Occupation: Presence and Power in Everyday Life

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.

Sweet Victory at Liberty Square

Chills. Goosebumps. Jubilation. Hugs and tears of joy. Thousands and thousands of people. Music and exuberant shouts. I literally cannot wipe the grin off my face.

I won’t lie. When my alarm went off this morning at 5, I did consider snoozing it and going back to bed. But the protesters in Zuccotti Park have done so much for all of us. If they were going to be forcibly evicted from the park, I was going to stand in solidarity with them. I felt principled and steely as I rode the subway, but not exactly hopeful.

Once again, though, the power of people standing together has surprised even me with what it can accomplish. Once again, the world of Zuccotti Park and all of its reverberations have expanded our sense of how people in solidarity can reshape the world, even in the face of resistance. Once again, we have learned that we are not without leverage to press for what we believe in.

Americans have understood for a long time now that the political game is rigged against them and in favor of corporations and big money. They’ve been working longer and harder for less and less. They’ve watched the natural environment be degraded and the era of chronic disaster get ushered in. And they’ve felt powerless to do anything about it. But that long night is finally over. It’s a new day, and this morning we all relearned what previous generations found out through their own struggles — that we can resist austerity and injustice and win.

We are finished with waiting and hoping that maybe things might get a little better if there’s a slightly more progressive president. We reject the utterly nonsensical claim that austerity is necessary because there is simply “not enough” for people to have a decent life — livable wages, leisure time with friends and family, health care, education, retirement, vacation (hell, how about a lunch hour?), clean air, clean water…There is plenty. We know it, and we demand it. We are done with accepting the ass-backward logic that people should serve corporations and banks. The economy and the banking system should serve human needs. For the first time in my life, I realistically think they could be forced to.

We are beginning to feel our strength to make these common dreams real. All our lives, we are told in countless overt and more subtle ways that resistance is futile, that the way things are is the only way that things could ever be (our general ignorance of the history of radical movements and the victories they’ve won, doesn’t help). This morning, that logic was materially smashed. In its place there is…possibility. And power.

Why I’m not marching today

Just a few months ago, the idea of large numbers of Americans out in the streets engaging in a radically democratic working-class protest movement, would have seemed only a dream. After a long ten years of anti-Muslim and Arab hysteria, the idea that these very folks would be claiming inspiration from the Arab world, saying, in effect, we want to be like them, would have struck me as totally ridiculous. And the idea that the national conversation would have turned to questions of — American taboo that it is — class, well, there is no way I would have believed that could happen.

So I’m as thrilled about Occupy Wall Street as everyone else who’s been waiting all their lives for something like this to bubble up. And the “let a thousand flowers bloom” multiplicity of left message is quite important, especially at this stage. However, part of the larger conversation has to center around what we mean when we talk about class, now that we’re talking about it. We may as well start with Marx.

All my undergrads know something that I fear at least some of the demonstrators do not — that, as Marx says in Capital, “capital is not a personal, but a social power.” The logic of corporations — the incessant push for profit and growth, and the complete irrelevance of qualitative values like clean water or happiness to the algorithm of exploitation through which profit happens — is just not about rich people. No matter how rich or greedy or nasty they may be (and I detest the Kochs as much as anybody does), they shouldn’t be the target. People and corporations are not the same. That’s actually the whole point.

In fact, identifying particular rich assholes comes perilously close to the “bad apple” discourse that, for so many years, passed for analysis of the precursors to our current crisis — Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, etc. It’s not the system that’s bad, we were told, it’s just a couple of “bad apples.” Once they’re punished, everything will be all good. Of course, this was nonsense. People weren’t being “bad.” Corporations were doing business, in an environment increasingly favorable to them.

And as the right loves to point out, identifying wealthy baddies and targeting them, in whatever way, comes perilously close to the kind of all-too-common revolution that’s based on resentment and envy. One that aims to take down rather than to build up. And one that stops being democratic pretty early in the game. At this moment in history, it’s kind of important that we remember that Nazism was National Socialism, all about getting back at the bankers (yup, Jewish) who were taking all the money. Just because the right wing brings it up doesn’t mean it’s not true.

There are two palpable forces out in the streets of America today. One is zinging with hope and energy, and the other — in danger, I’m afraid, of co-opting the first — animated by what Nietzsche called ressentiment. So much of the future depends on which side makes its case most powerfully and comes to represent the vibe of the movement. We can smash bad apples, or we can plant trees that bear truly powerful fruit.

If you’re feeling pissed off at the rich, take comfort in how they must be quaking in their boots right about now. (They really asked for this with their hyper-greedy behavior — you can’t have these levels of inequality without the kind of anger we’re seeing.) That’s fun for a minute, but the movement has bigger fish to fry. When Marx said that all history is the history of class struggle, he was referring to the power of that which is the opposite of the cold, calculating logic of capital.

What Stanley Aronowitz has called the counterlogic of the working class — the desire for freedom, pleasure, and connection — is what materially opposes the logic of capital. The new movement has to embrace this. Many of the signs in Zuccotti Park do. And they’re the ones I gravitate toward.

It’s time for the movement to make a choice to elevate the parts of it that affirm the kind of world we want to live in — one in which not the profit motive but people’s desire to live and live happily is a dominant force. Once we do this, we can begin to organize the considerable leverage that our side has to press our demands — for clean air and water, for no more bullshit wars, for shorter hours of labor, to name a few I like.

The 1% has gotten more than their share of everything already. Let’s not give them all the attention of our movement, too. Remember, it’s about us. Not them.

Occupy Wall Street

As I read all the press coverage of Occupy Wall Street that bemoans the lack of a unified message and a plan, I can’t help thinking of one of my favorite movies of last year, The Social Network. In it, the Mark Zuckerberg character resists his partner’s insistence on defining and commodifying the network right away, saying repeatedly that “we don’t even know what this is yet.” When Napster founder Shawn Parker echoes this sentiment in one scene, he’s exhorting Zuckerberg to stick with his instincts and resist locking the whole thing down before it has a chance to show what it’s capable of producing. I think the protesters are wise to similarly resist calls to become something easy to understand within a more traditional framework. What we’re seeing is a mass, spontaneous people’s uprising that is spreading like wildfire and the participants are absolutely right to ignore calls to organize in such a way that the movement can be pigeonholed and “dealt with.”

Besides, capital and the politicians who serve it are far more comfortable with an “organized” group, with identifiable leaders and a “reasonable” list of demands, than with a spontaneous and growing movement that’s not so easy to “pin down.” Any boss would much rather deal with a “responsible” representative of mass discontent (and dreams) across a negotiating table, who has the power to make both demands and concessions and then go back and “sell” the whole thing to the membership, than with the threat of unpredictable massive wildcat strikes and slowdowns, for instance. It’s the latter that really makes the Man cry uncle and give something up to the people.

And the truth is, the movement has already won a massive victory. The conversation in this country is now centered on a real consideration of all the ways in which poor, working, and middle-class folks in this country have been for decades sacrificing more and more of their precious lives for less and less reward. We are moving the discourse leftward with every day of the occupation, and every new city and town that joins. We are rediscovering the power and leverage that we have, to — as the protesters cried out today — “create the kind of world we want to live in — a world in which human concerns outrank the logic of profit in our system of priorities.” That’s a win right there.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: