Tuesday, October 4, 2011

This Is What Democracy Looks Like

I haven't Occupied Wall Street, have you?

The protests are great -- more anger, please! -- but I don't have any particular insight into them. And those of us without first-hand knowledge should probably defer to those who do. Except, I want to think critically about one common criticism of the protests: that they lack a clear statement of what they're about.

It's not clear how much this is really true. But still, one can say, isn't there something circular about the idea of "Occupy Wall Street"? It's not identified as a movement against bank bailouts or foreclosures, or for jobs or free elections or socialism. It's a movement to, well, occupy Wall Street -- a protest to hold a protest.

I think there's an important sense in which this is true. And in which it's always true -- in which, indeed, it's the whole point.

If you've ever been to one of these things, you know that the most successful chants are the self-referential ones, like "Whose streets/Our streets!" and "This is what democracy look like." (Or "We're here, we're queer" and "We shall not be moved.") Whatever the ostensible reason for the protest, the real content is always simply We Are Here.

This is most obvious, and most powerful, when the participants are people who are not supposed to be political agents or be seen in public at all: The early civil rights and gay rights protests, undocumented immigrants today. The message is, We exist. Think of the Memphis sanitation workers strike, with its signs reading, "I AM A MAN." But it also works if the "here" is a setting that is not supposed to be political. The flipside, as everyone knows, is that a protest of recognized citizens at a place and time designated by the authorities is politically meaningless.

Most of us very seldom experience ourselves as political agents, in the sense of being active participants in the collective decision-making of our community. For better or worse, most of the time we delegate collective decision-making to specialists who represent us more or less faithfully, as the case may be. The only reason for protest -- for any kind of mass politics -- is that this system has broken down. The message of any protest is: There is a political subject, a We, that is not being represented. This, in the broadest possible way, is what the "99%" rhetoric is saying, and why it resonates. At some point, if a when movements like this are successful, some new more legitimate form of representation will be established, as people form new collective identities and new norms of collective action. But it's foolish to criticize an assertion of the failure of representation for not itself being an effective representative, with a specific set of demands and a strategy to carry them out.

It's a long time since I read any Habermas, but he has a passage somewhere about how politics is necessarily an open-ended discussion, a process for deciding a question that could in principle be resolved in many ways. So anything that becomes routine, that becomes part of the regular process of social reproduction, is no longer political. You can find a similar argument in Hannah Arendt, and Luciano Canfora makes it very powerfully. Democracy, he says, isn't a form of government, like in civics class and Civilization. It's something that happens, occasionally and intermittently. Any mechanism can be captured; you can't institutionalize rule by the non-rich, as long as there are rich. To assert ourselves we have to heckle from the sidelines, or once in a while storm the field.

With a legitimate system of political representation, the question is what we should do and how to do it. Without one, we first have to establish that "we" exist.

UPDATE: Once you start looking for this stuff, it's amazing how consistent it is. Pull up a photo of the protests at random, and there's at least even odds you'll see a sign with some self-referential message: "I am a human being, not a commodity," "We are the 99%", etc. Here's a particularly nice example:

"We" are made up of the people here with signs. Exactly.

UPDATE 2: Matt Stoller, who's actually spent time there, says the same thing: 
What do the people at #OccupyWallStreet actually want? What are their demands? For many people, this is THE question. So let me answer it. What they want, is to do exactly what they are doing. They want to occupy Wall Street. They have built a campsite full of life, where power is exercised according to their voices. It’s a small space, it’s a relatively modest group of people at any one time, and the resources they command are few. But they are practicing the politics of place, the politics of building a truly public space. They are explicitly rejecting the politics of narrow media, the politics of the shopping mall. To understand #OccupyWallStreet, you have to get that it is not a media object or a march. It is first and foremost, a church of dissent, a space made sacred by a community. ... There's no way to agree or disagree with a church or a carnival.


  1. That makes a lot of sense. Part of the Tilly social movement theory handles this in an ugly way with its ideas of "WUNC displays" (Worthiness, Unity, Numbers and Commitment). It is often about establishing an identity around the movement rather than moving a specific agenda forward. And even for those movements that do have a specific agenda the protests themselves tend to be self referential.

  2. Hi Tom.

    You know, I've tried reading various Tilly books and never managed to make much headway. Something about his style that I just slide off of. I have to say, WUNC is consistent with that -- there's this mania for classification. But he does write about important stuff, and people bring him up in all the time on issues like this, so maybe it's worth another try. Any of his stuff you like in particular?

