Tuesday, October 25, 2011

"Ten People Acting Together Can Make a Hundred Thousand Tremble Separately"

Suresh's excellent post on the Occupy Wall Street movement reminded me of Hannah Arendt's On Revolution. It's a funny book; I don't know if it's much read today. One of its innovations, or eccentricities, is to place the American Revolution not just in the revolutionary tradition, but right at its center. Another is the focus on the idea of "public happiness" -- the idea that there's a distinct kind of wellbeing that comes from participation in collective decisionmaking. And most relevant to the current conversation, is its emphasis on the role of local councils -- non-elected but representative -- in every revolutionary situation, from 18th century New England town meetings to the soviets of 1918. These have independently developed, she argues, the"federal principle" -- the idea that democratic politics consists not in selecting leaders who then exercise power on behalf of the public, but rather of local bodies delegating specific tasks to more centralized bodies.

The connection to the Occupy movement is perhaps obvious, though Arendt isn't one of the writers people usually associate with this kind of politics. Her insistence that broad participation in public life is an end in itself, even the highest end, is a nice corrective to people who are impatient with the inward-looking nature -- meetings about meetings! -- of a lot of conversations around OWS. And the General Assembly structure looks different when you imagine them as proto-soviets. Of course the US today isn't anywhere close to a revolutionary situation, and one can't imagine General Assemblies exercising dual power. Or more precisely, there's no way anything like that will happen; people are imagining it, that's the point. Maybe the best evidence that Arendt is onto something important is that her book, written in the 1960s mostly about the politics of the 1780s, has distinct echoes not just of OWS, but of popular movements around the world, like the idea of "delegation" rather than "representation" coming out of Venezuela and Bolivia. 

I think the connection is interesting enough,it's worth putting some long quotes from On Revolution here. Which requires us to deploy the new-to-Slackwire technology of the fold. So, after it, Arendt.

While the [French] Revolution taught the men in prominence a lesson of happiness, it apparently taught the people a first lesson in "the notion and taste of public liberty". An enormous appetite for debate, for instruction, for mutual enlightenment and exchange of opinion, even if all these were to remain without immediate consequence on those in power, developed in the sections and societies... It was this communal council system, and not the electors' assemblies, which spread in the form of revolutionary societies all over France. Only a few words need to be said about the sad end of these first organs of a republic which never came into being. They were crushed by the central and centralized government, not because they actually menaced it but because they were indeed, by virtue of their existence, competitors for public power. No one in France was likely to forget Mirabeau's words that "ten men acting together can make a hundred thousand tremble apart." ...
"As Cato concluded every speech with the words, Carthago delenda est, so do I every opinion, with the injunction, 'divide the counties into wards'." Thus Jefferson once summed up an exposition of his most cherished political idea... Both Jefferson's plan and the French societes revolutionaires anticipated with an utmost weird precision those councils, soviets and Rate, which were to make their appearance in every genuine revolution throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Each time they appeared, they sprang up as the spontaneous organs of the people, not only outside of all revolutionary parties but entirely unexpected by them and their leaders. Like Jefferson's proposals, they were utterly neglected by statesmen, historians, political theorists, and, most importantly, by the revolutionary tradition itself. Even those historians whose sympathies were clearly on the side of revolution... failed to understand to what an extent the council system confronted them with an entirely new form of government, with a new public space for freedom which was constituted and organized during the course of the revolution itself. ...
The ward system was not meant to strengthen the power of the many but the power of "every one" within the limits of his competence [shades of Hardt and Negri]; and only by breaking up "the many" into assemblies where every one could count and be counted upon "shall we be as republican as a large society can be". In terms of the safety of the citizens of the republic, the question was how to make everybody feel "that he is a participator in the government of affairs, not merely at an election one day in the year, but every day"...

If the ultimate end of revolution was freedom and the constitution of a public space where freedom could appear, the constitutio libertatis, then the elementary republics of the wards, the only tangible place where everyone could be free, actually were the end of the great republic whose chief purpose in domestic affairs should have been to provide the people with such places of freedom and to protect them."
Shorter Hannah Arendt: We are our demands.


  1. The esoteric political theory academics have been ladling onto OWS is quite beside the point. To celebrate OWS as a hot-house where new and ostensibly more authentic political cultures are a-borning is a colossal misjudgment. It means the Left will continue to squander time, resources and opportunities instead of mastering the machinery of political organizing through parties and elections and popular policy platforms.

