Occupy Theory: A Manifesto in 4 parts

"Occupy theory":  A manifesto in 4 parts

 

(written on the F train, coming home from an action)

 

What can it mean to occupy theory?

 

We might take 'occupy' as a verb, as in, the 99% should occupy theory in the sense of taking over the ivy ivory towers, the publishing venues controlled by Murdoch and General Electric, the networks of ideas that are on shuffle mode in the mainstream domains from rural to urban e-media in all forms. In short, we should occupy the sources of ideology.

 

Or, we might take 'occupy' as an adjective, a modifier for the term theory, a kind of political modification of theory-making. Here it would mean, not whatever Zizek wrote yesterday, but what the occupations are saying today. Occupy theory, in this sense, would be the theoretical content of the occupations, what they are saying theoretically if we could translate them or succinctly formulate the ideas embodied in the actions. To attempt such a transcription might seem an attempt at occupation itself, but it could instead be a rearguard action, where the theorists are at the back, in their place, acting as scribes, scriveners, and translators of the movement, of the motion, of the moment.  Occupy theory in this sense puts the emphasis on occupy.

 

Just as 'occupy theory' remains fruitfully ambiguous, so too does Occupy Wall Street remain an innovative idea resistant to neat formulaic representations or the spin of intellectual fashions. In the spirit of a rearguard analysis, then, we can try to read its innovative theoretical moves, innovative in the sense that they go against the grain of current trends in radical social theory. I think those of us in the theory world should listen up. From my rearguard seat, here is what I think can be heard, rather loud and clear.

 

 

Part one. Name the enemy.

 

Naming the enemy has, heretofore, been considered impolite, and impolitic. One mustn't exclude, target, or commit class war. Anyone can be an ally; trot out Warren Buffett or George Soros. Both Liberalism and Postmodernism have been dedicated to rooting out all forms of thought and practice that exclude, denounce, or express moral certitude, worrying (understandably) about where such judgments might land and who might get scapegoated. Many remember the fate of Robespierre, himself a Professor of a Revolution, who helped create the machine that murdered him. Postmodernists in particular pine for a theory, a language, a politics that won't turn on itself and cannot be co-opted, and they think this will come by refusing to condemn, exhort, or name names. The problem is, of course, that this is another form of absolutism, and it is often delivered with moral certitude. And no theory can solve all of the potential pitfalls of a movement by simply hewing to the correct meta-form. Strategic errors can only be corrected in the same place they arise: in the street.

 

So this movement has decided to be impolitic, to name names. And it is beyond dispute that naming the 1% has felt made us feel powerful, and has made them feel nervous.

 

Although there have been recurrent debates over its exact numerical reference, the 1% is in reality a metaphor for the enemy, not meant to be statistically precise. By this term, the enemy is named, not as the mere rich, but as the mega rich, the super rich. All the more galling, then that they have amassed this mega-wealth from nurse aids in for-profit nursing homes and from seamstresses who work for piece rate and from taking the tops off mountains and from buying poor people's homes to build luxury housing and from clipping coupons on wall street. These are the billionaires, and billionaireses, whose wealth and power is beyond our imagination. And yet, it does not require any conspiracy theories to understand how they came into being, just the capacity to count. The point of naming them is really to isolate them and eventually liquidate their possibility to exist, and to reproduce.

 

By naming them we can begin to imagine nationalizing, or localizing, their assets. They know this, which is what makes them nervous. We can begin to discuss ways to liquidate their political power, to remove them from Boards of Trustees that manage our education and Boards of Directors that manage our natural resources, including our labor. They don't need to be managing anything.  There's some nice abandoned housing in East New York they could have all to themselves after we turn their mansions into schools and hospitals and halfway houses and museums that showcase the era history has left behind. In truth, this class has done nothing for us, we don't need them.  They should pay their debts to society and start living an honest life.

 

By naming the enemy, OWS has, just as importantly, refuted the existing claims about who the enemy is. The enemy is not "the government" or the welfare cheaters or the homeless drug addicts who show up to the encampments or rural whites or southerners with pickup trucks or people who own guns or Jews or Muslims or devout Christians or people in New York city or socialists or Snooki. The enemy is Donald Trump and the Koch brothers. And their lawyers.

 

Part two. Profit isn't a motive.

 

Occupy Wall Street has managed to call the question on the profit motive more thoroughly than any group in years. In language as naive as a kindergarten class, OWS has challenged the defenders of profit to explain themselves, morally. As one sign from a young occupier had it, "I am only 8 years old but even I know selfishness is wrong."

 

Of course, the profit motive is argued by some to be, in reality, the only game in town, the ultimate motive for action behind all our sentimental words or altruistic gestures, and the true engine of the economy that drives innovation and even social progress. Against this, OWS has made two claims: (1) that profit does not, in fact, motivate the production of what we need, and, equally important, (2) that profit (or material self-interest) is not, in any case, the only motivating force for work and creativity and sacrifice.

