Saturday, October 22, 2011

Form vs. Content: Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party

Its fashionable (and interesting) to compare the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. One need not wander too far afield to figure out why: both of them are taking the form (or in the case of the Tea Party when still nascent, took the form) of a sixties style social protest. This form of comparison can, of course, be misleading: as David Zarefsky pointed out in the early 80's in an essay on rhetorical studies's penchant for studying social protest, simply aping the formal characteristics of a social movement (appearing in public, lobbing demands at the state) does not immediately qualify a human gathering as an actual, anti-institutional social movement. However, this point, confined as it was to an article almost 30 years old, seems in some ways to have been lost (if it was ever found) by those comparing the Tea Party and OWS. I too, may prove guilty of this sin. However, I merely plan on assessing how the Tea Party's relevance changes the ways in which OWS can be read by the mainstream media.

To do so requires a reminder about what was truly incredible about the Tea Party: it was a conservative political organization willing to appear in public as an "outsider" organization, that is, as a group claiming to be structurally disempowered politically, and using that status to authorize it demands against the government. Typically, publics theory (especially those who follow closely Michael Warner) understand a key element in discussing political space the identification of those bodies that are marked and visible. Those marked and visible persons, because of their material existence "in" space provide the symbolic resources to construct an unmarked, invisible "mass public" not coterminous with the "marked" public but nevertheless related to them by virtue of the difference they share. But the fact that the Tea Party generated coverage, and was discussed (even in the vein of "are they legitimate?) was key because it established, at a deeper (one might say ontological) level the "truth" of the Tea Party as a protest movement: by virtue of its identification as "not" the public, its existence was certified.

Of course, the underside of this was the Tea Party, by appearing in public, risked marginalizing itself as (to use in an actually relevant way for once) "always already" not the public: by trudging out the white, mostly male, middle aged bodies of the Tea Partiers, they established that they did not belong to the mass public they identified: the progressive, neo-socialist political movement led by Barack Obama. Nevertheless, whatever work the Tea Party did to unhinge a certain version of conservatism from its disembodied position as the structuring possibility of American politics, the Tea Party itself, by measures of either symbolic circulation or policy/electoral success, established itself as a relevant force in American politics.

It was something about the form of the Tea Party that attracted media attention. After all, American for Prosperity, The Heritage Foundation, Newt Gingrich: all of them were demanding lower taxes, smaller government. And its not as if these calls hadn't succeeded: between Clinton-era welfare reform and the Bush tax cuts, such policy positions were riding high. But the combination of electoral victory for Barack Obama and the ardent, energized, and angry Tea Party proved an alluring media target: how was conservatism configuring itself in the wake of the electoral chaos of 2008's repudiation of conservatism? Its actual appearance, that it appeared at all, was a really big deal, because it signaled a kind of refiguring of American political space.

Josh Gunn (whose blog should be mandatory reading) points out in a recent TP/OWS comparison post that there was a pretty substantial "lag time" in the way the media responded to OWS, owing to the difference in the movements form. Josh argues that the Tea Party was a mostly virtual movement, while OWS was fairly "spatial" in that the actual Occupancy of a physical space near a site of injustice matters. I don't disagree but I want to add a supplement: I also think that the history of social protest in America (Full disclosure: I recently read Nixonland and can't get away from it), especially the dominant narrative of the sixties as a battle between authority and hippies/protestors, helped to overdetermine how the form of social protest was itself a kind of content: one that harkened back to the old battles between cops and Yippies, trials of the Chicago 7, civil rights marches in the South, and so on. The Tea Party, however, as a conservative insurrection, produced the possibility that social protest could not be coded immediately as "liberal" on the basis of form alone. So while the right continues to circulate the old "bunch of smelly hippies" arguments, they are finding a lot less circulation in mainstream political discourse than did say, the WTO protests (also, to the Occupiers credit, violence from movement members has been very, very low). Occupy Wall Street may well persist because objections to the movement on a purely formal basis may be difficult to sustain. Instead, content based arguments about the movements demands (or lack thereof, to read the papers of the day) signify that the form of the protest might matter a lot less for deliberation purposes, and that space for meaningful disputes on the basis of policies is posible (though perhaps not likely.)

