Saturday, November 3, 2012

a short response to debates on Occupy

       At the height of the set of encampments and actions that made up the phenomenon called Occupy, there was an immense outpouring of celebratory articles and essays.  Occupy was the long needed response to the crisis, whether in terms of fiance capitalism, inequality, or a number of other social phenomenon.  At last the dam broke, and 'we' were finally acting.  Politics as usual was dead, or at least dying.  Several months later, with the collapse of the encampments and the shattering of the political alliances that produced the encampments into dozens of smaller projects as well as a lot of folks dropping out, we see the opposite response, a blistering attack on the phenomenon, most notably from Alexander Cockburn shortly before his death, and most recently from Thomas Frank, in the revived Baffler.  The same set of techniques and approaches to the political so often celebrated in those earlier essays and response now become the focus of attack, leaderlessness, the emphasis on process, critical theory, etc.  Frank, in particular, demands that the 'movement' look like the social movements of the past, movements that were not abject failures in the way that Occupy was.

       Both celebratory gestures and withering critique contain a common error of analysis, the homogenous Occupy movement never existed in the way that they imagined it.  Instead, Occupy was at best a structure of feeling, a resentment and the spark of hope that brought together a fairly strange assemblage of disappointed Obama voters, marxists, anarchists, Ron Paul supporters, conspiracy theorists, and others.  The movement not only divided on those ideological concerns, but substantially divided on regional concerns.  The movement in Los Angeles looked nothing like the movement in Oakland, which looked nothing like the movement in New York.  Different encampments formed and succeeded or failed depending a radically contingent set of circumstances, ranging from who formed the original groups to organize the actions to the responses of the police.  Furthermore, the most successful encampments were linked to earlier struggles, adding to the distinctions between the various actions.  Moreover, the inclusion of supporters of Ron Paul, David Icke, and others created antagonisms that made the typical divisions between radicals and liberals or anarchists and marxists seem fairly tame.  Those divisions within the multiplicity both made the phenomenon look so appealing, but also created the inevitable divisions that we now seen in the shattered projects of the aftermath.

     Ultimately, Occupy is better understood as a set of constitutive possibilities and limitations within the various fragments and groupings of counter-systemic movements within the United States, rather than as a movement in any meaningful sense.  To put it differently, it gestures towards a movement through a number of useful and problematic potential symbolic forms, rather than being that movement.  In a curious sense, we can see the history of our movements running through the vast horizontal network of assemblages that linked and broke apart within the past year.  Our ability to produce what Gramsci calls a historical bloc is dependent on our ability to recognize and negotiate this long and complex history of revolt and complicity, of resistance and compliance.  Mike Ely from the Kasama project has a useful way of thinking about this.  He notes that earlier socialist projects were often built on the notion of the new man, the subjectivity built out of the furnace of socialist struggle.  What we need to conceptualize now is the way that we can build a radically new society with the people that exist and the here and now.  Although I'm not sure that Ely would go as far as this, I think this means rejecting the notion of the revolutionary 'subject' altogether.  Radical transformation occurs through the creation of new assemblages, new organizations, new collectivities, not the fantasy of a sort of collective subject.  Those formations will be both remarkably new to us and very familiar because they will arise as a result of people who have been formed in the old social formations that map the terrain of struggle we live within.

     Our engagement with those phenomena should be less concerned with the notion of victory or defeat than the social possibilities and limitations that exist in our attempts to produce some sort of more substantial counter-systemic project.  That means getting a sense of the vast multiplicity of projects that occurred under the Occupy umbrella, from legal actions to home defense to occupations of space.  My suspicion is that there was a lot more going on than what has been reported.  It means talking about what succeeded, what didn't, and perhaps more significantly, how those various tactics and strategies can be built upon.  I largely agree with the analyses presented by Jodi Dean and other about the question of representation, and the political.  There needs to be more thought given to the question of representation that escapes the easy formulation of a refusal of the question altogether.  (This deserves a longer conversation, but I would recommend Jodi Dean and Jason Jones essay discussing the question here.)  At the same time, it would be a pretty substantial mistake to imagine Occupy in some sense constitutes the only spaces of resistance within the country,  As a lot of anti-racist activists pointed out, there were distinct limitations to who was represented in the movement, and how questions of racialization were approached in the movement.  We also need to recognize the need to keep the Ron Paul supporters, the conspiracy theorists, and weird monetarists out of the movement.  To draw on Dean's analysis, we need to draw divisions between our radical project and the racism and quackery of the right.  But all of this is contingent on recognizing the fissures and contradictions within the multiple formations under the umbrella of Occupy.  Until we do that, our understanding of the movement will be fundamentally mystified.

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