 

Profit, as in the unchecked motive force that was so thoroughly deregulated in the 1990's that it unleashed the current crisis, has been unmasked for a wide spectrum of people who have come down to the encampments, or just read the newspapers. Profit motivated the crisis, so why would anyone think that it will motivate the solution? It has clearly become more apparent to more people that profit is not a force for good in the world, or for the country. It will not solve the jobs and housing crisis, or reduce the costs of health care. It will not fix the hole in the ozone layer or clean the rivers or cure cancer or build stronger housing so the poor can survive hurricanes. It will not unite diverse populations to create new forms of solidarity that will stop war. Profit will make all of these problems worse and more prolonged. To put it in Marxist terms, profit does not motivate the creation of use values, or of what is truly needed; that is simply a happy accident some of the time, when what is useful is also profitable. But much of what we need cannot be made profitable, and if it is made profitable it gets turned into something that creates more problems than it solves. And so there are some critical use values the world needs that are not getting accidentally produced.

 

The communalism of Zuccotti and the other public spaces that have been freed for the public for the first time by enterprising occupiers showcases a disciplined division of labor and a motive for action, even work, without exploitation or hierarchies or personal material enrichment. This has provided a live feed of an alternative economy of goods, work, and emotional investments.  Zuccotti thus made people notice more clearly that, even outside Zuccotti, profit is not what drives most people (or even most groups, institutions and governments) most of the time. My students have regularly asked me for the last 30 years for career ideas they can pursue that would make a difference. People want to make a living, of course, but they also want to do something useful with their lives, see the world or stay close to home, have interesting experiences, be a force for good, be on the right side of history, see their children happy and healthy, ease their parents burdens, make the world a better place, avoid oppressive work environments, get away from mean people, see the sky and the forest, feel good about their interactions with animals. And be respected as someone with a voice that deserves to be heard.

 

In reality, there are many motives that drive our choices in life, rather than, ultimately and at bottom, just a single one.

 

Zuccotti declares this to be a truth about human nature, and they declare it with moral certitude. They declare: We don't need to build a system where people will begin to work hard and make sacrifices and practice personal responsibility and invent new and useful things, and do all of this for non-materialistic motives. They already do that. We just need to get rid of the rich.

 

Part three. Face the facts of history.

 

There is no forgive and forget, whether it comes to the bank bailouts or the golden parachutes for criminal CEO's or the absence of WMD's and the loss of thousands in dumb wars. Getting people to forget is a way to avoid having to ask for forgiveness.

 

If the banks essentially stole working people's money and houses throughout the last 20 years in complex new get rich quick schemes that allowed them to speculate and profit off of the life savings of nurse aids and teachers and firemen, they need to pay it back. This could happen individually or collectively by paying it into the social pool for infrastructure projects and education. It is not enough to start the game over with the current distributions of capital wealth, or create a new tax structure from this point forward. People want an accounting of what happened and who did what. Otherwise, we will start the game over with a huge handicap that benefits the other side, that is, the wrong side.

 

The idea here, rather a fresh one in the context of the United States, is to deliberately face our history rather than turning away from it. Not just for the pleasures of revenge on the likes of Gordon Gekko, but for the purpose of justice and truth and social progress.

 

But if people in the United States were to face the facts of history, to demand an accounting, with numbers, this, of course, might start an interesting process. Many of the old-timers who have come down to Occupy Wall Street events have raised a longer frame of historical reference, stretching from before the 1990s to the length of their lifetimes, and beyond. They have referred to the long history of struggles for justice by the poor and the marginalized and the ghettoized, of which this recent upsurge is just the most recent. Their reminders sometimes sound like the resentment of the old and the unsuccessful against the young and the newsworthy. But their points are, of course, absolutely sound. The bank bailouts are only the most recent outrage. Facing the facts of history could take some time. 

 

After all, this country has committed genocide and stolen land and enslaved people and turned away the oppressed who come in boats looking for help and built electrified fences to keep out the desperate. It has also started wars for profit and lied about it and jailed people who told the truth and counted only our own dead. It continues to block climate change treaties and withhold pharmaceutical patents that could cure the dying. We all have to face the truth, and find out more of the truth than we even know.

 

Occupy Wall Street has opened a large can of worms with its determination to face the facts of history and re-introduce a moral manner of argumentation into the debatesboth backward looking and forward looking---over politics and the economy. But worms, as we composters know, are productive, even essential. Compost itself is recycled filth made productive for a new and healthy garden. Theres a thought. Composting is even mandated by the city government in San Francisco. Imagine that: The government mandating a productive return to our past, a return of our past, given over to productive uses, to nurture our efforts and be transformed into something better.  The morality of the recycle generation applied to our non-material culture. 