In sum: the gambit of the Tea Party was that they could appear as outsiders, aping the protest strategies of progressivism to capitalize on the way the symbolic environment on American seemed to be marginalizing them after the 2008 election. However, by legitimizing "appearance in public" as a protest strategy in form alone, one of the most effective conservative arrows used to delegitimize liberal protest politics (the linking of social protest as a "form" to a history of the "loud minority" cataclysms of the 60's) was taken out of the argumentative quiver. To the extent that OWS makes successes in the future, it owes these in part to a conservative belief that social protest could be coopted in the name of conservatism.

Monday, October 10, 2011

More Thoughts on the "Mere Attention" Thesis

As is the custom, I read a great deal of conservative media coverage. This is in no small part because I agree with a lot the sentiments in this piece today by The Nation's Eric Alterman. I am discovering that reading the conservative coverage of the "Occupy Wall Street" movement shines some lights on one of the driving theses in contemporary political study: namely, Michael Warner's observation in Publics and Counterpublics that "A public is constituted by mere attention...The cognitive quality of that attention is less important than the mere fact of active uptake" (p. 87). I follow this, and perhaps tend to agree more often than not. After all, existence is kind of a big deal in a world where political discourses opt to deny the existence of a political "Other" with demands. Take, for example, the constant play of patriotism (this is a tactic of Right and Left, although the Right is better at it) introduced by arguments about the "Americanness" of a particular candidate, party, or political demand. Such arguments circumscribe opposition in such a way that the argument/opponent is thought not to even exist by being outside the space of "America." However, even these arguments are forced to grapple with the possible legitimacy of such claims: in and of itself a minor victory. Conservative strategies of "colorblindness" work by even denying the existence of a "marked" racial subject: their effectiveness is in their actual denial of the possibility of "attention" given to the relevant marks, by denying the existence of a racialized public sphere in the first place.

Its with this in mind that I survey three conservative responses to the OWS movement: Mark Steyn's "American Autum" at NRO, Robert McCain's "DIE YOU COWARDLY COMMIE SCUM!" on his blog and Matt Labash's eyewitness take at The Weekly Standard.

One common thought to all three columnists is a focus on the cleanliness of the protestors. McCain calls them "unwashed," while Labash calls it a "hygenic disaster area," even as Stein implies that the protestors do not know how to bathe. Now I'm not a rally planner or a master of logistics, but if your plan is to occupy a large swath of territory for a long time with a critical mass of people, many of whom are not from the area, it is unclear what options for washing exist: moreover, as these folks are in many cases people who find themselves on the wrong end of the current economic bargain, they probably could not afford hotel rooms. If we are to take these complaints at their face value, we have a standard for social protest: no social protest without regular showers! Of course it seems more likely that this argument circulates because it serves to generate a connection between the image of the unwashed longhairs of the 60's with the contemporary protests: and as those protests also rose up in the face of a Silent Majority, so to do these protestors so revel in their opposition to the establishment that they care not at all about hygiene. Or perhaps: the propriety of public space dictates no unwashed masses protesting! Please, only locally found protestors capable of showering every evening!

This might also support the "attention" thesis. The media can no longer afford to ignore the protests (unlike say, the Malachi Ritchser self-immolation in 2006) in part because the coverage of the Tea Party produced an expectation that protest action was a legitimate form of political behavior. Because the conservative opposition can no longer say "Don't bother with those clowns!" (far too many, it seems, ARE bothering with those clowns) the next step is a denigration of the actors involved: some protests might be ok, but probably only the ones where people are dressed as Colonials rather than as sixties radicals.

