Wherefore Art Thou Occupy?


As its anniversary is celebrated, we will no doubt be reminded that no matter what else it achieved, or failed to, Occupy Wall Street managed to introduce if not a new sensitivity to inequality to the world, it at least introduced a new phrase into popular political parlance. Indeed, the slogan ‘We Are the 99%’ concisely articulates the fact that a deep, structural conflict exists between the so-called 1%, who own virtually the entire planet, and the 99%, who spend their lives in the service of that 1%. And though in actuality power is distributed in more complicated ways than the phrase suggests, and an elite far smaller than 1% calls the shots worldwide, with the willing complicity of much of the 99%, 99-to-1 sums up the point well enough. Because of this, the phrase has resonated strongly throughout not only the US, but around the world. With such ingrained inequalities in place, a society with democratic pretenses utterly fails to live up to the ideals on which the legitimacy of its representative government rests.

That is, the legitimacy of the US government, along with the legitimacy of the legal powers delegated and validated by the government – including, but not limited to, the legitimacy of its property laws – is contingent. The government and these associated powers, according to this argument, are only legitimate to the extent that they remain faithful to not only the principles set down in the Declaration of Independence, but to those reiterated in the preamble to the Constitution. Because the proposed and repeated purpose of the US’s attempt at organizing society is the establishment of justice, and the promotion of the general welfare, insofar as it deviates from these basic principles its laws and practices deviate from legitimacy.

The above argument was not then, nor is it still, a far-fetched one to make when the government at various levels, instead of vigorously investigating the perpetration of unprecedented financial crimes and injustices, among others, preferred to all but grant a pass to the crimes’ perpetrators. At the same time, the victims of these crimes were being evicted from their homes by this very same system. The fact that the losses of the super-rich were reimbursed by the State, allowing them to continue to harass regular people for payments of debts that would have been wiped clean on account of their bad business dealings had it not been for massive taxpayer funded bailouts, gave rise to substantial amounts of rage. An inkling of this sentiment found expression in another much-repeated popular slogan: banks got bailed out, we got sold out.

Further examples of this power structure’s inability to promote anything but the particular welfare, as opposed to the general welfare, are too numerous to comprehensively list. OWS, however, provided a forum for the expression of such grievances. Grouped beneath this umbrella were the manifold calls for various forms of justice. Among others were demands for environmental justice (demonstraters demanding that global warming be addressed, and that the practice of fracking, to name just two, be halted), political justice, (including the end to the wars, the closure of the prisons at Guantanamo Bay, Bagram, and others abroad, as well as at home), economic justice (pleas for debt forgiveness, an end to mortgage foreclosures, calls for a basic minimum income, etc.), as well as calls for social justice (inclusion, community, an end to discrimination, police abuse, and on).

Beyond these examples of the State’s inability to ‘promote the general welfare,’ there remain such things as entrenched poverty beside just as deeply entrenched wealth, a debt burden carried by most people indistinct from debt peonage, and many others. Concern with these injustices were by no means limited to sympathizers of OWS. They fly, or rather smack, in the face of the public’s most elementary notions of fairness. As such, it should come as little surprise that the indignation attending some of these injustices was shared by OWS’ distorted, mirror-image twin – the Tea Party.

While one hears little about the Tea Party these days (aside from the fact that one of their leading “thinkers” is the Republicans’ candidate for vice-president) for months the comparisons between OWS and the Tea Party were constant. Appearing to share an anti-statist position, this similarity was mostly deceptive. For the Tea Party would dissolve the state only to allow business unfettered power. Alongside its calls for lower taxes and smaller government raved an ardent nationalism, one that saw no problem with the State to the extent that it furthered US hegemony globally, seeing no problem in coupling demands for the elimination of taxes with that of the maintenance of an enormous, hypertrophic military and war industry.

Occupy Wall Street, on the other hand, with its consensus-driven, participatory style, seemed to embrace something akin to the anarchistic notion that justice demands not only the dissolution of the State, but the dissolution of power in general. In spite of this, however, there were no shortages of liberals among OWS who seemed to posit nothing more extreme than the reimplementation of financial regulations, like the Glass-Steagall Act, or expressed their support for a more ambitious federal jobs program – something akin to the New Deal’s WPA. Indeed, the filmmaker Michael Moore was among the most vocal proponents of the Glass-Steagall Act’s reimplementation, implicitly rebuffing some of the more radical critiques of capitalist economics. Moore, whose analysis of capitalism doesn’t seem to go beyond a restoration of the post-World War II golden years, made plenty of appeals for the return to those times, and for good, union jobs such as the body-breaking one his father had in Flint, Michigan. Apparently Moore doesn’t understand that the wages and benefits that labor enjoyed during that period were the result of a compromise, a pay-off that workers received in order to stave off revolution. And without the existence of a Soviet threat, and revolutionary specters, such conditions have microscopically little probability of being realized. Of course, this doesn’t even touch on the imperialistic dimension of international economics, and that workers in the US enjoyed such a bounty at the expense of workers, and colonized workers at that, internationally. In spite of this, however, and for all of the flags that one found at Zuccotti Park, the emphasis at OWS was not, like Tea Party rallies, centered on US supremacy. Enjoying an orientation and set of concerns that was international, if not supranational, rather than national, in many respects the participants of OWS seemed to have more in common with the radicals involved in the Arab Spring than with the members of the Tea Party. To carry the analogy further (perhaps a little too far), the Tea Party activists were more like the counterparts to the supporters of dictators like Mubarak, bused in to city centers to foment counter-revolution, rather than people striving for justice. It is of no little account to note that, unlike OWS, which seemed to enjoy a genuine grassroots support, the Tea Party received its funding from a handful of ludicrously wealthy plutocrats, such as the infamous Koch brothers.