    And you know, once you start looking for this pattern it's really striking how consistent it is. Here is one of the many field reports from #OWS picked literally at random (it was at the top of my facebook feed). What are the first two signs this person describes making? "We are all Troy Davis" and “Whose streets? Our streets!” (The whole thing is very worth reading.)

  3. hey josh.

    I just lost a long comment because of some null cookie value or something. Whatever, it wasn't that good.

    I think I agree with almost all you say here. At the same time, I get the impression you would disagree with most of my thoughts (and even disapprove of my having non-deferential thoughts).

    Let me ask a quick question. Is there a not a big difference between the "common criticism" you are critical of and the concerns raised by people like Doug Henwood? Protesters can dismiss the common criticism, but I don't think they can really dismiss his type of concern.

    This We you speak of is a process. There are really significant tensions and contradictions among the protesters. I don't say this to dismiss or discount anything. A protest doesn't just announce a We, it has to bring it into being and produce it. Usually that involves something more than slogans, signs, or temporary autonomous zones.

    After the WTO protests there was all this euphoria about the alliance between unions, students, environmentalist, anarchists, etc. Some people spent time doing the work to try to produce an actual meaningful movement (or WE) out of this, but in my experience there were lots of people who just assumed it existence and dismissed any concern with a catch phrase or postmodernist neologism - we are the multitude!

    Our left is very good at splintering, and not as good at coming together. It doesn't mean we should give up or say all is doomed. It does, in my non-deferred opinion, mean that concerns about how this We is really going to be constituted should be taken seriously. They can't be dodged with new catch phrases, appeals to old slogans, or laundry lists. I'm fine with the catch phrases and branding. I'm fine with appeals to old slogans. I'm fine with laundry lists with something for everyone. I just don't think they solve many of the real problems involved in producing a sustainable political We.

  4. Hey Joe,

    Sorry for the slow response, but there's a lot to chew on there and I've been trying to formulate a reply. Sorry also for the lost comment -- blogger's commenting system is crap. One of these days I'll move this show over to Wordpress.

    [I couldn't even post this comment my first several tries.]

    So Doug is a huge influence on my thinking -- probably more than any other single person, tho I don't know whether he'd want to take credit for that. But I don't agree with him on everything, and in this case I don't entirely accept his criticism either. I think some of the critical attention to the overt content of some of the statements coming out of #OWS suffers from the same problem as atheist critiques of religion: too much attention to the thing as a body of claims about the world, and not enough to it as a social practice and as a subjective experience. Understandable for those of us who make our living emitting propositions, but something that needs to be guarded against, I think.

    So I agree copletely with

    A protest doesn't just announce a We, it has to bring it into being and produce it

    The best thing that come out of something like this is that it's part of the process of creating a new set of norms and habits and expectations around collective action. That's a long, slow process, all you can ask is that there is some kind of learning going on.

    It seems to me that one of the big differences between the left and the right is that because power and privilege are necessarily concentrated, they can be strategic in a way that we cannot. They can treat their base as a tool (altho they may sometimes lose control of it), we can't. Or in this case, we're much more dependent on norms than they are. And the whole point of norms is that they aren't chosen. (I'm thinking of Habermas again but you can get here by lots of routes.) They're effective only insofar as they're felt as fixed and obligatory, and yet they do evolve. Like language. If a new expectation gets established that a normal response to unhappiness with the state of politics and the economy is a mass illegal gathering some place like Wall Street, that's very powerful. (Have you ever read about the extensive history of politics-by-riot in the antebellum US?) But to say something is normal is precisely to say it's not subject to "what should we do" debate.

  5. (continued)

    There are really significant tensions and contradictions among the protesters.

    This I think may be a wrong turn. A general will isn't just a weighted average of individual wills, it's the outcome of an active process of collective decision-making. Of course there are contradictions, we're just at the beginning of this process. But that's not really relevant. The whole reason you have Soviets -- or, it's the same thing, meetings -- is precisely because of the tensions and contradictions when you just gather people together like gathering a sack of potatoes. That a consensus does not already exist, is not an argument against mechanisms to get to consensus.

    After the WTO protests there was all this euphoria about the alliance between unions, students, environmentalist, anarchists, etc. Some people spent time doing the work to try to produce an actual meaningful movement (or WE) out of this, but in my experience there were lots of people who just assumed it existence and dismissed any concern with a catch phrase or postmodernist neologism - we are the multitude!

    Yeah. This is a good comparison. I've spent a lot of time over the years wondering why Seattle didn't go anywhere. I randomly found myself having drinks with Naomi Klein a few months ago, and that was my question for her. her answer was pretty much the obvious: the war. Me, I mainly want to say just that we don't know what will happen now.