    A comparison with the Tea Party is instructive. (See Skocpol and Williamson, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, Oxford, for an excellent analysis.) The TP harnessed resonant socio-political mythology and agit-prop to a precise and actionable set of political demands. And rather than fantasizing about some form of ecstatic direct democracy, TPers have gone about mastering the dreary business of representative democracy. They take over local Republican committees. They turn out the Republican vote in general elections and primaries. They beadily track the progress of legislation through Congress and state legislatures, and tell their representatives there is a price to be paid for crossing them. Thanks to this kind of meticulous organization, tightly focused on levering representative politics, the right can mobilize a mass (though minority) electoral base to push through a program. (Josh, didn’t you learn all this at the Working Families Party?)

    OWS, to give it credit, has succeeded through its protest theater in capturing the imagination of discontented masses, just like the Tea Party did with its tri-corner hats. But it has utterly failed to translate that into a meaningful political program. That’s a direct result of the Marxo-Romantic disdain for electoral politics and the New Left’s obsession with cultural authenticity. OWS remains trapped in anarchist protest culture as an end in itself, a “Church of Dissent” indeed; as Rob Wohl, I think, over at Rortybomb points out, this stuff is pure opiate, the New Left’s version of a consoling religious ritual that does nothing to change the real world. Inevitably, that approach lapses into a familiar 1960s rhetoric of grass-roots insurgency against a repressive state—“police brutality!”—that fatally undermines what should be the left’s central ideological goal, which we could call “archism”: the rehabilitation of the democratic state as popular tribune, competent regulator and honest broker of the social contract.

    The hoary left notion that if you create a thick counter-culture of dissent the politics will automatically follow gets things exactly backwards. Rather than flowing organically out of spontaneous protest movements, specific political programs are the precondition for inchoate discontent to gel into mass movements. Once there is a program to advance, people can rally round it with some hope that their efforts will bear fruit, rather than petering out in pointless turf battles with the cops. Why did the anti-globalization circus fizzle? Because it never forthrightly advanced the obvious political program—protectionism--that would have drawn mass support.

    In your own stab at counter-cultural theory, Josh, you invoke poor Habermas, of all people, to support a vision of politics as soccer hooliganism—heckling from the sidelines, occasionally punctuated by mindless half-time melees. The pay-off, you insist, is the base-line recognition that “we exist.” Is that assertion, which every narcissistic two-year-old can make, the best we can do after centuries of mass politics? Why can’t the left say something a bit more grown-up: “we vote.”

    The right understands that political culture has to be firmly yoked to elections and overt control of state policy. It knows that real victory comes from occupying Washington and Albany, not Wall Street. Until the Left learns that lesson, it will always fail.

  2. So as it happens, when I was down at OWS two weeks ago, I ran into a few old colleagues from the Working Families Party. And we all found that we were having the same reaction: "This is exactly the way we always said *not* to do politics." We always thought that if you want to accomplish anything, you have to set concrete, winnable goals, line up your allies ahead of time, and identify the specific decisionmakers you're trying to move and what kinds of pressure they're vulnerable to. OWS isn't doing any of that. And nonetheless, we all thought it was great.

    Institutionally, the WFP is totally behind the Occupy movement, and why not? There's no conflict between the two kinds of politics. The opposite. Albany DA David Soares was elected by the WFP (the news story says "with assistance," but really we recruited him and ran the campaign from top to bottom) in the best electoral campaign I ever worked on. Now he says he won't prosecute anyone arrested on minor charges at Occupy Albany. I bring this up not because it's the most consequential thing he's done, but to make the point that there's no conflict between the two kinds of politics. There's a natural affinity between them. They're complements.

  3. On to your substantive points.

    The problem that OWS is addressing is not, "how shall we, the Left, allocate our scarce resources?" The problem OWS is addressing is how a left be brought into being.

    There's a basic asymmetry between the right and the left. The right represents, more or less by definition, existing concentrations of power and privilege. So they can treat popular politics in a purely instrumental way, as a means for advancing a given set of ends. Obviously this isn't completely true – capital owners don't have some kind of mind meld – but it is inherently easier for the 1% to solve their coordination problem, and they have institutions beyond the strictly political to do it with. For our side it's harder -- “we” are a diffuse and tenuous group that's only sporadically capable of any kind of collective action. So our political institutions have to do double duty; they need to advance our goals but they also are what allow us to have goals in the first place.

    I mean, it's not as though individuals with left politics are somehow unable or unwilling to engage in electoral politics. The political world is full of leftists. But they answer to whatever particular interests are represented by the institutions they work for. Which in the case of electoral politics pretty much means either the personal ambition of some elected dude, or the profits and prestige of a consulting firm. Again, it's not such a problem for the right – self-interest matches up nicely to political commitment when the Koch brothers are signing the checks. But for our side, subject-formation is the problem. Because a lot of the basic structural elements of organizations that are normally built out of hierarchy and incentives, we have to build out of norms, shared language, even myth.