However, if the slogan ‘banks got bailed out, we got sold out’ expresses a populistic anger directed toward the banks, and the rich, it also raises the issue of being sold out, or betrayed. This no doubt owes itself to the fact that, among the anarchists and radicals in OWS, many people involved were not only liberals, but one-time Obama supporters. Betrayed by his misleading message of hope and change, these people imparted a significant ideological infusion into OWS. While comparisons to the Tea Party can provide some sense of its parameters, and though many may not care to admit it, one may gain a clearer idea of what OWS is by comparing it not to the Tea Party as much as to Obama himself. Indeed, it should not be at all surprising that, in the age of Obama – a politician skilled above all else in the art of marketing – a movement born from the pages of a magazine should share a considerable deal of his proclivities.

Although it may not be an altogether fair charge to level, since political movements in general appeal to such things, Obama and OWS share an emphasis on hope and change. While Obama’s hope and change, though, contains rhetoric – or used to at least – about green energy, and other futuristic technologies, his is a decidedly backward-looking, nostalgic type of change, one that would restore the US to its former “greatness.” Sentiments such as these were not foreign to the sensibility pervading OWS. In addition to such a backward-looking utopianism, though, OWS also contained a forward-looking, prefigurative utopian element that suggested a break with the nostalgic notion of returning to some past golden time.

Beyond this somewhat superficial similarity, however, Obama and OWS also maintain a comparable position concerning the pace of change. Unwilling to announce any particular goals, many strains of OWS emphasized the importance of movement-building. Not wanting to turn anyone away with unsavory political radicalism, OWS focused its energies on growing the movement. Obama’s strategy, misrepresenting himself as an agent of meaningful change, was identical. Aside from his fraudulent 2008 campaign, Obama continues to employ just such rhetoric, announcing time and again that it is actually too soon to see any real change. Insisting that change takes time, he instead offers further portions of hope. That is, both Obama and OWS engage in similar deceptions. One misrepresents, in order to get more support. And the other, insofar as it keeps mum about its more radical aspirations (with its organizers, for all their talk concerning their respect for autonomy, explicitly asking participants to abstain from mentioning anarchy, or Marx, to name just two inflammatory terms) misrepresents itself as well, with the same rationale. Neither wants to scare away any potential supporter with the truth of their actual political position.

Though Obama allows people to think he is an agent of change, he is in fact ‘more of the same.’ Willfully and knowingly misrepresenting himself, Obama allows people to think he’s legitimately concerned with the welfare of the people of the world. OWS, on the other hand, doesn’t misrepresent itself so much as it refuses to represent itself. Its much discussed refusal to elicit demands owes itself only partially to a principled anti-statist position, one that refuses to make demands of an entity with no legitimate power to grant them. The other part owes itself to a very Obamian marketing sensibility. Just like Obama, OWS has turned itself into a brand.

Related to this is another characteristic that OWS shares with Obama. Neither negotiates forcefully. Of course, as they have nothing even approximating comparable bargaining power, it is not exactly fair to issue such a charge. Nevertheless, there seems to be a similar sensibility at play. For example, as anyone who has studied negotiation techniques learns right away, the first, most basic rule is to ask in any negotiation for more than what you want. Obama, however, a Harvard-trained lawyer, never seems to have learned this elementary rule. Rather than asking for more than what he wants, Obama’s negotiation strategy involves asking for less, as when he notoriously initiated negotiations over what would become his Affordable Care Act by throwing out his biggest bargaining chip, the so-called public option. While it seems hard to believe that Obama did not throw out the public option enthusiastically, in order to realize the business-friendly ACA, his supporters maintain that he was forced to do such a thing by an intransigent congress. As such, they argue, he was only being realistic. This notion of his being realistic, of course, calls to mind the slogan from May, 1968, that you should Be Realistic, and Demand the Impossible. In this respect it appears that OWS has more in common with Obama than with its ostensible allies from nearly half a century ago. Rather than demand the impossible, or even ask for more than what they want, OWS refuses to make demands at all.

As Frederick Douglas wrote, and as many are quick to quote, power will concede nothing without a demand. And as sympathizers of OWS will point out, making demands of power at the same time validates that power. Furthermore, when that power is regarded as something that is not only hostile, but wholly lacking in legitimacy, making demands is at best a degrading affair. At worst the party making demands itself becomes a counter-power. As many iterate and reiterate, OWS does not strive to be such a counter-power. Rather, its aim is to pull the rug out from under power. On this point the sentiments of OWS are to some degree in accord with the words of the Zapatista Comandante Ramona when she said, referring to the Zapatistas’ struggle, that we do not want to seize power, we want to break power into little pieces, so everyone can hold some. This remark deserves some consideration.

