Thoughts on Occupy Wall Street
I just got back from the big Occupy Wall Street protest in front of NYPD headquarters. I’ve gone to lots of protests in New York in my day, and I admit that a lot of them feel like obligations. You go out of duty, because that union came out to support yours before, or your friend guilt-tripped you. But you know something exciting is happening when you want to be there. When there is the feeling that history is being made and you just want to see what happens.
So I’ve been downtown a couple of times and here are my impressions. They are getting a lot of flack for being disorganized. Sure. Compared to most political rallies, these things are pretty disorganized. Its not always clear what’s going on, or whose speaking and why. Part of that is embedded in the particular brand of anarchist-inspired activism that a lot of the demonstrators come out of, one that shuns hierarchies and institutions. Radical direct democracy and prefigurative politics isn’t always efficient, but efficiency also isn’t always the highest virtue.
The second reason, I suspect, that Occupy Wall Street seems disorganized is that we’re so used to highly managed political campaigns. Think about the Obama campaign. A small group of advisers and the candidate come up with rhetoric and a set of slogans. They use them at every opportunity: in speeches, in interviews, etc…. At rallies, everyone holds signs which says those slogans on them (hope, change, etc…), while behind the candidate those slogans are emblazoned on big posters. It’s all very professional and “on-message.” Occupy Wall Street, obviously, rejects this managed, bureaucratic style of politics, and I think its actually quite jarring when we hear someone interviewed who hasn’t been couched by a PR professional and who deliberately rejects the idea that everyone should be on the same message. We all laugh when Jon Stewart shows Republicans robotically repeating talking points, but we’re not quite ready to see unmediated and unstaged political action.
Like most protests, there is a wide-spectrum of participants. From the “I wouldn’t expect them at a rally,” to the “little old radical lady” to the “perfectly normal” to the “hippie freak-outs,” and beyond. Some kids obviously want trouble, but that is a tiny-tiny minority. The vast majority are non-violent, almost to a fault. Anyways… I’m reminded of the essay by abolitionist Thomas W. Higginson on the type of people who used to come to anti-slavery events.
This tendency of every reform to surround itself with a fringe of the unreasonable and half-cracked is really to its credit, and furnishes one of its best disciplines. Those who are obliged by conscience to disregard the peace and proprieties of the social world, in the paths of reform, learn by experience what a trial they are to their friends by observing what tortures they themselves suffer from those who have lost that quality…without a little crack somewhere, a man could hardly do his duty to the times.”
Its hardly a surprise that those people who are most willing to imagine new forms or societies may also be willing to be open minded to other ideas. But the fact is, that the Wall Street Occupied group showed up. The reasonable moderate liberals didn’t (including me at first). So there’s no point complaining about the make-up of the crowds. Anyone can join it and do their part to make it more moderate or more button-down or whatever.
A lot of people are criticizing their lack of demands. I sort of sympathize with this critique, but at the same point, I’m not sure I understand what having a set of demands would do them. Everyone knows why Occupy Wall Street is there: corporate America has too much power, everyday people don’t have enough. End of story. Occupy Wall Street hopes to be the beginning of a movement to change that, but it’s unclear what exact form that will take. And rightfully so. If Occupy Wall Street is successful, it will be through a path that no one can predict now.
One crucial thing that I took away is how quickly the movement is coming to address other aspects of New York City, post- 9/11. They have important things to say about the urbanism of New York in the neoliberal age: the privatization of public space, the post-9/11 militarization of Manhattan, and the arbitrary power of police in the age of the “War on Terror.” The need to self-amplify all speakers (people speak in short sentences. After each sentence, the crowd repeats it, so that those in back can hear it) developed because if they used a bullhorn it could give the cops justification for clearing them out. The protests have been entirely peaceful but there were 4 police helicopters hovering in the air above us at all times, keeping track of where people were going. Just because we’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after us.
Today, during one of the protests people just sat down, en masse, in front of police headquarters. It’s amazing how powerful that image is: just seeing a couple of thousand people all just sit in one place as if on cue, doing what they’re not supposed to. Part of the power comes from participating in a mass activity, feeling part of a large movement. But the other part came from disobeying authority in the age of 9/11. “Reclaiming the streets” has become a tired slogan among the left, but it does speak to a real yearning. That the public spaces of the city should belong to the public, and we shouldn’t need to constantly defer to authorities that tell us when, for how long, and in what way we can use parks, plazas, and the sidewalks. That we shouldn’t cringe in fear whenever someone in a uniform walks by. That the police and the government are supposed to work for us, not the other way around.
The obvious background of all of these protests is the hollowing out of democracy. The New York Times got this partly right in their coverage of the worldwide youth resistance. The Times covered it as if kids are abandoning democracy. But the fact is that democracy has abandoned us. The lack of accountability and real change is stunning. It doesn’t matter who you vote for, it turns out the same assholes with the same assholey econ phds or MBAs are in charge. As the more enlightened among the bourgeoisie admit, its been those organizations that are most sheltered from democracy—the IMF, the big banks, the Treasury Department, the European Central Bank, etc…– that have played the worse roles, committing us to austerity against the basic rules of their own ideology.
Ultimately, then, this is a crisis of legitimacy, as the elites who have been ruling us are unable to follow through on their own promises. We’ve seen behind the curtain of the great god of technocratic governance and realized there’s nothing there. We were told that markets could provide a constantly rising standard of living, that they could take the place of the old social democratic welfare protections. The markets failed. We were told that we could get good jobs if we stayed in school, worked hard, and took on debt. Our schools failed. We were told that voting for the right politicians would make our voices heard. The politicians failed.
I’m finishing my dissertation beginning the process of a job search. For the last couple of weeks I’ve been engaged in a daily (or hourly) ritual involving checking the AHA and H-Net for job postings. I’m sure that everyone else who is ABD knows the feeling. Once in a small while a good job comes up that you think you might apply for, but generally it’s an extraordinarily depressing endeavor. There are far fewer jobs than there should be and the ones that exist aren’t as attractive as they should be. You hear about jobs receiving 100, 500, 1000 qualified applicants.
By no means is my plight the worst out there. I’m still employed and have health care and am doing what I love. But the defunding of higher education, and especially the radical assault on public universities, has had a direct impact on my life. It will be harder for me to find a job, less likely that it will be in a place near my friends and family, less likely to pay well or give me time to do research.
I remember when the Egyptian Revolution happened hearing an American commentator explain that this was because there was a generation of young Egyptians who had educations and dreams and couldn’t find jobs. That day, when I got a coffee, I overheard my barrista tell his co-worker that he had two masters degrees and this was the only job he could get.
As long as conditions like this persist there will be more Occupy Wall Streets. No one in the mainstream seems to have a plausible solution for these underlying factors: growing worldwide inequality, the undemocratic nature of the powerful institutions that structure our lives, the growing corporatization of the public sphere, the sustained levels of high unemployment across the developed world, and the militarization of our daily lives. Until they do, scenes like today’s are going to get more and more common.
P.S. I’m trying to get this out today, right after it happened. I’ll add pictures and links tomorrow. So check back!