    As I've written here before, when you're weak, it's basically irrational to want to change the world. Self-interest says to acommodate. So on the left we can never think about political action just as the best solution to a technical problem. (Well, leaders can. But down that road, you end up dependent on the personal principles of the individuals who happen to be in a position to lead -- who, fortunately, are often real heroes. But not always. In any healthy left movement, the base is always suspicious and bit jealous of the leaders.) Yes, we also have to think about how to get what we want, but we can't ever stop thinking about who we are or cleanly separate the two questions.

    More concretely, I think the contrast with the Tea Party is exaggerated. It was influencing electoral politics far less at this stage of its development than OWS already is. This is my big problem with this criticism from people like you and Doug Henwood and Jodi Dean. (So you're in good company.) You could say this is a great first step, more is needed, let's think about how we can contribute. But instead there's this rejection of the whole movement because, one month in, it isn't already where it needs to get to. Politics is hard! And popular politics is especially hard because, again, by its very nature, the big decisions can't be taken centrally by a few experts, there has to be a slow and sometimes frustrating process of collective learning. But creating a false opposition between that process and the more tactical moments of political change – in which, I agree, electoral strategies are central – doesn't help.

    The hoary left notion that if you create a thick counter-culture of dissent the politics will automatically follow gets things exactly backwards.

    No. This is wrong. It's not what Suresh and I are saying, and it's not the left notion. What we say is that if you create a thick counterculture of dissent, the politics are then possible.

  4. @Josh,

    You’re treating politics as part developmental psychology, part mystic journey of collective self-discovery.

    Thus, OWS is necessary because it’s apparently impossible right now for the left to appeal to the electorate on the basis either of straight-forward self-interest or larger, disinterested conceptions of a prosperous and humane order. Instead, the electorate, the proletariat, must go through a protracted struggle for self-definition in which it slowly becomes aware of its own existence, true desires and capabilities. OWS furthers that through its combination of countercultural ferment, communal dialectic and cathartic confrontation with the Establishment.

    I’m impatient with that concept of politics, as I am with all the murky run-off from German Romanticism. Whatever it’s validity in centuries past, we really should be past it by now. In the end, nothing new will come of OWS’s self-absorbed, ahistorical New Politics except for a laborious reinvention of the wheel. OWS working groups are starting to water down the consensus protocol to “modified consensus”—i.e., a 75% supermajority. Someday, perhaps, they’ll hit upon the principle of majority rule.

    And I disagree that OWS’s obsession with Being and Becoming is a prerequisite for Left political organizing. The groggy awakening of the masses is unnecessary because they’re already awake (one would hope so after centuries of left agitation.) OWS is indeed much more popular than the T Party. Polls show that almost 40% of Americans like OWS, with most of the rest neutral. And sizeable majorities have for decades supported the pillars of a progressive platform—Medicare for all, more unions, less economic inequality, higher taxes on the rich. There’s your mass electoral base—already conscious and supportive.

    People are ready to march. But is the Left ready to lead? Nope—it militantly refuses to lead.

    I agree with you that the mythic symbolism of OWS is extremely useful in focusing people’s discontent. But to be effective, that attention has to be focused on something--a concrete political platform, which should take about five minutes to come up with.

    For example, OWS could make itself seriously useful by undertaking a march to Albany in support of a state Millionaire’s Tax. It has the foot soldiers, the media spotlight, and that vile crypto-Republican governor Cuomo, who rejects the MT, as a foil. It could ignite a state Millionaire’s Tax movement all over the country. That would give the tens of millions of Americans who support the tacit OWS agenda, but don’t want to camp out with a bunch of ranters and anarchists, something very pertinent to organize and vote for.

    But will OWS ever take that obvious step? No, because it won’t be able to decide whether or not that particular demand is legitimate. Scratch that—it can’t even decide whether or not it’s legitimate to decide whether a demand is legitimate. And the roots of that fecklessness lie in the Left’s romantic longing for revolution and disdain for electoral democracy.

    Again, the Right understands all this. It has its colorful anarchist theater to stir the heart, but it makes sure to concentrate the mind on nuts-and-bolts electoral politics. Even a ding-bat cultural provocateuse like Sarah Palin put in her time on grungy local and state political campaigns. How many OWS-ers have even thought to send a letter to Cuomo about the Millionaire’s Tax, threatening to vote against him in the next primary?

    You’re right—politics is hard, especially when it requires living in a tent and rumbling with the cops. Electoral politics solves that problem; it lowers the barriers to political participation by demanding only that people hear ideas that they already agree with and cast a ballot accordingly. Why can’t the Left do things the easy way for a change?

  5. How about, because there is no easy way?

    I mean, you're not wrong in principle, but you seem to assume that there actually is a social democratic party that people could usefully cast their ballots for, a well-established existing organization they could join instead of trying to invent something new. If this were, say, northern Europe after World War II, that would make sense. But in the current context your argument has a certain unreality.

