JD: Marco, you were present at the birth of Occupy Wall Street. Some people claim that Adbusters started the movement, others credit David Graeber, others emphasise the artists at 16 Beaver. How do these stories link up with the fact of over a hundred people sleeping in privately owned public space in New York’s financial district? And how much of a role did the other occupations—particularly those in Greece and Spain—play in the unfolding of the US movement?
MD: All those accounts contain a share of truth, except of course that no particular individual can be credited as the architect or even the main organiser of Occupy Wall Street (OWS). OWS was made possible by the intersection of four factors. First, the return of revolution as a powerful idea that has circulated across national borders through the global media sphere and the bodies of migrants who bring this imaginary into various national contexts. Second, Adbusters’ adaptation of this ‘ideoscape’ to the North American context. Even if Adbusters didn’t play any organisational role in OWS, the idea of launching a permanent occupation of Wall Street beginning 17 September and the PR campaign associated with it were brilliant. I am thinking not only of the well-known poster image of the ballerina hovering on top of the Wall Street bull sculpture, but of another, less known image of a mass of protesters brandishing shoes in front of the stock exchange building covered with Adbusters’ corporate flag. In this image the symbol of Iraqi resistance against US occupation was adapted to the US context by prefiguring a mass revolt against the corporate occupation of American democracy. The caption complements the force of this image by asking a simple question: ‘Is America Ripe for a Tahir Moment?’ This is culture jamming at its best, a strategy that doesn’t limit itself to debunking power’s narratives but sets a new narrative in motion.
Of course, the aesthetic-political adaptation of the Arab Spring to the US context would never have generated a mobilisation on the ground if activists hadn’t decided to take up the call and organise in New York City. And here the terrain was already fertile. Beginning 14 June, a few dozen New Yorkers had set up a permanent camp around City Hall to oppose city budget cuts to libraries, schools and other social services. Although it was by and large ignored by the media the experience of ‘Bloombergville’, which went on for three weeks, contained all the seeds of OWS. What Bloombergville lacked was a global dimension, or the understanding that any protest in New York has the potential to become a global mobilisation if it is framed as such. Thus, the third factor was the existence of an informal organisational structure on the ground that lent a body to the meme ‘Occupy Wall Street’. It was New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts—the main group behind Bloombergville—that called for the first general assembly at the bull statue on 2 August to discuss Adbusters’ call.
Finally, the intellectual diaspora from the Mediterranean region also played a significant role. Since May, many Spaniards residing in New York had created DemocraciaRealYa NYC, a Facebook group and a series of meetings to discuss how to import and translate the M-15 movement to New York. Also, 16 Beaver has always been an important convergence point for artists and intellectuals from different countries. The first general assemblies at the bull and in Tompkins Square Park in August saw the participation of a number of activists from Spain, Greece, Palestine, Tunisia and Italy who knew each other, in some cases, through 16 Beaver. The core group of organisers was still relatively small (between 40 and 70), and nothing guaranteed the success of the occupation at that point. It was a mix of factors, including the luck of finding a square open to the public 24/7, and the mobilisation of several student groups from the Columbia University system and other colleges that allowed the occupation to survive the first weekend, when many expected it to be dispersed or suppressed with mass arrests.
JD: The first day of the action, 17 September, didn’t seem a harbinger of the movement it would open up. Watching the live feed, I saw some people doing yoga in the street and a schedule of events that included various discussions and crafts. It seemed like a kind of New Age-y or left alternative hippie be-in, with a bit of an anti-Wall Street political edge. The turnout for the protest was far short of the 20,000 predicted. Yet people stayed, they really occupied, and this perseverance, so remarkable in the US setting of the fast and easy, ruptured the veneer of futility and cynicism that coats many on the US Left.
