Tagged: Occupy Wall Street

Occupy Wall Street redux: adieu #OWS

24 September 2012

A year later, Occupy Wall Street is a faded memory. What I wrote in October 2011 was, if not fully predictive, at least diagnostic.

The #OWS crowd is the typical mix of left-wing and progressive causes one finds at any large demo. The symbolism of the mass gathering is, however, losing its efficacy as a carrier of political meaning. It is telling that only confrontations with baton-wielding and mace-spraying police (as opposed to Blackberry-wielding and derivatives-spraying financiers) have brought it wider attention: alas, the police don’t run “Wall Street” or crash the Lehmann Brothers of the world. At some point, enlightened elements of the #OWS will figure out that engagement with the Democrats is the only means to bring about practical reforms. Clever Democratic politicians would be wise to leverage this left-wing angst. But short of an actual revolution, no new form of people’s capitalism is likely to emerge and the youth of the nation must grow accustomed to conditions of scarcity that have beset most people at most times in history. The golden years of the housing and credit bubbles are gone forever.

From a more sympathetic, participant’s experience, Laurie Penny offered the following Decembrist view.

LP: There are different ways of being on the streets, and all of them are political. As the recession immiserates more and more of us, resistance will increasingly become a process of negotiating trauma, of developing economies of care that include the lost, the destitute, the down-and-out, those who cannot be “fluffy” because they have become crusted over with the debris of desperation. When these occupations are evicted, not everyone involved will be able to go home, scrub the dirt out of their hair and go back to work. Those who have lost their jobs and homes, those who left them to protest, and those who never had them in the first place attract disapprobium from their own side as well as from those determined to slander the anti-capitalist movement as filthy and unkempt. Useful activism, however, usually involves getting your hands dirty.

Recalling an earlier “Society of December”:

Alongside decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaus, brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ-grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars – in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French term la bohème. MarxThe 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.

By February 2012, it was over.

The time for the Occupy movement has passed. In part, because it failed to generate practical political engagements and fixated on meaningless, narcissistic skirmishes with police, it allowed its message to be co-opted (in the USA by Obama). Even its allegedly novel “process” was merely the second coming of 1960s style (see the “Port Huron Statement”) participatory democracy; worse, the inefficiency of this process model has not been criticized within Occupy, it has become an article of faith, of identity, of self-congratulation. Consequently, Occupy is now no more than an entertaining charivari that offers a pleasing, even charming, distraction from the tawdry circus of the Republican Party’s presidential primary and the dissembling rhetoric of political authorities around the globe.

As winter and police thinned out the remaining urban campers, and as spring became summer, #OWS slipped further into history, displaced by obsession with American presidential politics and the corporate logo-besotted Olympics. Even the pathological character flaws of celebrity hacktavist Julian Assange managed to blot out the infodumpery of wikileaks, the last standard bearer for speaking truth to power left on earth.

#OWS was a beatnik charivari, the last gasp of New Left nostalgia, still inhaling the purple haze of countercultural patchouli. While it is not quite right to dismiss the Occupyistas merely as Starbucks-drinking hypocrites, the encampments did give the appearance, as one CNBC commentator noted, of an Apple products expo. The revolution will not be livestreamed. The dream of “people’s capitalism” is still a literary wish fulfillment.

The actor’s performance inflamed the audience, and subversive proposals came from all parts of the hall.

‘No more academies! Away with the Institut!’

No more missions!’

‘No more matriculations!’

‘Down with university degrees!’

‘No,’ said Sénécal. ‘Let us keep them, but let them be conferred by universal suffrage, by the People, the only true judge!’

In any case, this was not the most important thing to do. To begin with, the rich had to be levelled down. And he depicted them wallowing in crime under their gilded ceilings, while the poor, writhing with hunger in their garrets, practised all the virtues. The applause became so loud that he broke off. He stood for a few minutes with his eyes shut and his head thrown back, as if he were rocking himself to sleep on the wave of anger he had aroused.

Then he started speaking dogmatically, in phrases as imperious as laws. The State must seize the banks and the insurance companies. Legacies would be abolished. A public fund would be set up for the workers. Flaubert, Sentimental Education.

