilled, from up up close and afar, over Occupy Wall Street (OWS) it is difficult to know where to start and what's worth saying. It is a movement(?) that seems to be all things to all people, for better and for worse. Whatever the reason for its hold on the political imagination (withered and stunted as it is in North America), its hard to deny it is important, even if only because people feel it is significant and new (even if it's not).
I'm in New York presently and went down to Zuccotti Park yesterday, and will, of course, go again. I will hold off on my thoughts about Occupy Wall Street itself for a while, as plenty of people are writing excellent synopses, analyses and criticisms already. In this first post, I want to think about how people are thinking about OWS.
I spent most of my first day in New York watching and talking to people not involved in OWS about OWS. New York is a funny city – it is at once huge and strangely intimate. I'm from Nova Scotia, where people chat with strangers all the time, and I lived for many years in Southern Ontario, where people don't, infact they seem scared to. New York is more like the NS in this way, if brisker and more opinionated. Most of the people I talked to on the street were vaguely supportive of OWS, if in a distant sort of way. They're angry at the “1%” as they've come to be known: the bankers, financiers, CEOs and super-rich. They're happy someone is doing something about it.
But I hear a single refrain again and again: the protesters have no solid agenda; their demands are chaotic and fragmented; every Occupier has his or her own cause; what are they fighting for anyways? This is not just the word on the street, it features in almost every journalistic or critical piece of writing on OWS. And of course it's true – OWS and the Occupy initiatives it has spawned across the continent are very much disorganized, disunified, and without a single, easy set of demands. Some (on both the Left and the Right) see this as a reason to dismiss OWS entirely. Others see it as a hopeful sign of a movement beyond particular ideologies, or one that is trying to open space for debate, rather than push a particular agenda.
What makes me curious is the speed with which this accusation comes up in every single conversation about OWS I've had or observed. Why is this the thing people think they should say about OWS? And what can we tell about the present cultural-political situation by the fact that this criticism is so universal and automatic?
Who Has No Agenda?
As a number of people have pointed out recently, it is ironic that OWS is being criticized for its lack of a singular agenda, given that their “enemy,” the global economic system which has basically swallowed and digested what we used to think of as "society", has no real agenda of its own. What is the endgame of the “age of austerity”? The politicians and bankers overseeing the economy seem to have no plan or agenda at all, except keeping what everyone knows is an unsustainable system afloat for as long as possible. In the 90s, neoliberal pundits announced the “End of History,” where unfettered global capitalism and the expansion of free markets would “lift all boats,” spreading peace, prosperity and freedom world-wide. Today, even the most strident defenders of capitalism don't believe things will improve or get better. The Age of Austerity is here to stay and things will just get worse and worse. (I've written more about this here: Undead Ideologies).
This sentence to endless austerity--and its personal impacts in terms of soul-crushing debt-loads, un- and under-employment, “precariousness” and cuts to social services--are what OWS is all about. It is a frantic and chatoic refusal of this sentence that emerges from a generation who have been systematically denied any real opportunities for public debate or impact. OWS is fighting against an undead ideology: they're fighting against a system almost no-one actually still believes in, even those who are running the show. Their demands are nebulous and vague because they have emerged within and against a culture of economic and social nihilism.
This is perhaps also the context for the universal assumption that OWS has no agenda. Why does everyone feel compelled to make this comment?
I think it is an alibi. We all know great economic crimes are being committed – they are hard to miss. We also know that, while ultimately we are all the victims, we are also, in the funny way this system works, perpetrators and beneficiaries. Unlike the totalitarian systems we imagine as the “alternatives” to free market capitalism, it's hard to draw up sides these days, whether you're trying to define a pure “working class” (what about small business people and unionized auto workers with investment portfolios?) or even trying to decide where to draw the line at the evil “1%” (in global terms, many of us in North America are among the richest percentiles, and we directly benefit from the exploitation of the Third World). Capitalism works because it makes us all complicit, even those fighting against the system tooth and nail – we all consume, we all work, many of us employ or manage, we all particiapte in hierarchies of race, class gender and privilege. No one is a pure victim in this economic system, though almost everyone is ultimately a loser.
Symptoms of Economic Nihilism
This complicity has, I think, a number of dramatic psychological effects which explain both OWS and the response to it. One effect is that lots of people look for an escape from their own complicity, and I think this is what motivates a lot of the OWS folks. The Occupation is understood to be creating a space outside capitalism, where things are shared for free, where mutual aid and collective decision-making replace individualized consumption and fulfillment, and where new systems and patterns of participatory democracy are being built. That's the good part. The bad part is what we've seen before: the escape from complicity in capitalism can often lead to activist elitism and snobbishness, expressed in attitudes, forms of dress and subtle little hierarchies of knowledge and power. These fundamentally alienate outsiders and if Occupy movements fall prey to them, they will stagnate and die. Yesterday, I observed with a heavy heart that many working-class folks (white and non-white) were coming down to OWS, inspired by seeing someone finally standing up to the corporate/financial bullies. But many left, dejected, after finding what appeared to them to be a smelly hippy encampment which seemed to offer no place for them. In fact, many of these folks gravitated to chatting with the bored and irritable cops who encircle the park, who looked and felt a lot more friendly and approachable. Maybe they got the wrong impression, certainly they got an incomplete impression, but impressions matter a lot.
On the other hand, the universal accusation that OWS has no agenda it seems to me is an alibi for most people to do nothing. The tender eagerness with which people speak the “truth” about OWS's “immaturity” reveals a deep sociological pathology: economic nihilism is occupying all of us. We are weary before we've even begun to fight back. The accusation and affirmation that OWS is a bumbling snakepit of half-baked ideologies is eagerly adopted by people looking for a way out. We are sick with ourselves and desperate to continue with business as usual because working through and out of our own complicity with this system is hard, and takes time and effort. We are exhausted from merely living in a mess of contradictions, of knowing we ought to be doing more, we ought not to be propping up this system, we ought not to be doing the jobs we are doing, or failing to fight back. Consumer individualism has so ravaged our sense of collective possibility we fear participating in anything resembling social movements. We fear our own potentials.
So in the end, it's not OWS that suffers from some sort of adolescent lethargy that prevents any unifying ideological purpose; it's the rest of us. What we hate about OWS, or at least what gives us a distaste for it, is precisely that part of ourselves we project onto the Occupations.
It would be easy to say that people should just get over themselves and take the initiative to “get involved.” But it's not that easy. We are all deeply wounded and broken from existing in this society. Telling people to just “get involved” (expressed in the OWS slogan “if you see something that needs doing, do it!”) is like telling a depressed friend to “get over themselves” or telling your unemployed aunt or brother to stop whining and “pull yourself up by the bootstraps.” If we are to overcome our fear of ourselves and our potential, it will require something more than demands that people take responsibility for themselves and “come out.” We need to address each other not as self-contained individuals, waiting to join a movement, but as members of a society which is yet-to-come who are, today, fragmented and wounded, depressed and dispirited, complicit and weary, angry and dejected. We are all in exile from ourselves these days. The Occupations offer a glimmer of hope for a “return” to something we've never yet been. We can't allow them to be exciting and welcoming for only a handful of individuals eager to create an alternative culture of protest, but this is what I fear might happen, despite many people's best efforts.
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