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.


  1. I wrote an incoherent ramble on my tumblr a few days ago about #2. The thing that is most frustrating to me about the position that OWS doesn't have a unifying goal is that the corporate media making that accusation are incredibly flippant and dismissive of the relationship between the various OWS complaints, which are actually coherently focused on impacts of wealth concentration on everyday life at multiple scales.
    Saying "you don't have a plan" is really no different than covering one's ears and shouting "lalala does not compute" instead of listening to what is being said. OF COURSE these guys want OWS to only have one, specific demand. One demand is much easier to co-opt or make half-assed gestures towards than anything that is systematic or recognizes the intersectionality of oppression. It also fundamentally misses the point of the general assembly being the decisionmaking body, rather than it being a movement making demands on the state.

  2. Thats a totally good point. "Contentlessness" is its own kind of content.

  3. Thank god that they don't have a plan. The Nazis had plans.

  4. Seriously though...I am glad that there's no plan or manifesto that has yet to emerge. I may have drank just a little too much of the Ranciere kool aid last year, but I think that the "planlessness" is productive in two ways:

    1. Allows a growing number of people to articulate themselves to the movement.

    2. Gets down to brass tacks: what seems most common to the various protests is the repeated demand for a seat at the table, a part in the discussion. The act of voicing here is an act of political subjectification, the results of which have the potential to destabilize the routinized notions of what constitutes politics in this country. Sorta like the Arab Spring, right? ;)

  5. Unfortunately, it has sounded equally likely that OWS is saying "government bad" in a way that is not always readily distinguishable from tea partiers - at least not to the untrained ear, and perhaps *isn't different. It may still be something they are determining in their conversations.

    I'm not concerned about a lack of plan. I'm concerned that the unbridled enthusiasm of academic types for "an authentic political moment for the left" will subject this to the typical impatience we have been guilty of in so many other situations. If I'm cautious, it's a caution about my own tendency to overread. I get tired of watching academics blame those they study for "failing" to live up to the hopes academics had.