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.