Checking in at OWS yesterday, a columnist approached me and asked if I’d speak about the protests and why I was there. He was a classic, rumpled New York journalist type with a gravelly voice and that appealing combination of world-weary and stoked, and we got into a friendly chat about history and social change. I’ve really come to feel that it’s the spontaneous conversations you get into that more than anything make the experience at Zuccotti Park so different from traditional rallies and marches. Everybody is talking and chilling and debating and connecting. It’s really a professor’s dream: big-picture discourse and critical conversation everywhere.
Serendipitously, he asked me what I thought the significance of the protest was. It’s funny, I said, I was just writing about this in preparation for a little talk I’m giving on the subject next week. We started talking about the two senses of the word significance: one, what something means or signifies, and two, what it produces, its historical significance.
It seems to me that both the meaning of the protests in terms of why they’ve been so incredibly resonant with Americans and in terms of what kinds of new political avenues they open up are both a function not only to the substance but also the form of the protests. Aside from tapping into widely-shared economic and political discontent, the protest reads powerfully because it’s fundamentally different from what Americans are used to. It’s an occupation. And it’s the occupy meme that has really caught fire.
To occupy space implies an active presence rather than the passive, obedient moving through the world that is demanded of us from the moment we enter school. For a long time now, Americans have seen themselves as objects of what happens politically, the subjects of which are transnational corporations and banks and the politicians and officials — of both parties — who everyone knows are in their pockets.
(Those Americans who have taken political positions have found themselves too often “represented” by mass membership organizations — on the left and on the right — who do some kind of lobbying in DC and call for money every couple of months. Frequently, people are asked to sign petitions. Which they share on facebook. And that’s what’s stood in for activism for many people for some time now.)
The OWS movement has been so inspirational, I think, because it has both insisted upon and demonstrated the power of an active rather than a passive presence in space, in all kinds of spaces. The reason it remains inscrutable to so many in the media and those who follow them is precisely because it’s not one of these inside-the-beltway organizations but is instead a space and a series of spaces in which people feel the power and pleasure of getting together, speaking up for themselves, and innovating collective solutions to the common problems experienced by people living in a world in which the logic of profit trumps all other concerns.
As for what the movement could produce, I am keeping a running tab of the occupation-related protests that have sprung up everywhere, inspired by the encampment in Zuccotti Park and other urban parks around the country. So far, in addition to 1000 worldwide solidarity protests last week, we’ve seen the collective closing of bank accounts (with more to come), arrests at the Supreme Court to protest the Citizens United decision in honor of MLK, demonstrations in Harlem against the systematic stop-and-frisk of minority youths, solidarity marches with Verizon workers fighting a highly profitable corporation which is demanding reductions in worker benefits, and occupations of foreclosure auctions, to name a few. The movement’s success will be measured, I think, by how long this list becomes over the next months and years. How many sit-ins, how many strikes, how many mass boycotts, how many direct actions.
Let’s face it. Winter looms. Zuccotti’s magic moment can’t last forever, and some cracks in the GA are starting to look more serious. But the list of actions will grow to the extent that people inspired by the protest take its energy and its antiauthoritarian and anti-corporate politics home with them — to their communities and especially to their workplaces. The working class intersects with capital at multiple nodes of the system. At each one, there is a relationship between the corporate system and the people. Where there is a relationship, there is leverage.
Potential leverage becomes active power precisely when people occupy the spaces of their lives boldly and consciously. I like to think of it as the badassness of everyday life. This badassness was the spark of the labor movement, of the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, the gay rights movement, the ecological movement, and the antiglobalization movement that is the most immediate historical foundation of OWS.
To me, the links between OWS and the labor movement are potentially the most important. These links are, right now, tentative but quite promising. As a result of the OWS moment, we may very well see more of the direct action and organizing in the workplace that is the origin and lifeblood of the labor movement and that depends on workers understanding the leverage that actively occupying space at work gives them — the power to collectively withdraw this presence. And contrary to much conventional wisdom on the subject, it’s not primarily organization but inspiration that fires labor movement activity. Right now, we’re long on inspiration. So I’m optimistic.
Thanks to Zuccotti, Americans are newly articulate about the problems associated with unchecked corporate power in economic and political life. There among the protesters, occupying space assertively in defense of human life against the profit motive, we may very well be seeing the germ of the collectively innovated solutions as well. It will be a continuation of a long and badass tradition in American life.