Occupy Wall Street redux: May Day

1 May 2012

May Day 2012: Not exactly the massive General Strike hoped for by Occupyistas. This is not as devastating as the miniscule turnout in Chicago for the Weathermen’s “Days of Rage” in October 1969, but it is a clear setback for a form of political organizing that rejects vertical structures and the articulation of goals.

Occupy in America is over (perhaps prospects in other places are brighter). Its predilection for process over substance, for needlessly narcissistic confrontations with the police, and for grand, self-congratulatory gestures, has rendered it immobile, gelatinous, and passé. What comes next must be a rethinking of the entire Occupy paradigm, starting with Graeberian Assemblages and Situationist manifestations. Positive engagement with existing political stake-holders will mark a step forward.

Occupy Wall Street redux: nadir

3 February 2012

The time for the Occupy movement has passed. In part, because it failed to generate practical political engagements and fixated on meaningless, narcissistic skirmishes with police, it allowed its message to be co-opted (in the USA by Obama). Even its allegedly novel “process” was merely the second coming of 1960s style (see the “Port Huron Statement”) participatory democracy; worse, the inefficiency of this process model has not been criticized within Occupy, it has become an article of faith, of identity, of self-congratulation. Consequently, Occupy is now no more than an entertaining charivari that offers a pleasing, even charming, distraction from the tawdry circus of the Republican Party’s presidential primary and the dissembling rhetoric of political authorities around the globe.

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The critique of bodily appearances is simply ad hominem, a lazy form of criticism. But more importantly, the aesthetic criticism of Occupy is a way of avoiding engagement with its politics.

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What impedes a more practical orientation to the political? Based on the handful of GAs I attended in NYC, the goal is to reach unanimity, which means issues are debated ad nauseum. I think minority views are so totally given an airing that it stifles movement. Achieving clarity and a specific purpose means not all will agree, but in my experience the premise of the GA is that lack of unity is a fatal flaw, not an expected, or even reasonable, outcome. In my view, the process inhibits the politics.

Occupy Wall Street redux: Žižek and the occupations

26 October 2011

Responding to Slavoj Žižek:

Z: What to do after the occupations of Wall Street and beyond – the protests that started far away, reached the centre and are now, reinforced, rolling back around the world? One of the great dangers the protesters face is that they will fall in love with themselves. In a San Francisco echo of the Wall Street occupation this week, a man addressed the crowd with an invitation to participate as if it was a happening in the hippy style of the 60s: “They are asking us what is our programme. We have no programme. We are here to have a good time.”

Half correct. Yes, the occupy movement should avoid a narcissistic turn and it hasn’t made such a turn yet (aside from representations made by David Graeber). However, the SF hippies who wore flowers in their hair were not simply having a good time. They conceived of a counter-culture, a new lifestyle, a new way of habitating, a new (well old) way of subsistence (back to the land). Some lived it, some sold it, others bought it: environmentalism, green tech, organic foods, etc. are remnants and monuments of the counter-culture. The occupations haven’t reached the point of articulating a new vision of culture aside from their political culture (participation, consensus, etc.).

Z: In a kind of Hegelian triad, the western left has come full circle: after abandoning the so-called “class struggle essentialism” for the plurality of anti-racist, feminist, and other struggles, capitalism is now clearly re-emerging as the name of the problem. So the first lesson to be taken is: do not blame people and their attitudes. The problem is not corruption or greed, the problem is the system that pushes you to be corrupt. The solution is not “Main Street, not Wall Street”, but to change the system where Main Street cannot function without Wall Street.

Historical materialism once more? A dialectical movement of Economy-Culture-Economy (E-C-E) as opposed to Culture-Economy-Culture (C-E-C). Is Žižek’s model a use value or exchange value? But to the point: why privilege capitalism as the objective synthesis? Capitalism is as much a culture as it is a mode/means of production. Wall Street is a metaphor, a signifier, of a cultural practice, not simply an institution of commodity fetishism. It presents a form of knowledge about the production and distribution of wealth. Let’s dispense with the dialectic and look more closely at horizontal and vertical networks of power: status, money, knowledge. This is what the occupiers, as indigenous theoreticians, must untangle. Forget the romantic idea of a people’s capitalism.

Z: The protesters should beware not only of enemies, but also of false friends who pretend to support them but are already working hard to dilute the protest. In the same way we get coffee without caffeine, beer without alcohol, ice-cream without fat, those in power will try to make the protests into a harmless moralistic gesture.

