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Radical Imagination

Occupy Wall Street: a Reply to Skeptics

by JASON DEL GANDIO

On September 27th Lauren Ellis published an essay in Mother Jones Magazine entitled “Is OccupyWallStreet Working?

The essay argues that Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is not working because the movement has no clear message and is not demographically representative of those who are affected most by the current economic problems.  While Ellis does raise important points about movement-messaging and political representation, she in no way tries to understand the internal logic and outward expression of OWS.

Ellis’ conclusions center around four main points: that OWS’s “kitchen sink approach” is a form of ineffective messaging; that the media’s focus on the police brutality distracts from OWS’s main message (or lack thereof); that the hacktavist collective Anonymous inhibits the OWS movement; and that the OWS participants are the “usual suspects” of “dreamers.”  In what follows, I provide counter-arguments to each of Ellis’ points as an attempt to flesh-out some of the philosophies, practices, and communicative strategies of Occupy Wall Street.  I want to note that I am not seeking to attack Lauren Ellis in any way.  Instead, I am trying to demonstrate why her arguments—representative of many like-minded skeptics—are insufficiently substantiated.

1.  Kitchen Sink vs. Multi-Issued Messaging.  It is common practice to critique festival and carnivalesque protests (and radical social movement overall) as lacking coherent, effective messages.  I agree that protesters and social movements (of all kinds) bare the responsibility of effective messaging.  But we must realize that OWS does involve a rhetorical logic.  OWS is not lacking a coherent message; instead, its message is multi-issued, politically complex, and systemic: economic inequality, layoffs, house foreclosures, bank bailouts, million dollar bonuses, overpriced health insurance, cuts to social welfare, credit card debt, the student loan industry, tax breaks for the rich, underfunded schools, climate change, genetically modified food, the burgeoning prison-industrial complex, war, as well as racism, sexism, and homophobia are interconnected issues.  None of these occur in a vacuum; instead, each contributes to and affects the others.  One of the root causes of “this current system” is corporate dominance.  Most (if not everyone) can agree that corporations control this country.  Political, educational, prison, mass media, and military systems are dominated by the corporate will-to-profit.  Even the production of culture is a corporate manufacturing of brands, logos, jingles, and cradle-to-the grave advertising.  How many people identify themselves by the brands that they wear, consume, and purchase?  How much material support is given to independent artists, musicians, and film makers?  How many words within the collective lexicon—like Google, Xerox, and Coke—are actually corporate titles?  Corporate dominance is not the only root cause of these interrelated issues, but it is a good place to start.  Protesters are thus occupying Wall Street because it is the epicenter of corporate dominance and condenses all of these issues into one symbolic force.

2.a  Police Brutality Stealing the Spotlight vs. Political Theater.  It is also common to critique mass arrests—and the direct actions that usually spur those arrests—as another form of ineffective messaging.  But people must realize that direct action and civil disobedience are forms of messaging, albeit, forms of embodied messaging—the action is the message, with the assumption that observers will have the wherewithal to understand this form of messaging.  Just as audience members “read between the lines” to understand the actions that occur on a theatrical stage, observers must also read between the lines to understand the actions that occur on a politically occupied street corner.  This is not a lot to expect given the fact that we are all actors and audience members, everyday and all day.  Each of us is a walking embodiment-and-expression of our roles, beliefs, values, perspectives, and philosophies.  We are all constantly performing for one another, continually expressing and reading-and-reacting to one another’s embodiment.  This intersubjective and reflexive process often occurs subconsciously.  But direct actions and mass arrests call us to attention: politics is an embodied phenomenon.  Occupy Wall Street is therefore a message about reappropriating our political agency:  The business of greed, hyper-competition, private gain, casino capitalism, and political corruption must stop immediately, and people are willing to put their bodies on the line to make this happen.  And if that message is too long and complicated, here’s an easier one:  Our current system of profit before people is inhumane and unjust.

2.b  Police Brutality Stealing the Spotlight vs. Journalistic Integrity.  Arguing that direct action and mass arrests distract from the main message implies that the protesters are to blame for how the media portrays the situation.  Again, every protester has some responsibility for rhetorical effectiveness.  But in this case, we should be blaming the mass media rather than the protesters.  There are a million ways to cover a story and a million details to focus on.  But much of the mainstream coverage focuses on the cop vs. protester scenario.  Why?  Because the public has become accustomed to want such time-tested, politically vapid narratives.  As the saying goes, if it bleeds, its leads.  This is a problem of journalistic integrity, not of ineffective messaging by the protesters.  I find it hard to believe that reporters and journalists are incapable of properly deciphering the basic message of Occupy Wall Street.  At the very least, one could interpret the occupation as “Wall Street equals Bad.”  I would assume that an honest, hardworking reporter would want to understand why this message is being communicated with such passion, dedication, and urgency.  If that were to occur, then perhaps mainstream media outlets would actually air open and honest debates about the merits and pitfalls of the Occupy Wall Street message.

3. Anonymous vs. Anti-authoritarianism.  Occupy Wall Street is structured around anti-authoritarian and non-hierarchical principles of decentered organizing practices.  Unlike older models of, say, the civil rights movement, OWS does not offer up a single spokesperson standing on a well-defined stage articulating one clear message.  Instead, there are many people on many stages offering up numerous-yet-interconnected demands, goals, and/or outlooks.  The point is to resist a top-down approach and to invite, instead, a diversified, bottom-up, directly democratic approach.  No model of organizing is ideal, and neither is this one.  But this helps explain why particular groups—such as the Anonymous hacktavist collective—will appear to simultaneously champion and distance themselves from OWS.  It’s like a kaleidoscope: different groups and causes will appear and disappear depending upon when and how you look at it.  Such a structure allows people to enter, exit, and contribute on their own accord.  In many ways, then, the anti-authoritarianism of Occupy Wall Street is about radical immediacy: the immediate evocation of one’s desired reality.  That immediate evocation is partial and incomplete, but that is true for all human-created realities.  We are finite and fallible creatures always working from partial histories and moving toward unpredictable futures.  Occupy Wall Street is no different.

4.  The Usual Suspects vs. The Radical Imagination. It is too easy to reduce Occupy Wall Street to a rendition of the radical 1960s.  Such a reduction commonly occurs anytime a radical movement emerges, as if political radicalism began and ended with the hippie counter-cultural movement.  Radical social movements—along with anti-authoritarian and anti-corporate sentiments—play an intimate role throughout American (and world) history.  I agree that OWS began with a small group of people that may not have accurately represented the overall demographics of “middle-America.”  But OWS is consistently gaining sympathizers and momentum.  According to occupytogether.org, approximately 130 cities across the United States are now organizing events and actions.  Similar events are being organized in Canada, Mexico, Europe, Asia, and Australia.  Given these numbers, I find it hard to believe that OWS is just another wannabe revolution put on by the usual suspects of hopeless idealists and out of touch day dreamers.  Instead, OWS advances a tradition of radical immediacy that is invigorating the collective imagination.  That imagination envisions a world that exists beyond corporate dominance.  The many steps to get there are still unknown.  But a first step is being offered up by Occupy Wall Street.

Jason Del Gandio is author of Rhetoric for Radicals: A Handbook for 21st Century Activists (New Society, 2008) and an Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Public Advocacy at Temple University in Philadelphia.