Quinn Lester – Pomona ’13
Since Sept. 15th, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, which has taken over Zuccotti Park in New York City and inspired occupations across all 50 states, has been one of the most inspirational developments in recent years for progressives and everyone concerned about rampant wealth inequality and exploitation. However, there are certain aspects of the OWS movement that I find troubling and thus I wish to contribute to the larger critique of OWS that aims to make it accountable to its own promises of change. These critiques mainly apply to the actual Wall Street occupation, as local manifestations of OWS vary wildly depending on local political conditions, such as the way OccupyLA has become more of a countercultural site than a space of sustained political activism. Given the rapidly changing conditions on the ground, these thoughts may already be irrelevant; yet I find it likely that the issues they highlight will be important for future action.
What most concerns me about the current state and future of the OWS movement is the divide between what I would call the moral arguments and power arguments of social change. As it currently stands, I would say that the dominant discourse of OWS follows a moral argument of social change. Many people taking a part in OWS see the problem of the economic crisis as the following: top 1% going astray and betraying the other 99%. What is needed is for the 1% to be reminded of their connection to the 99% and for the government to facilitate this process through more regulation, some forms of redistribution, etc. This argument treats a variety of state and corporate actors as moral agents who blinded by their own selfishness and who need to be reminded of the needs of the rest. The very presence of OWS as a space will inform the 1% as to the consequences of their actions and lead them back into the citizen body. The very righteousness of the occupiers is their strongest weapon.
I would say that this understanding of politics is naive and would contrast it with a power argument of social change. States and corporations, the police and city hall, are not moral actors. Their needs are not measured by what is good or true or beneficial. Their needs are measured by what will allow them to exist while altering their forms as little as possible and maintain the maximal amount of social control or wealth. It is not that the 1% went astray, but that a kind of formal relationship exists between the 99% and 1% that leads to the wealth of the 99% flowing directly into the pockets of the 1%. A movement for economic justice should not characterize itself as trying to win an argument when the 1% are not even interested in listening or conceding. Instead, it is a matter of struggle as described by Michel Foucault. There are terrains, fields of battle, strategies, and tactics that need to be discovered and fitted towards whatever will lead to the demise of the enemy. As it is, the OWS takes up space-but are these the right kinds of spaces? What would it mean for OWS to occupy the NASDAQ floor or Citibank’s headquarters or Bloomberg’s city hall? Should OccupyWallStreet follow OccupyOakland and call for a general strike? The powers that be can withstand and absorb a certain level of discontent from below, so it’s not just about getting the 1% to listen but to disrupt their very way of life.
A response to this critique may be that since OWS has no demands its strategy cannot be judged. Yet I would like to take a closer look at what the movement’s lack of demands may mean. On the one hand, I can see how this is a smart strategy. It leaves the movement fluid enough to incorporate many different kinds of people while also avoiding co-optation by mainstream groups. I am not concerned with what kinds of demands OWS may end up having (though I hope they emphasize systematic changes) but rather the process of how these demands will be reached. The idea behind the OWS system of consensus is that as a space, OWS will create the kind of world that its participants wish to see. It is true that none of us have yet truly conceived what a revolutionary world will look like, and much of it needs to be worked out in the process. Yet I want to push back on this idea that OWS is just working in a vacuum and that what it envisions will automatically be more just, free, etc. OWS exists as a space in a world that already suffers from white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalist exploitations, colonialism, and other hegemonic forces that directly affect how people live and think. No one is free from certain categories of thinking or ideas in our society, and to create a more just society requires having to actively think against much of what is taught to us as common sense. Often what we think of as freedom or just the status quo are the very conditions that create our unfreedom. The process of OWS must be by nature counter-ideological and critical in order to arrive at any demands or views that are not merely reiterations of dominant ideas in new forms. This does not mean longing nostalgically for the movements of the past or acting as if everything done now is suddenly new, but analyzing the real developments in thinking and action that have occurred since the mass demonstrations of 1968 and applying them in a way that appropriately challenges the current moment of crisis.
A concrete way that OWS could orient itself towards being both a more critical space and open to different understandings of power would be for it to diversify its participants. By diversifying, I mean transforming into a space that welcomes, listens to, and respects the voices and actions of people of color, women, queer, trans, and gender-nonconforming folk, workers, disabled folk, immigrants, indigenous folk, and other groups that have historically been marginalized and exploited long before the current economic crisis started. The early involvement and leadership of OWS has been spearheaded by white men and focused around the idea that “We are the 99%.” Now, as an organizing slogan I can understand this, as it is meant to create the idea of unity. But as a matter of reality, this is patently false. The 99% are not all the same just as we are not all just “people.” We live in a racialized, sexualized, classed society where the relationship between material bodies and systems of meaning lead to real, material violence and deprivations. Any broad based movement for change and economic justice has to also interrogate and critique the racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism and other marginal trajectories that comprise the 99% and break them up rather than bring them together. Frankly, it is impossible to have a real movement in the US that does not have substantial involvement from communities of color, women, and queer folk. Now I do not mean by this proposal that it is the responsibility of marginalized communities to “save” OWS, as the onus is on the current occupiers in NYC and around the country to diversify and critique their own spaces. Real involvement and leadership from marginalized groups would deepen the critique of the 1% and raise the possibility of real social change that would positively affect all of the 99%.