Ideological purity, really? The protesters should use the resources and legitimacy of whatever partners they find. Coalition should replace consensus as a political model. Insofar as it is a movement, the occupation should be a movement for the Many, not simply for the One (which is what the occupation “Assemblies” presuppose and aim for).

Z: Yes, the protests did create a vacuum – a vacuum in the field of hegemonic ideology, and time is needed to fill this vacuum in a proper way, as it is a pregnant vacuum, an opening for the truly new.

This is a premature judgment, just the sort of self-congratulatory statement he warned about earlier. Capitalism remains the hegemonic ideology insofar as no one has yet argued it should be replaced; at most the demand is to democratize the systems of the generation and distribution of wealth.

Finally: “What one should always bear in mind is that any debate here and now necessarily remains a debate on enemy’s turf; time is needed to deploy the new content.” As cold weather approaches in occupied zones in the northern hemisphere, the time is for organizing and institutionalizing the movement; otherwise “the phrase” could exceed the occupation’s objective conditions of possibility.

Occupy Wall Street redux: independent media and the movement

24 October 2011

What place does “indie media” such as The Occupied Wall Street Journal hold in the larger media universe? What is its function with respect to the present Occupy Movement? How are the collective representations, imagery, and ideological frames of the Occupy Movement, as publicized by indie media, communicated to the so-called mainstream media?
To answer these questions, one must clear away the underbrush of popular terminology used to talk about the media. It is common to hear a distinction raised between the mainstream media (MSM) and indie media. What counts as the MSM is not the product of any ideological consensus, since the boundaries of such an entity are largely defined by the viewer’s ideological standpoint. For example, conservatives consider Fox News to stand in opposition to the MSM, understood to be the major networks (NBC, CBS, ABC), cable networks (MSNBC and CNN), public media (NPR and CPB), and newspapers such as the NY Times and Washington Post. From a structural perspective, however, Fox News occupies a place within the field of the MSM. Hence, to avoid analytical confusion, it makes sense to dispense with the term MSM; what one is confronted with is not a situation of mainstream versus marginal but rather a single media field in which different journalistic entities can be identified as dominant or dominated within the field itself.+ The dominant and dominated positions in the field are determined by the economic and symbolic capital attributes of a particular media concern. In this case, what Fox News may lack in symbolic capital (i.e. it represents points of view that are, for the journalistic tastes of MSNBC, the NY Times and the Washington Post, “outside the mainstream” of “legitimate” public opinion), it more than compensates for with its economic capital, which it uses to transform the field itself, primarily by incorporating Republican politicians, strategists, and pundits as experts and paid analysts (e.g. Palin, Rove, Huckabee, etc.), or by acquiring a dominant “mainstream” newspaper like the WSJ and reshaping its editorial outlook. In other words, Fox News’s media strategy has largely succeeded in moving formerly marginal political perspectives into the mainstream of public debates.
Hence, with their vast economic resources “liberal” and “conservative” media wage a struggle over symbolic capital in the media field, a struggle which also depends on accruing economic capital. The former wage a preservationist strategy (to preserve its dominant position as the legitimate definition of journalistic taste, as “objective”) against the transformative strategy of the latter (which claims for itself the legitimate definition of journalistic taste, as “fair and balanced”). In this competitive struggle, representations of the Occupy Movement by the dominant and dominated media concerns are skewed towards the spectacular, the shocking, and the outrageous, since such representations are proven to hold an audience’s attention, which drives ratings and, thus, advertising revenue. (This is verified, for example, by perusing the reportage of “embedded” journalists from the NY Times). The moralizing attitude expressed by pundits towards the movement — either advocating for or admonishing it — is less significant than the structural tendency to present provocative images of movement actions and participants as provocative.
Indie media’s relationship to the media field as just described is best understood as an externality: it is outside the field at present. However, this means that its structural exclusion or positioning outside the media field, its position outside the game, renders it powerless to transform the media field. Thus, its representations of the Occupy Movement make little impact on the field itself. Whereas one can find presentations of the mundane and the ordinary in indie media journalism (discussions of consensus building as a political strategy, the organization of the provision of food, clothing, and books for demonstrators at Zuccotti Park, and the like) along side the shocking (typically, instances of police violence against demonstrators), when indie media interfaces with the media field, or rather when the media field incorporates the products of indie media, there is a tendency to emphasize representations of shocking rather than the mundane, which only legitimates the journalistic gaze of the dominant and dominated media within the field. Consequently, the relationship of indie media to the movement is actually fraught with political risk.
Indie media has been referred to as a people’s media, indigenous media, insurgent media, counter-publics, and wild publics. However, its self-defined oppositional position with respect to the “mainstream” is undermined by being outside the media field: because it is outside the game, it is not a player in its own right. Indie media’s lack of economic capital means it must rely on the dominant and dominated media concerns to present its collective representations as it wishes them to be understood. Lacking the capacity to impose its weak symbolic capital on the media field, indie media is also unable to impose its journalistic taste or perception, which brings together the mundane with the extraordinary, on the producers and consumers of the products of the media field. This does not mean that it serves no positive function for the Occupy Movement; such a positive function is its role in representing the movement to itself, of digesting and reflecting back to the movement its own, diverse understandings. As such, indie media serves as a repository of social knowledge and collective memory for the movement, reminding it where it came from, why it came into existence, and what it is doing.
In order to bring the fully rounded representations of the indie media covering the Occupy Movement into the media field itself, the movement must generate its own representatives, who can articulate the complexity of the movement to the media field without falling into the trap of highlighting the strange, the different, the radical, and the revolutionary. Social movements are ordinary occurrences in much of the world, which have always co-existed with the institutionalized political process. In my view, what the Occupy Movement should avoid at all costs is allowing itself to be represented to the media field by philosopher-journalists (e.g. Noam Chomsky and Cornell West), writer-journalists (e.g. Naomi Klein), all-purpose, intellectual-journalists (e.g. Noam Chomsky), activist-journalists (e.g. Al Sharpton), who are reflective of already existing structural positions in the media field and who play scripted roles in this field for the dominant and dominated media concerns.
+my discussion is indebted to Pierre Bourdieu, On Television (1998)