There wasn’t a lot of mainstream media attention that first week, but reports, images and videos kept building, along with the occupation itself, so that by the end of the first week, several hundred people were sleeping regularly in the park. Even more were attending general assemblies and thousands were joining the marches, rappers and celebrities were stopping by to lend support, and thousands more were watching the live feed at Global Revolution or AnonOps. Mainstream media coverage was helped along by the brutality and aggression of the NYPD, especially police corralling protesters in orange net and pepper spraying them. The 22 September convergence of a march from Occupy Wall Street with the much larger march protesting Georgia’s execution of Troy Davis was also important: this convergence indicated the malleability of the movement, the openness of the OWS signifier and the array of concerns that could be linked together under its name.
The real turning point was the arrest of 700 protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge or, to be more precise, getting that extra surge of people to come out in support of the occupation in the first place, which was accomplished by spreading the rumour that Radiohead was going to play in the park. All these events, especially when combined with the support of ever growing numbers of unions, added momentum so that by the end of its third week it was clear the movement had changed the American political terrain. It was at that point that mainstream commentary started to ask: Who are these people? What do they want? What are their demands?
The first question was answered—and continues to be answered—by endless first person accounts of people who ‘lost their jobs but found an occupation’, people who had lost their houses and, with nothing else to lose, headed for Zuccotti Park; as well as stories of recent college graduates with massive debt and no prospects. Particularly powerful in this regard is the moving Tumblr photo archive, ‘We are the 99%’.
The second and third questions remain enormously fraught and controversial, going to the heart of the movement. We should recall the initial announcement from Adbusters: once the occupation of Wall Street is set up, ‘We shall incessantly repeat one demand in a plurality of voices’. Not only was there to be one demand, but Adbusters already had a suggestion for what it should be: ‘democracy not corporatocracy’. Not only has OWS not agreed on or issued a demand, but the very notion of demands is hotly contested, with some saying that we need practical demands, some urging impossible demands, some saying that it’s too early to make demands, some saying that simply being there is itself the demand, and some saying that the plurality of views and the absence of demands is a strength.
MD: Adbusters’ call to issue one demand was doomed to fail in the US situation, which is not comparable to that of Middle Eastern countries, where the single demand is ‘this regime must go’. What puzzles me the most in media accounts of OWS is that they often treat the movement’s inability to agree upon demands and no common political line as a conscious strategic choice. Anyone who is familiar with the internal dynamics of this movement knows this is not the case.
JD: Some commentators write as if the absence of demands was a choice—almost as if there had already been deliberation and consensus in the General Assembly over demands and, after thoughtful reflection, several thousand people concurred that the time was not right to issue a demand. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even as some occupations (Chicago, specifically) have come up with demands, the entire question is bitterly contested in New York. And the way it is being contested not only puts the lie to the illusion that ‘no demands’ is a tactical answer but also puts into sharp relief some of the organisational problems plaguing OWS.
We have open and transparent working groups. The benefit of these groups is that anyone can join. The burden is that anyone can join. So the composition of groups, changes, with relatively high frequency, which means it’s always unclear at any meeting or conversation whether all or most members are participating. The movement from the start has opposed a politics of representation and supported a vision of direct democracy in terms of decisions being made by whoever shows up. The problem is that it becomes very difficult for working groups’ past decisions to have any staying power. People who missed one meeting show up at another and treat previous decisions as violations, almost as usurpations of their democratic right to participate.
The openness of the movement, which many hold as a strength, means that there is no ideological core, not even a relatively loose one. The absence of demands isn’t a strength. And it is ill-informed to say that it is ‘too soon’ for demands—as if political events unfolded according to a proper timetable rather than they themselves pushing and changing the temporalities of action. We have no demands because at this point OWS does not yet name a ‘we’. It names a movement oriented around a tactic, an occupation, motivated by an anger and frustration that has been building for years. The real tactical question is whether the painful, difficult process of generating demands is an important one now, important for further growth of the movement (people know what they are joining) and for building courage, confidence, and solidarity among its members (in part because those who disagree will leave) or whether the message of occupation (we belong, this is our space) and the struggle it requires to maintain these occupations (particularly in the face of increasing political push back and police violence) is enough.
