“A church of dissent”: trying to make sense of Occupy Wall Street

What to make of Occupy Wall Street? Judging by the media coverage so far, that question is still wide open. Journalists troop down to Zuccotti Park to hang out with the protesters and return with uncertain colour pieces ranging from the curious to the condescending. In the latter category is Ginia Bellafante of the New York Times, who concludes her report with this masterpiece of glibness:

One day, a trader on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Adam Sarzen, a decade or so older than many of the protesters, came to Zuccotti Park seemingly just to shake his head. “Look at these kids, sitting here with their Apple computers,” he said. “Apple, one of the biggest monopolies in the world. It trades at $400 a share. Do they even know that?”

I’m not surprised that he would make such a fatuous comment, as if anyone in Zuccotti Park doesn’t realise that Apple is a publicly traded corporate giant. (What does he expect the protesters to do? Grow their own organic laptops?) But I’m amazed Bellafante considered it enough of a logical death blow to end her article with it.

Salon’s Glenn Greenwald singles out Bellafante’s piece in his survey of negative coverage of OWS, but he acts as if any scepticism should be out of bounds. For one thing, WikiLeaks is a terrible example of an unfairly maligned group now that we know the extent of Julian Assange’s reckless narcissism. For another, it’s not just the establishment that has doubts about OWS’s efficacy — some radical leftists such as Slavoj Zizek also worry that this style of protest, sans spokespeople or agendas, is doomed to failure.

Zizek’s argument resonated with me a few weeks ago but I was, I think, too pessimistic. OWS is America’s introduction to the new protest already witnessed in Spain and Greece: a miasma of disaffection with no obvious focus. The landscape of protest has been utterly transformed in 2011 and understanding it is a challenge for protesters and observers alike. In Zuccotti Park union activists and antiwar veterans mingle with Ron Paul supporters, 9/11 Truthers and the inevitable guys in V for Vendetta masks. Placards engage with student debt, Troy Davis, Wisconsin, Cairo. Slate’s David Wiegel is refreshingly candid: “What’s the story? I hung out with Occupy Wall Street on Friday and Saturday, which wasn’t enough time to figure out what the movement is about, because no one knows what it’s about.”

The model of protest that we know and understand is one with leaders and manifestos. There’s human drama in Martin Luther King stepping out of obscurity to lead the Montgomery bus boycott or Mario Savio leaping on top of a police car at Berkeley, and charismatic individuals are great mobilisers: the anti-apartheid movement outside South Africa was revitalised by the ANC’s decision to focus on the little-known plight of Nelson Mandela. But it’s also about clarity. Outsiders knew that King wanted desegregation, that Savio wanted free speech on campus. A face, a voice, a simple idea: this is protest that makes immediate sense. But what exactly do the OWS crowds want? Or los indignados? Or Anonymous? How do they expect to get it? And who’s in charge? The protesters’ allergy to hierarchy can be almost comical. According to one observer at OWS:

The protesters make decisions in twice a day consensus-based “general assemblies”, where anyone is allowed to speak. No amplification is allowed, so the crowd has figured out a model to make sure everyone is heard. The speaker says half a sentence, and the crowd repeats it so it can be heard. This continues until the speaker is done. There are hand signals that allow others to express agreement and disagreement. I didn’t spend enough time to really get into the nuts and bolts of the organization, but it doesn’t seem very formal. There’s a deep fear of official spokespeople beginning to monopolize and misinterpret the non-hierarchical model of community protest.