    Take Cuomo the "crypto-Republican." Except what he actually is, is a Democrat. He may be vile, but he is precisely what we've gotten by following your preferred approach and trusting the electoral system to solve our coordination problem. Not to mention Obama. The left I see didn't ignore electoral democracy in 2008, it took part enthusiastically. The turn toward a different kind of politics is not based on any general disdain for elections (and politics through the established channels in general, like writing letters to elected officials.) It's based on disappointment with the results.

    You mentioned the Working Families Party in your previous comment, which is an organization that does exactly the kind of nuts-and-bolts, concrete, goal-oriented electoral politics you're talking about. And they *love* OWS. Just look at the website: WFP Stands with Occupy Wall Street. And it's not just for public conusmption -- people I've talked to there are incredibly enthusiastic about OWS, even as they're staying focused on picking target State Senate races for next year. Because they don't share your badly mistaken idea that there is some fixed quantity of political energy available on the left and that anything except the One Best Thing needs to be rejected as a distraction. They know that people who become active in one way are likely to stay active in others. People who are taking part in street theater now are more likely to be knocking on doors next fall, just like people who wrote the letters and signed the petitions that were delivered to Chase's office today are a lot more likely to write letters and sign petitions to be delivered to Cuomo tomorrow.

    Look, I worked for WFP for five plus years, doing exactly the kind of stuff you are talking about. I wish there were a vehicle for that kind of work at the national level. (And I wish WFP more consistently lived up to its potential.) But there isn't. The "just put your time in on campaigns" approach gets you Cuomo. Whom WFP endorsed. Because he was strong, and they were weak. Because they lack an independent mass base.

    As you say, sizable majorities support a progressive program, and have for decades. And yet somehow the electoral system fails to deliver it. Isn't that an argument for trying something else, if not instead, at least in addition?

  6. @ Josh,

    I agree that OWS could be a useful development—if and only if it helps mobilize a mass Left electoral base. Organizationally, the only useful place for OWS to end up is party politics. If it goes anywhere else, it’s a fizzle. And ideologically, the only useful place for OWS to go is social-democratic reform. Wherever else it might go would be some impractical utopian vision that will alienate most Americans. (Where it actually seems to live now is a kind of free-floating, omnidirectional cynicism that ultimately spells political disengagement.)

    Your and Suresh’s notion of OWS as a hot-house for transcendent new modes of thinking and being is therefore misguided. After all, the Sixties counterculture was a supernova of transcendent new modes of thinking and being. Those innovations made their cultural mark, but they had no lasting effect on economic inequality and exploitation. To change the latter, you have to win control of the state through elections and then impose social democratic reforms.

    I disagree that the Left has tried the electoral route and failed. The Left has never done what the New Right did starting in the 1960s—put together a simple, coherent and appealing critique and policy platform, and then organize tirelessly and with meticulous focus, sustained for decades, to take over one of the major parties as a vehicle for their program. (WFP is a very rare, and poorly executed, case of a Left organization that sort of tried to do that.) Electoral politics isn’t something you “trust,” as you put it, it’s a tool that you use to achieve power.

    It’s a tool the Left has never learned to use because of its ideological obsessions. The Left views electoral politics as irredeemably compromising and corrupt, a mechanism by which ruling elites manipulate the masses. Revolution, by contrast, is an authentic expression of inchoate popular will and a crucible in which the soul of the masses is formed and purged of impurities. So the insurrectionary trappings of OWS seem thrilling, while the notion of OWS pursuing electoral politics seem dull and debased.

    The link you provided to the action at Chase Bank, where OWS protestors will read pleading/hectoring letters to Chase Bank chairman Jamie Dimon, is a symptom of OWS’s and the Left’s inability to grasp the fundamental importance of political action through the state. How nauseating, to beg pipsqueak bankers on bended knee to return their loot! Why not go to Cuomo and Obama and demand that they use the sovereign power of the state to smash the banks and jail Dimon. And if Cuomo and Obama refuse, turn them out of office. It’s a tall order, but you can read letters to Dimon until you’re blue in the face and he’s still not going to arrest himself.

    You believe that the Right’s money and organizational acumen means it will always dominate electoral politics. Maybe, but if that’s true then the Right will always dominate, full stop. There simply is no alternative to electoral politics as a means for instituting change. To imagine otherwise, as the Left and OWS avowedly do, means you’ve lost the battle before it’s begun.

    You know, ten people can't make a hundred thousand tremble, unless they are terrorists. That's Marvel-Comics Leninism. You need to win over at least fifty thousand of the one hundred thousand and get them to vote your way.