MD: There are several groups who have been trying to open up a political discussion on the general objectives of this movement. These groups have been running into two major obstacles, which concern both the current organisational form of OWS and the difficult work of mediating among the different political souls of OWS. On a first level, it’s obvious that OWS lacks a context to articulate a political discussion in general terms. At this stage, this is not necessarily a bad thing as the movement has so many chapters that its plural composition is undoubtedly a resource. Yet I am convinced that in the long run OWS’s most important political task will be to find and create a common ground. Even if we limit our analysis to the local level, it is clear that the current mode of functioning of a general assembly doesn’t lend itself to the articulation of complex political discussions. General Assemblies deliberate, by and large, on daily management issues, whereas broader questions regarding demands, objectives, alliances, the relationship between tactics and strategies, are confined to myriad working groups, committees, caucuses, listservs and so on. But these groups have no deliberative power and a very limited influence over the General Assembly. The paradox is that groups and individuals whose approach aspires to be general and strategic can exist only insofar as they accept their inability to represent anyone other than themselves.
In this respect the General Assembly seems to function as the perfect incarnation of Jacques Alain Miler’s definition of democracy—‘the master signifier that says that there is no master signifier … that every master signifier has to insert itself wisely among others’. It is argued that because it is a framework that enables anyone to speak and be heard, it can keep functioning as such only insofar as no one is able to bend its neutrality to a specific political agenda. But if this is the case, then OWS is just recreating from below institutional forms and modes of deliberation that are essentially liberal.
In your recent work you have been arguing that the Left’s insistence on democracy arises from the loss of communism as a shared vocabulary and horizon, a way of envisioning a common large-scale solution. In my understanding, your criticism is pointed at the liberal illusion that participation in the social web—and the related emphasis on conversation, collaboration and process—are in and of themselves means of achieving substantial political change. Would you extend this criticism to OWS, or do you think that the embodied and public dimension of this movement marks a discontinuity with the ideology of ‘participationism’? And do you think the current organisational structure of OWS is adequate to undertake the large-scale transformation that the radical components of OWS seem to evoke every time the word ‘revolution’ is mentioned?
JD: My sense is that the loose, horizontal, consensus approach of OWS demonstrates the impotence of participation as an ideal—and the very reason that participation has become such a banal refrain: it stands for activity for its own sake, activity that is primarily that of a single individual doing their individual thing, that is, an individual that in no way comes into contact with others with whom they have to work. So in this respect, the horizontal, consensus basis of OWS repeats the worst aspects of participationism: individuals just ‘participate’, stop by, say something, do their thing, and move on. Unfortunately, this mobility subverts the achievement of duration so central to occupation as a tactic.
This problem of mobile membership combines with the problem of unrepresentability. In the movement ideology of direct democracy no one speaks for another, no one has any more right than anyone else to participate in the deliberations of a group. In practice, this isn’t quite the case. People now speak in terms of their dedication to the movement: ‘I’ve slept in the park for a month’ or ‘I’ve been to every GA meeting’ or (differently) ‘I spoke to a lot of people about this’ or ‘I consulted with four different union groups’. Any of these ways of backing one’s claim is good. The problem comes in the dis-organisational practices that invalidate the claims, again, under the heading of ‘no one can speak for any other’.
MD: You’re right, the tensions that arise among occupiers on the basis of experience-based claims are very hard to manage. Further, the claim to radical unrepresentability is mobilised not only between individuals but also between groups. Recently, the General Assembly introduced a new body called the Spokes Council whose function is to ensure that groups can begin working together. Each working group, caucus and thematic group nominates a spokesperson who is the only one entitled to speak at a Spokes Council meeting. Spokes are mandated to rotate at every meeting and everyone can attend a council as a listener. In my opinion this is an important ‘constitutional reform’ because it recognises for the first time that the General Assembly can’t simultaneously address everybody’s concerns without holding endless sessions that wear everybody out. It also recognises that individuals have too much power within the GA as anyone, including newcomers, can block a proposal that may have been elaborated through collective work for weeks.