This leaderless model isn’t entirely new, of course. OWS was conceived by veteran Canadian activists Adbusters — the style of protest harks back to the Stop the City demos of the early 80s and flowered in the 90s with Reclaim the Streets and the anti-globalisation movement. Like OWS, the people who protested at G8 summits and WTO conferences didn’t have figureheads (I can only think of Naomi Klein, and she certainly didn’t appoint herself one) and were an amorphous coalition of moderates, socialists, anarchists, single-issue activists and random kooks. They were mocked by the predecessors of Bellafante’s trader for raging against capitalism while wearing trainers and using cellphones. And even supporters worried about the diffuseness of the movement. As one writer retrospectively noted:

The movement’s lack of solutions started to count against it. In its earlier days, the global resistance movement’s relativist philosophy worked strongly in its favour. Anyone with a grudge against liberal economics, patriarchy, the scientific establishment or liberal democracy could join in; all that was needed was some kind of critique of Enlightenment universalism. But as time went on, the movement started to suffer from its lack of big ideas for solutions. When there was discussion at all of what should be started (as opposed to stopped – like dams, IMF conditionality, nuclear power, GMOs or whatever), the solutions were either fuzzy (global justice now!) or parochial.

Sound familiar? But these protests took place in an era, as Time magazine put it, of “triumphant capitalism, of planetary cash flows and a priapic Dow.” And they were cut short in their prime by 9/11: increased security made protests more difficult while war and terrorism sucked up most of the political oxygen. So questions about what this form of protest meant and where it might lead were put on hold for a decade. Now they’re back and made way more complicated by the engulfing economic crisis. Those who accuse OWS of lacking solutions need to accept that solutions are in pretty short supply everywhere. I subscribe to the standard progressive wishlist: Keynesian stimulus spending, cuts in defense budgets, tax rises for the wealthy, bank regulation and a Tobin tax. But none of those measures are magic bullets. The deep anxiety that manifests itself in OWS or the indignados cannot be cured by specific policies. One OWS protester’s placard announced with admirable frankness: “I’m Here ‘Cuz This Shit is Fucked Up.”

So it makes sense that people who have negligible faith in the capacity of political leaders to turn around the economy would choose not to have leaders of their own. Disappointment in Obama, the most compelling politician of his generation, feels like the last straw for some people when it comes to putting trust in charismatic individuals. Matt Stoller has an interesting take on the slippery nature of OWS:

You can tell this is a somewhat different animal than other politicized gatherings. No one knows what to expect. There are no explicit demands. It’s not very large. And yet, celebrities are heading to Zuccotti Park. Wall Street traders are sneering and angry. The people there are getting press, but aren’t dominated by it. People are there just to be there, because it feels meaningful. The camp is clean and well-organized, and it feels relevant and topical rather than a therapy space for frustrated radicals.… What these people are doing is building, for lack of a better word, a church of dissent. It’s not a march, though marches are spinning off of the campground. It’s not even a protest, really. It is a group of people, gathered together, to create a public space seeking meaning in their culture. They are asserting, together, to each other and to themselves, “we matter”.

This is an overdue development. After watching the right-wing successfully harness the enduring power of economic populism via the Tea Party it’s a relief to see a left-wing version taking shape. David Wiegel calls it “post-Obama left-wing populism”. When New York magazine asked 100 OWS protesters what they thought of Obama, 23 were sympathetic, 27 said they never believed in him and 40 agreed with the statement, “I believed in him and he let me down.” It looks as if the youthful energy that helped sweep him to power in 2008 has migrated to the streets.

This is bad news for the Democrats and for leftists who think the battles for Congress and the White House are the only ones that really matter. While Nicholas Kristoff at the New York Times suggests some moderate, achievable goals that OWS could adopt, what’s happening in Zuccotti Park is more about radical, sweeping dissent than pragmatic policy checklists. Wiegel again:

On Saturday, before the arrests happened, the volunteer organizers of the protest handed out a four-page newspaper called The Occupied Wall Street Journal. They had raised more than $10,000 to quickly print 50,000 copies. There is a worldwide movement of resistance and rebellion building,” write Eric Ribellarse and Jim Weill in the paper’s lead story. A timeline starts the movement on Dec. 17, 2010, when Mohammed Bouazizi poured gasoline on his head, then sat in public in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, then lit a match. The Tea Party has always been ostentatious in its American exceptionalism, starting rallies with recitations of the Pledge of the Allegiance. The loudest mic-checkers in Occupy Wall Street want the opposite—a mind-meld with the developing world.