    ON your implicit critique of Hardt and Negri-ism, I agree. It's one thing to say that political change includes a moment of collective identity formation, outside of the normal process of political representation. It's another thing to set up a dichotomy between the popular or collective, on the one side, and the institutional or formal, on the other. They're both moments in the same process. In that sense I agree, there's a kind of left antinomianism that's just the flipside of liberals who are terrified of anything that doesn't have an org chart.

    I just don't think they solve many of the real problems involved in producing a sustainable political We.

    One step at a time, comrade.

  6. Yes, one step at a time. Of course!

    First, I actually came back to amend my comment because I read more of Henwood. I've found things that fit under the "common criticism" you are critical of.

    I feel like the "there are significant tensions" is a wrong turn as well. But I can't resist stating it so let me try to reframe it. There are significant tensions, which is not a bad thing. It is necessary thing. It is still a "thing" that has consequences.

    Personally, what attracts me most is the existence of these tensions. Intellectually I can get excited for ideological purity, but it does nothing for my spirit. One of my pet peeves with some of the left (even including myself) is how the insistence on ideological purity, and correct language, ignores all the people who are quite unhappy with the status quo. There ends up being lots of debate over why people are not critical, that is framed in a way that renders invisible all the people who are super critical of what is going on but don't use left-academic language.

    TLDR: Tension is necessary and even good.

    Now to take a wrong turn again, it worries me. I hope we/they figure out how to deal with these tensions. There are certain elements of the left that are very interested in "open and inclusive exchanges of ideas to produce mutual understanding." By which they mean, I will explain my ideology and historical metanarrative and if you disagree in any way I will ban you from the comments section because you are a troll or a _______-ist! Sometimes people are trolls, sometimes they are ____-ists. Sometimes they are people with honest questions.

    Obviously, that consensus or unity is difficult is an argument to work hard. I'm not saying it is a waste of time.

    My critique of Hardt-Negri was more a critique of how their ideas (or other ideas) were used. Obviously, one step at a time, but I got the impression that for some people back around 2000 a slogan, list of demands, neologism, or yet another WB/IMF protest replaced the need for steps. "The WE exists and if you can't see it, it is because you are using outdated categories!"

  7. One comment on post-seattle and then I will let your comments section be.

    We can look back at the war as an obvious reason things fizzled out.

    But ex ante, how would knowledge of the war (and related events) influenced your expectations? I feel like I could convince myself either way. Would the powers of the patriot act make people stay at home, or would it create a backlash? Same with the war. Same with whatever. I'm not even saying it is completely contingent, but its complicated.

    Based on my experiences, that movement needed strong links to community organizing. I don't think that is a heterodox view or controversial. Maybe we were even sick of all the local-global discourse, but at some point that political WE required a link between our daily lives and trade agreement meetings. It was at least what I heard people saying in Rhode Island, or at protests. It happened to some extent, just not as much as we would like.

    I hate to bring this up, but a related thing that happened was Gore losing. A common criticism of the Nader campaign is that it shifted attention to an unwinnable national campaign instead of winnable local goals. From my perspective it had the opposite effect. Not everyone who got into Nader got involved in local activism, but in the sample of people I met it was like 99%. In part because Nader was a pipe dream anyhow, working with the green party (or for Nader) had to be about more than just him.

    Whatever one's view on Nader, the result and interpretation by the Democratic Party, then accepted by many, was disastrous. The decade sucked because we dared question Clinton/Gore.

    In 1999 Clinton was the guy who ended welfare, imposed disastrous sanctions on Iraq, dropped bombs, etc. By 2004, at least by some accounts, he was the good guy we didn't properly appreciate. We were told W. Bush was the penance for our transgression.

    Would that make Obama a representation of the forgiveness of our sins? If so, God has an incredible sense of humor.

  8. JWM: You know, I've tried reading various Tilly books and never managed to make much headway.

    You too? I've actually had exactly the same thing happen. The basic insights sound good enough, and have stuck with me, which is why I post them here - why movements choose from a repertoire of familiar techniques, the role that protests play and all that. But then they start cataloguing and cataloguing and it just seems like a long list of things people did and my eyes glaze over and zzzzzz.

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  10. I believe it is wrong to try to read too much academic history into the behavior and strategy that is emerging in the #OWS movement. I am joining in because I am very clear about what I want, and it is clear to me that the #OWS movement is heading in a very similar direction. They are 40 years or more younger than I am ... but they are very logical, very technical and seem to see society as more important than either politics or the remuneration of the 1%