JD: So we’ve moved from the success of the occupation movement, its openness and adaptability, the way occupation as a form enables what it enjoins, to some of the problems this very form creates for political organisation. Perhaps it makes sense to end by attending to the physical, spatial, embodied dimensions of occupation. Some of the anarchists connected with the movement (I’m thinking of David Graeber here) present the focus on the logistical challenges of lots of people living together out of doors in urban settings, and the patience required for face-to-face deliberation among thousands of people who may not yet have much in common, as a specifically anarchist contribution. In other words, anarchist attunement to the basic elements of living together, to the ethical practice of revolution, has benefits that a communist focus on strategy not only lacks but tends to foreclose. I have to admit that I have been mightily taken up by the changes that occupation effects on those who occupy, how it reconfigures our ways of being together. One can’t rush, one can’t force. Decisions take immense time and this is crucial to the reformation of subjectivity—it remakes individuals into a collective.
MD: Yes, but at the same time we should not idealise communal forms of living, in the same way as we should not idealise the General Assembly. As OWS encampments grow into villages with their semi-permanent dwellers and structures, the occupiers tend to focus on internal dynamics and increasingly perceive non-residents as outsiders. This creates a gap and a specific division of labour between full-time occupiers and part-time activists that makes it difficult for OWS to think of itself as a movement for the general transformation of society.
And there are different political sensibilities within the movement that are objectively difficult to bridge. For instance, neo-Keynesians and socialists focus on economic demands such as higher taxes on financial rent, national jobs programs with direct government employment, and a single-payer health care system. Liberals and progressives typically demand a tighter regulation of the banking system, a ban on corporate donations to political candidates, and so on. The anarchists, as you say, direct their attention mostly to internal democracy, while the environmentalists focus on sustainable forms of living. But there is little discussion on how to link the struggle for social justice to that for real democracy and a sustainable economy. In particular, it is not clear how self-governing bodies such as the General Assembly or Spokes Council can facilitate these broad discussions. These issues keep being discussed in separate working groups as there is no strategic vision of how to link them.
Some of these demands are objectively in contradiction with one another. For instance, demanding a national jobs program with direct government employment means to demand de facto an expansion of the federal government—something anarchists and libertarians would never accept. The demand for reducing or eliminating the influence of corporate power on politics relies on the notion that that there is such a thing as a democratic capitalism. Likewise, the demand for reducing carbon emissions relies on the fantasy that there is such a thing as sustainable capitalism. In my view, all these demands can be articulated only by acknowledging that the world we live in has limited natural resources and that if we want to use them we also have to learn how to manage them in common.
So at this point, OWS faces some fundamental questions. How do we ensure that the emerging institutions of the movement take up the challenge of managing the resources they use in common? The commons is a finite resource whose mode of disposition and usage is determined by its users. In this respect, the movement is trying to develop communal ways of managing resources such as limited public space, limited time for discussion, food, shelter, donations. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that the vast majority of the resources we rely on in this society have already been privatised. Additionally, how do we expand the existing commons or create new ones when the law is designed to protect private property? And, if the movement learns to reproduce itself as a commons, what are the strategic resources it needs to secure to make this process durable and sustainable? Can, for example, the Food Committee strike a long-term agreement with community supported agriculture and urban farms? Can the Town Planning Committee come up with ideas to expand the commons in urban and rural settings? Relatedly, how can we develop a communication infrastructure that is managed in common? If we think that education should not be treated as a commodity but as a commons, how do we link the campaign to cancel student debt to the struggle to defend public education? Is it possible to think of a system of education that is free, whose physical infrastructure is managed by the state, but whose cultural production is managed in common by students and faculty?
By Jodi Dean
Jodi Dean is Professor of Political Science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, New York.
She blogs at <http://jdeanicite.typepad.com> and is currently finishing a manuscript entitled
The Communist Horizon (Verso).
Marco Deseriis is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Eugene Lang College, New School for Liberal Arts in
New York City.