McCain points indirectly to this problem in his own commentary, where he complains that while the media went out of their way to find associations between the most "radical" members of the Tea Party crowd, they are not commenting upon statements of global solidarity from organizations like the Workers World Party. Of course, it took almost two weeks for major media coverage to settle upon occupy Wall Street. Counterpose this with the immediate almost universal recirculation of Rick Santelli's "Rant Heard Round the World" that launched the Tea Party: consciousness of that rant a scant two days after it happened (a rant by one person, who just happened to have an institutional megaphone) as opposed to a fairly well attended protest taking a few weeks to make it into major media narratives.

Labash's piece operates by a logic of reduction, focused on attempting to manufacture representative anecdotes for "proper" workers opposed to the protestors. Labash spends some time interviewing someone named "Spooky," and while Labash concedes that the approach has a real organic root, he finds in Spooky (a fellow who is unemployed and unabashedly trying to milk his time at OWS for food and profit) the zeitgeist of the protest: free riding for profit. Pizzas, blankets, they have it all. Labash's focus on the agency of Spooky (and those he represents) occludes the reader from asking the question about how Spooky got where he is today: why is someone so resourceful unemployed? Maybe, Labash notes, he just isn't interested in working: Spooky is homeless by choice and came from Orlando because they are not generous to panhandlers there. Labash's anecdote about Spooky takes up roughly half of his column. This allows Labash to imply his major premise: those who "choose joblessness" like Spooky so they can "come and go as they please" make up the vanguard of the protests.

Labash contrasts Spooky with a black man named David Harvey, who is well dressed, and working as a flyer distributor, who says that we ought to "Complain all you want--but on your way to work." This again, begs the question: what about those who do not have a job? The implicit rebuttal is, of course, that these people should go get jobs. Whether or not one is employed is resulted to a simple matter of individual choice: choose (wisely) to get a job or choose (irresponsibly) to not work and simply float.

Labash also quotes a magazine poll indicating that 37% of the protestors think capitalism is immoral. I must admit, given the way the conservatives describe these protests, I rather expected that number to come in at roughly double. Only slightly more than a third...meaning, what, the 0ther 63% are good red blooded Americans who also happen to have legitimate gripes?

McCain's tactic is to ask, with an even/or style, are the revolutionaries mainstream/relevant or are they wacky Communist psychopaths? McCain posits this as a forced choice, buying off and eliding another possibility: that the protests might turn out to be both radical AND popular! Such would be radical politics: a meeting between radicality and general publicity that reconfigures the political.

Mark Steyn's column advances one central argument: that the youth of American are lazy, and want to enjoy a Western lifestyle without earning it. They only like an open border policy because it brings in cheap immigrant labor to do the jobs they don't want, and they are apolectic over having massive amounts of student loans and no career prospects. The question begged is: if Americans have a trillion dollars in student loans, how is it that every individual's judgment is so woeful that they all got a student loan? And in fact if it is woeful than what good comes from reducing individual's agency in making choices (they can't be trusted to make educational decisions, obviously)? Once again being bad off is understood as a choice, with luck, misfortune, and the actions of other individuals and institutions eradicated.

All the responses manifest an anxiety about what Occupy Wall Street means. I mean that in the following way: the discursive performance of all three works acts to A) reduce the protestors to exceptional rather than representative actors, B) locate their status as unemployed/economically disadvantaged as a result of "bad judgment" or an inability to make the right choice, and C) to imply that a concern about economic status is revolutionary rather than sincere and legitimate. The "mere attention" received by Occupy Wall Street, combined with the newfound legitimacy of political protest as a form (in the wake of the Tea Party's rise) necessitates these discursive maneuvers, because the sensus communis can not be trusted to ignore the protests so long as they are receiving attention. Part of the anxiety of communication is the anxiety of interpretation and its multiples: this condition is accentuated under the conditions of liberalism, where individual judgment's sovereignty is encoded in a powerful web of social discourses. We might double down on this proposition in a democracy: the terror that a set of individual judgment's might reign sovereign, and thus reconfigure political space itself, is somewhat terrifying indeed.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

