Democracy, pluralism, and Occupy Wall Street
Over the weekend protests occurred across the globe, with occupiers taking over Times Square, resisting removal in Chicago, and mobilizing in Madrid. Monday marked the month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. And its coffers are swelling. These are heady times for a young leftist, to be sure, and there’s much about the occupations to be analyzed and scrutinized. Peter Frase’s recent disquisition was arguably the best of sundry movement pieces; Freddie deBoer‘s stuff has been similarly astute. I’ve written precious little about the movement thus far, partly because of my involvement in it. Allow me to end that silence.
The beauty of this rebellion lies in its decentralized, democratic character; the absence of top-down control has precipitated a participatory, pluralistic movement. Different local contexts should prompt different iterations. And that’s exactly what has happened. Broadly speaking, of course, this is a left-of-center movement. But some cities have a sizable anti-capitalist (predominately anarchist or socialist) contingent. Others? Not so much. Tactics are similarly divergent. Here in Des Moines, protesters—myself included—were willing to get arrested by state troopers to establish an occupation site. But when the city offered us an alternate space late last week, the general assembly accepted (save for a few stalwart dissenting voices). More militant occupations might regard our decision as debauching the movement; we opted to establish an encampment and fight large financial institutions rather than state troopers.
What we’re also witnessing is a movement that’s the most participatory, democratic movement in decades. (Let’s bracket, for now, the larger discussion of whether this more robust form of democracy is normatively desirable. Just briefly, I’d argue a just society requires that people have substantial control over the decisions and forces that shape their lives and circumstances—in short, self-determination. The occupation’s general assemblies, for all their faults, represent a radical counterpoise to Schumpeter-style democracy.) The occupations’ conscious attention to procedure—not just grievances or demands— is redolent of the New Left. There’s genuine risk in this: Undue emphasis on procedure can encumber effective political action, as Jodi Dean has argued:
Once the New Left delegitimized the old one, it made political will into an offense, a crime with all sorts of different elements:
–taking the place or speaking for another (the crime of representation);
–obscuring other crimes and harms (the crime of exclusion);
–judging, condemning, and failing to acknowledge the large terrain of complicating factors necessarily disrupting simple notions of agency (the crime of dogmatism);
–employing dangerous totalizing fantasies that posit an end of history and lead to genocidal adventurism (the crime of utopianism or, as Mark Fisher so persuasively demonstrates, of adopting a fundamentally irrational and unrealistic stance, of failing to concede to the reality of capitalism).
Now, Dean is obviously less sympathetic to the New Left than myself. (The chief failing of Hayden et al. was their inability to leave a lasting mark on electoral politics, something we occupiers need to remember as the movement progresses.) There’s a nugget of truth in Dean’s critique, though. If the movement focuses too much on building community and involving everyone in the decision-making process, it could provide all the benefits of “public, counter-establishment communal space[s]” and still render itself politically inert. That said, these are not insignificant benefits. Marc Stears argues in his superlative book Demanding Democracy: American Radicals in Search of a New Politics that the “SDS and the New Left… further emphasized the possibility that the struggle for democratic reform could transform the immediate lives of those who were involved in it, even if the ultimate democratic prize was always expected to elude them.” There’s the potential for a comparable effect here. If occupied spaces are wellsprings of hope and empowerment amidst stagnating wages, rigid hierarchies, and atomization, that’s nothing to pooh-pooh.
Another valid critique is of the “We Are The 99 Percent” mantra. Here’s Will Wilkinson:
But isn’t it true that the Occupy Wall Street movement and the “We are the 99%” message are creations of the left and embraced predominantly by the left? When Mr Hayes says that the 99% message is brilliant and true, what does he have in mind? I suppose it is that our political economy is rigged, especially with regard to financial economy, to benefit a relatively small number of powerful people at the top of the income distribution. I think this belief is indeed “widely shared by folks who aren’t liberals”. For example, I believe it, and I’m not a liberal in the sense Mr Hayes intends… If “we” really are the 99%, why have we failed to use our overwhelming democratic heft to set in place reforms that would unrig the system and put the 1% in their place? The obvious answer there is a great deal of ideological disagreement within the lower 99% of the income distribution, and even if a large majority agrees that Wall Street is ripping off the nation, there is no consensus about what should be done about it.
It’s exceedingly difficult to argue our political economy isn’t inordinately tilted toward capital or that the 99 percent haven’t received a surfeit of wealth over the past 30 years. But, as Wilkinson notes, the question is where that analysis leads you. Would breaking up the big banks ameliorate endemic corporatism? How about a financial transactions tax? What role should finance have in our economy? These are all important questions. But their answers are informed by one’s ideological proclivities, not merely whether one is among “the 99 percent.” The “99 percent” rhetoric is accurate as a critique of a system that, largely due to cronyism and corporate capture of our political institutions, doesn’t work for a huge chunk of the population. But when used to efface legitimate ideological disagreements, the analysis runs aground. A movement backed by the full 99 percent would be a watered down, anodyne one. We’re looking for systemic changes—not a broad-based occupation that, say, opposes breast cancer.
Legitimate criticisms notwithstanding, the movement’s possibilities are invigorating. Just a month in, Occupy Wall Street has already shifted the conversation. And the denouement doesn’t appear near. I can’t wait to be a part of—and help shape—what comes next.