 

Part Four. Working with difference.

 

This stage of the people’s movement is, thankfully, not replicating the class reductionism of the New Left, nor the sexism of the 1960s. There are people of color working groups, whites in solidarity with people of color working groups, queer caucuses, women’s caucuses, sexual violence survivors’ working groups, etc. There are regular workshops and speakers from local groups that organize around identity based forms of discrimination. At its zenith Zuccotti had multiple centers, pluralist shrines, combined drum styles. Since the camp was attacked and dismantled in November, one legacy has been a decentering toward the less white spaces in the city, to occupy the Bronx, East New York, Bed-Stuy, with a different set of priorities and tactics, from Stop and Frisk policies to community schools.  

 

We must not romanticize. The challenges are serious, problems occur on a daily basis, and too many are clueless about the specific challenges to specific communities. Yet the naivete of the old/new white left has subsided, at least in part, and facilitators are always drawn from diverse genders and ethnicities. “Patriarchy clocks” record how many women versus men speak, and for how long. Sexism and racism are called out, daily, and even when these terms miss their mark, it bespeaks a new sensibility with a genuine effort at learning and relearning how to be in this, together.   

 

The 99 % is not the new transcendental universal. We haven't transcended race and gender, or racism and patriarchy, or heterosexism and the true blindness of the able-bodied. We are still exploring the meanings of multiculturalism and feminism. This is what it takes to fight class war, successfully, and those who dont get that should stop speaking for the movement.

 

In sum, we are in a new stage, and we need to be alive to what is new in these developing tactics, discourses, and forms of organization, and to what is new about the vision of the future that is being fashioned in this era. It is doubtful that Communism will be the word for the 21st century; too many people suffered too much under self-styled communist governments.  I don't know what the new word will be. But it sure as hell won't be capitalism.

 

 

Postscript:

 

In New York these days there is much doom and gloom about Occupy Wall Street and many dismissals by intellectuals and media analysts. OWS is over, it is said, deflated, consumed by infighting, overly diffuse, overly inward looking, morally compromised by the pro-violence constituency, and taken over by anarchists. Only the young lumpen can participate because of overly many, overly long meetings. Liberals have been hounded out of the movement. Workers are alienated from meetings led by people in face paint. People of color find happy fingers a little bit ridiculous. Theatrical actions look more like theatre than politics. Cliquishness abounds unchecked, and sectarianism is growing.

 

Even though many of these declarations are launched by those judging only from third- and fourth-hand reports, there is some truth to these claims. The naysayers are expressing some legitimate concerns, even though their tone of global, knowing, dismissals is understandably aggravating if not infuriating to the many who are still risking health and safety and economic security to keep the movement energized and relevant and interesting. I want to make just one observation.

 

As a veteran of the new ML movement from the 70’s and 80’s, I know the tug of sectarianism and the motives for internal warfare. We had our own witch trials against our own apostates, and we had pitched battles, sometimes with weapons, against competing groups. The “we” here that included me was a worker-student, black-white-Latino alliance with lots of female leaders and some of the smartest analysts and best organizers across the country. We used criticism, self-criticism as a mode of self correction, and followed democratic centralism as a means to make decisions. We fell apart. Our members today lead the labor movement, left electoral arena, radical academic work, and community organizing. Nonetheless, we fell apart.

 

Maintaining healthy coalitions across class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, nationality, and immigration status, between those who can and those who cannot attend endless GA’s, between horizontal and vertical orgaizations, and between leftists and liberals, is no mean feat. It is difficult work, and easy to undermine by castigating those in a different space as sell-outs or just stupid. Paranoia about internal cop activity is not paranoid when it is real, which it was then and is now, but witchhunts lead nowhere. What I have been truly impressed about this new movement is the part of it so often maligned, and that is its lambrythine long-form process. This process, emerging from feminism, anarchism, Argentina, Spain, multiple sources, not, I have to admit, from traditional Marxist groups, has proved capable of withstanding blocks, managing money, managing difficult coalitions, while keeping the doors open to newcomers and ensuring a gender, race, and class rotation in facilitation. Its impressive. Don’t throw stones at the process if you want to keep the coalition alive across neighborhoods, class backgrounds, and experience. It is this process that keeps the doors open, and sectarians and sectarianism at bay. Compare the GA’s to the US congress, or the British parliament---ok, those are low bars---but compare them also to the Venezuelan assembly or Bolivian parliament. Democratic politics is hard, its not for the weak or easily bored, which is why the middle class so often bails when they find out they have to sit through meetings. I am not giving up on Occupy, and I am not throwing stones at the sophisticated process they have created and fashioned for our moment. This innovative process is what may keep this movement from merely repeating our history.

 

Linda Martín Alcoff, Professor of Philosophy at Hunter College and CUNY Graduate Center, President-Elect of the American Philosophical Association.