I find it hard not to have reservations and unanswered questions about OWS even as I admire it. Is it the birth of a new kind of 21st century protest or a false start? How will it funnel all this energy into concrete change? Is it just too diffuse and hyper-democratic to move forward? But the important thing right now is to give it time and not to expect it to run before it can walk. Many strong, successful movements have evolved out of colourful chaos and if this one seems more colourful and chaotic than most, well, that’s a sign of the times.

Update: McKenzie Wark on the Verso Books blog argues very eloquently that the leaderless quasi-utopianism of the occupation is the whole point — it represents a radically different kind of politics. The will-it-work? question remains but I think this is one of the best arguments yet for the new school of protest.

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8 Comments

  1. I would imagine the point about Apple is not that they have purchased laptops but that they have purchased Apple laptops. Your retort relies on the false premise that the choice is ‘Apple or no laptop’. It’s clearly not and there *are* laptops out there made my companies without all of Apple’s baggage. But Apple has a certain cachet with a certain type of person (I’m sure I don’t need to explain what and who) and this forms the core of the ‘logical death blow’, i.e. these kids are here as a lifestyle choice because of what it says about them, not because they actually understand or care.

    I’m not agreeing with that at all, btw.

    • It’s still a glib point. So what if they use Apple computers? They’re not claiming to be hairshirt anti-consumerists – that’s not what this is about. Holding protesters to artifically high standards of purity is just a cheap way of patronising and dismissing them. It’s an artificial either/or – either you endorse capitalism or you have to reject it utterly. Well no.

      • I think there’s massive ground between ‘endorse capitalism or reject it utterly’. Buying an overpriced laptop because of the cultural cachet, a laptop made by one of the biggest corporations in the world, which outsources labour, uses ‘sweatshops’, avoids tax (and was indeed a target for the US equivalent of ‘Uncut’) is clearly relevant if you’re taking to the streets to protest…these exact things. Fair enough, they already had them but they would have to have been extraordinarily naive not to believe this would be picked up on. No, no one would expect them to be writing using sticks.but there *are* ethical laptops available and they tend to be cheaper than Macs. Is it REALLY demanding unrealistic ‘purity’ to believe that if you really care about this stuff, you’d think about when spending hundreds/thousands of pounds/dollars on a product?!

  2. Oh, and much the same claims are made about Adbusters – that people buy it as a tasteful, expensive consumer statement and in doing so are part of the very culture they claim to be against. The points about what these protestors want is one frequently made against Adbusters – that it is very easy to criticise capitalist society but far more difficult to argue for what you think should replace it.

  3. A pointed Marxist analysis of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations:

    Reflections on the Occupy Wall Street Phenomenon: What it Represents, Its Prospects, Its Deficiencies

    http://wp.me/pgGDG-K4

    THE LEFT IS DEAD! LONG LIVE THE LEFT!

  4. for effectiveness it’s hard to beat the constant presence of anti-apartheid demonstrators outside the S. African embassy for years during the 80s… but part of the problem with the masses of info now available to those of conscience is how to choose a definite outrage to tackle. It’s stultifying.

    OWS might be the only way: a shapeless mass which forms and dissipates but, most importantly, grows, until it gains its own momentum.

    Wouldn’t it be more worrying if this wasn’t happening? If the only protests were ‘legitimate’, organised by unions or church or the established left?

  5. Dorian. Yoyr book is a superb read! I run a T-shirt company http://www.philosophyfootball.com One of the things we do is plough profits we make into events that mix up ideas and entertainment to promote causes we believe in. Our next project is a party for Palestine ‘Songs of Freedom’ to celebrate the protest song in the year of the Arab Spring. We would really like to get you along to join a roundtable to open the night. Friday 16 Dec, at one of North London’s Premier theatre pubs, the New Red Lion. Could you let me know if thos appals, admin@philosophyfootball.com


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