"They Don't Have a Demand"

So I guess there's some obligatory waxing about "Occupy Wall Street" to be done. In general, I'm quite interested in how people attenuate themselves to the movement. There tend to be four or so different responses:

1. "These damn dirty hippies are seditiously ruining our country: just like their forbearers in the Sixties, we should make sure that they know that the vocal and smelly minority won't have a say in politics." This response tends to be conservative. I should also note that to the extent that violence and disobedience are overcoded as the responsibility of the crowd in the cortex of our imaginary, I am sympathetic to quasi-fascist arguments that the protestors should be held to a higher standard of behavior from within, simply to defend their optics. The counter argument, of course, is that even if nothing approaching "inappropriate" behavior is done the media frame will inevitably construct some such action out of misleading bits into a spectacle. Perhaps. This is no reason not to try.

2. "I have sympathies, but what is their PLAN??!" I find this argument the most difficult to stomach, in part because it is the argument where the moderate-pseudo progressive left meets a conservative complaint. Actually, thats the whole reason. Look, in the last 2 years we have seen a resounding wave of conservative populism, a political movement that appears as a function of grassroots beliefs mixed with a healthy does of rhetoric about the "American people" in a way that makes most progressive gaze lustfully at the American flag. Of course, when one pushes hard on the Tea Party for real plans, one comes up against a barrier: those that refuse to defend substantial cuts in Medicare and Social Security, when you get down to policy particulars, do not have a real PLAN to address the liberty-based concerns for which they advocate. This, as Obama has recently been fond of saying albeit a bit less appropriately, is math. However, the reason the Tea Party's arguments have sustained and now embedded themselves as relevant fragments within the deliberative framework of the GOP is because they work within an effective taken for granted frame: that government is bad, and its forces tend towards inefficiency and ineffectiveness. Conversely, the progressive/liberal democratic party has tended to concede space to this argument, generally arguing only for government when its a necessity but generally speaking about the need to free the "American people" to make the country great again. Now there are exceptions: you have your millionaire surtax, your Wall Street/Main Street binary, but the recent decision to NOT push harder EPA regulations underscores the Democratic mainstream's tendency to collapse in the middle MUCH faster than their conservative counterparts. I would like to assert (as many smarter and more eloquent theorists and writers have already) that this is because (until OWS) progressives were conceding the basic thesis of conservative arguments: that government is bad. There are exceptions to this, but it seems like "States of Exception" are more easily generated in the face of an existential threat to all Americans (terrorism, ahem) than in the face of a partial or part-ordered amount of discomfort for many Americans (but crucially, not the universal image of hardworking "Americans" whose suffering must never be read inductively as an indict of America itself.) The reason why "what's the plan" is so frustrating as a response to OWS is that before you have a plan, you have to understand the political terrain. The status quo understanding of the political terrain treats the market and the actors of market capitalism as unvarnished natural goods. OWS is beginning the work of challenging this presumption. So a plan? That might come. For now, you've got to not rewrite common sense, but just make it thinkable that its no longer common sense.

3. "They've been at this a while." They've been there for a few weeks, whereas the unabashed declarations of love from Hayek and Mises are decades old. Lets holster the speed gun, kids.

4. You have cautious support on editorial pages of major daily newspapers. That it is even being covered is a big deal, although I have healthy skepticism's about Michael Warner's "mere attention" thesis: if something receives "mere attention" as an abject/external point to generate another kind of publicity, thats far different from fawning adulation. I do think that this everyday support is a powerful point to argue that the insistence of the crowd that they are just "regular Americans" is a pretty amazing thing. Once the state and not the market became the enemy of the American people, the Clinton-era welfare caves became a fait accompli. If "the people" can become read not as an effect of the government's displacement of their true and thorough virtuosity, but instead as evidence of a linkage between government and popular interest against the market (monsterized in this case at the heart of finance) then that might really do something.