While it is a generalization, and a problematic simplification, in a world in which all is in perpetual flux, to some extent human history itself may be described as little more than the concentrations and dispersions of energy, or power. And, if such is the case, and history is this sequence of concentrations – which, upon achieving certain quantities, assume tyrannical qualities – we may regard the disruption and dispersion of such concentrations as ruptures, and the concentrations as stabilizations.

As one facet of human history, U.S. history can be seen as just such a series of ruptures and continuities – of adjustments and stabilizations. Of course, just where one defines a rupture, and where one marks the stabilization, are bound to involve some degree of controversy. For the autochthonous peoples inhabiting the Americas, the arrival of Europeans five centuries ago for the most part initiated a concentration of power that would not only destroy their cultures, but spread monumental misery as well. And while the imperial presences of England, France, Spain, and others, continued to contribute to a process of deforming an earth in which power was dispersed, to one in which it grew more and more concentrated, these concentrations in turn produced their dispersions. As noted above, when power becomes more and more concentrated it becomes more and more tyrannical. And it was just such an appeal to the shaking off of tyranny that provided some of the rationale for the American Revolution. While the Declaration of Independence marks a rupture and dispersion of a concentrated power, the advent of the US Constitution, with its tripartite schema of government designed to concentrate and stabilize this dispersion, marked this dispersion’s limit, and reconcentration. For the constitution’s separation of power schema was not designed to eliminate, disperse, or distribute power so much as balance, contain, and stabilize it.

To some degree this concentration was ruptured again and again. During the Jacksonian era, a dispersion of power extended the franchise beyond the requirement of land ownership – a partial and relative dispersal of power that was followed by stabilization and concentration. When the Civil War broke out, and in the ensuing period of Reconstruction, power was again dispersed. This, of course, was followed by another concentration of power in the form of Jim Crow laws and terror. In the 20th century, the suffrage movement of the 1920s, as well as the New Deal of the 1930s and 40s, and the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, marked an extended period of ruptures and dispersions of power.

Beginning in the 1970s, however, power concentrated yet again, into unprecedented extremes. And while there have been many exceptions, and in some social areas there have been ruptures and dispersions of power, economically power has concentrated and polarized over the past few decades to unprecedented levels. It may be far too soon to determine whether OWS marks the beginning of a meaningful dispersion of power. Among other things, it ought to be noted that while these ruptures and dispersions of power may be punctuated by particular legislative achievements, their truly significant alterations manifest in the adjustment of social norms. If this is the case, one would do well to inquire as to what types of norms OWS might herald.

Perhaps Occupy Wall Street’s most consistent and clear articulation of normative content inheres in its advocacy of Autonomy and Non-Violence. And though one could see these two positions as being contradictory, since the exhortation to be non-violent may conflict with another’s autonomy, an investigation into their interrelations may yield insight. While there have been considerable, and so far unsuccessful efforts within OWS to articulate just what non-violence means, and while examinations of the etymology of words is not always enlightening, it seems in this case that such an examination may shed some light. For the word violence shares the same root with the word violate. But just what does it mean to violate another’s autonomy? If non-violence is merely autonomy’s limit, is this just not a restatement of the harm principle? Is it anything aside from a rephrasing of the golden rule admonishing one to do unto others what one would have done to oneself? Or is it perhaps something closer to the so-called ‘silver rule’ of Confucianism, to avoid doing to others what you would not want done to yourself?

Rather than the harm principle, or the golden rule, or the silver rule, the twin values of non-violence and autonomy allow for a radical articulation of justice. Indeed, the inquiry into what non-violence means, and the consideration of violence as a violation of another’s autonomy, yields the following formulation. Because a person’s autonomy includes not only their ability to move about, but his or her well-being too, this leads to not only the position that one must abstain from intruding on another’s autonomy in the sense of causing active harms – such as exposing another to harmful toxins, or otherwise abusing another – it precludes the commission of passive harms as well. For example, allowing conditions that are harmful to merely persist – harmful to not only people, but to animals and the environment as well – are violations of autonomy. Beyond removing active harms, passive harms (including, but not limited to, the lack of access to salutary housing, nutrition, health care, education, and so on) must be removed – precisely by making them freely available. This is a just society’s duty, and an economy’s sole purpose. The conditions that produce and reproduce both active and passive harms must be changed, transformed into conditions that allow for autonomy and the general welfare – that is, into the conditions of justice, to which laws, if they are to avoid being tyrannical, must only follow. To the extent that it does not pursue these aims, as this country’s founding documents maintain, a given society has no legitimacy whatsoever. As its anniversary approaches, dragging along with it a train of questions and slogans, it seems that OWS’ most meaningful contribution to contemporary politics are these two conjoined concepts.

Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and contributor to hygiecracy.blogspot.com. He lives in New York City and can be reached at elliot.sperber@gmail.com

Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and adjunct professor. He lives in New York City and can be reached at elliot.sperber@gmail.com and on twitter @elliot_sperber

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