Occupy Wall Street redux: politics of the spectacle

21 October 2011

In The Guardian David Graeber has extolled the Occupy movement. However, it is worth noting that public demonstrations still seem to have an effect in nations where civil society is restricted or non-existent (see the “Arab Spring”) and in France (in the form of the general strike), but this political style is pretty much exhausted in the USA, almost to the point of becoming a cliche. The declining significance of street protests is made worse when organizers (if any exist) promise more than they can deliver. Occupy Wall Street… until what happens? The closing of the DJIA? What Graeber purports to be one of the signs of the fall of the American Empire, the tribal drumbeats echoing through the canyons of lower Manhattan, is a spectacle; meanwhile, for criminal banksters and feral traders (like the USB thug Kweku Adoboli) it’s business as usual.

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The anarchist vision apparent in Graeber’s commentary (“This is why protesters are often hesitant even to issue formal demands, since that might imply recognising the legitimacy of the politicians against whom they are ranged”) is no substitute for a real political theory of how the widespread change its author envisions might be actualized. Hardt and Negri suffice for the sound bite imagination of well-meaning demonstrators; the rest of us can still hope for something more profound.

Occupy Wall Street redux: the poverty of a political culture

16 October 2011

Unless one were to change “Americans”, little can be changed about US politics. Ill informed, lacking an education in political theory and history, suspicious, covetous, and displaying symptoms of the narcissism of small differences towards any group that appears to be making social and/or economic progress (first Catholics, then Irish, then Jews, then Blacks, then Women, then Gays, then Mexicans, etc.), Americans are a sorry lot. Claiming practical knowledge bred of healthy exposure to the “real world”, they are as gullible as the most benighted country bumpkin: ready to believe the worst and fear the best, they sell short when they should hold out for long. In the defense of “Americanness”, they act “un-American”. In the defense of liberty, they act illiberally. Worse yet, the American electorate has given rise to a political class that is scandalously inept. The carnival barker, the circus impresario, the sales huckster, and the soap box demagogue are still models of political comportment and representation, which is why money and policy are interchangeable entities in American politics. Unfortunately, the difficulty of the task the 99% demonstrators have set for themselves is daunting: it is not simply to change a banking system or create a chimerical people’s capitalism but rather to change an entire form of subjectivity.