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Cygnet Committee

I left the Jacobin panel debate on Occupy Wall Street on October 14 pretty dispirited. In the process of trying to address shared concerns that the protests would dissipate, the participants seemed to be instantiating the dissipation. They talked past one another and at times seemed to want to cast suspicion on the good faith of other leftists (narcissists! reformists! armchair revolutionaries! union bureaucrats! party hacks! running dogs!) rather than articulate different approaches to defeat common enemies. It made me wonder if there really is enough of a shared sense of what the problems are for the Occupy movement to generate coherent demands. Is OWS a model for a strategy of refusal, a precursor to a general strike? Should the protesters seek to seize the state or smash it? Is the occupation a preparation for the transition to communism, to anarchism, or to a kindler, gentler neoliberalism? At the debate, the various diagnoses of what is wrong with politics, the economy, financialization and inequality and so forth, were barely discussed. The word “precarity,” somewhat surprisingly, was not uttered.

Instead of refining the critique of the social conditions that spurred the movement, the panelists argued over the Occupy movement’s nebulous tactics and apparent lack of focus. The core disagreement was over whether the movement needs clear demands in order to grow, or whether the lack of demands allowed it to be flexible enough to assimilate more people and ideas, and ultimately attract more attention. One side argued that people won’t make sacrifices without knowing why they are doing it, and the necessity for real sacrifice was going to become more and more palpable as the state experiences more and more pressure to shut the occupations down. The other side claimed that the occupations gave the generalized feeling of discontent in society a concrete, recognizable being, providing specific something for which to fight and make sacrifices. From that point of view, the demand is simply for the protest’s existence: As long as the protests continue, they open a space for dissent and disseminate the possibility of an inclusive collective identity.

But several panelists suggested that the OWS movement threatened to serve merely as an expression of protester narcissism, offering new recruits little more than an opportunity to live out a fantasy of political potency. Individuals get to have meaningful personal experiences or indulge in vicarious ones through the media representations of protesters. Everyone gets to speak for themselves, with equal authority, and a kind of possessive individualism is reinforced (as panelist Jodi Dean pointed out). From that perspective, the idea that the “occupation is the demand” is silly. What’s important is that the energy that has been summoned be put to specific political use before it loses its urgency.

The split on the panel seemed to reflect the inevitable divisions over whether protesters should try work within the system to reform it or build a movement strong enough to dismantle the system and replace it. Arguably, precise demands would commit OWS to the reform position. And I suspect most of the 54% of people who support OWS (according to this Time poll) have something like reform in mind: They hear “against Wall Street” and can get on board with that, without the least suspicion that when they say they support OWS, they are basically expressing support for anarchist-driven direct democracy and radicalized subjectivities and the like. They just don’t like Wall Street’s power and wealth, and they assume these protests are about telling government to stop working for bankers and start working for the people. They probably don’t want to see capitalism dismantled; they just want more and better jobs.

But of course that doesn’t address the underlying problems with capitalism, neoliberalism specifically, and corruption in the political system in which policy can be bought with campaign contributions. It doesn’t address the problem capitalism faces in providing full employment, broader opportunity, and a sufficient sense of security to give people a sense that they are thriving, that their children’s lives will be better than their own. And at the far end of dire portents, it doesn’t address the possibility that the unfettered pursuit of profit may well lead to apocalyptic environmental disaster. I thought Justin E. H. Smith explained the stakes of OWS well in this post: “Anyone who wishes that life could be based on the proposition that there are things of value that nonetheless lie outside of the scope of this nebulous thing called ‘the Market’ ought to be pushing back now, if there is to be any hope for future thriving.” A reformist set of practical demands doesn’t seem to touch this question of how society addresses collective notions of what is valued. And if the movement grows at the expense of this ultimate stake, then it will have grown into co-opted irrelevance.

In relating the experience of participating in the protests. Natasha Lennard, another of the panelists, brought up “governmentality,” a concept that derives from Foucault and has to do with the ways in which we don’t police ourselves in lieu of other, more direct forms of command and compliance. We accept as our own the incentives that reinforce existing power dynamics, and so on. Taken further, the governmentality thesis suggests that our ability to experience pleasure requires a social system, no matter how corrupt, to make it possible. Even the worst societies must permit their subjects enough pleasure (including the pleasures of security, of sense of self, of being recognized, of having a voice, etc.) to invest themselves in reproducing it. (Another way of putting this is to talk about the “spirit of capitalism,” sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello’s term for the evolving bundle of ideological palliatives that allow capitalism to perpetuate itself.) Under neoliberalist capitalism, we are socialized into a certain kind of highly individualistic subjectivity that offers us access to the pleasures of “freedom” and “free agency” and “convenience” and “choice,” and we are loath to surrender these pleasures for the uncertain possibilities of collectivity that OWS, arguably, is putting to the test.

Lennard was arguing that the protests were meant to disrupt the kind of subjectivity that supports neoliberalism, manifest an alternative, posit different ideas of what value is and how it is produced and shared, open up the possibility for more durable experiences of collective identity in resistance. In this post, Jason Read notes that the protests have the potential to kick off a much larger ideological project, though one which is hard to quantify and which is necessarily riddled with contradictions as it proceeds.

Many Americans identify with the 1%, or the 10%, or whatever, the entire media, entertainment, and political establishment is practically dedicated to such an idea. The entire Ideological State Apparatus, is caught up in one chorus, singing a song that tells everyone that they too can and will get rich. For the 99% to become the 99%, for it to become at the very least a broad popular basis for change it must confront the entire ideological underpinning of our society, the underpinnings which make it possible for the poor to identify with the wealthy. As one recent blog post points out, this underpinning is not just ideological but affective as well. Anyone who has lost a job, who has been downsized, understands the shame that this carries in our society.

The question then is whether a consolidation behind specific demands upends this underlying ideological project, the fantasies about social mobility and the vicariousness we all use to get by.

Other panelists wondered how collectivity could form in the absence of a unifying goal; without the unifying goal, the new subjectivity would just reiterate the old one’s individualistic narcissism. And alas, once you open up the possibility that one can’t trust one’s own feelings or subjectivity, it’s hard to argue from experience that what you are doing is politically effective. Your feelings can always be interpreted as another illusion of the same dubious self-consciousness. We can’t ever know definitely that we have radicalized our own subjectivity. That seems especially the case considering the way neoliberal subjectivity privileges novelty, flexibility, the potential for radical changeability.

So basically the debate seemed to go in circles for me. I think that the protests do form a material basis for the articulation of a different kind of subjectivity, and the longer the protests persist, the more plausibility and ideological heft that subjectivity has. But I also think that inability to measure the degree to which that emerging alternative is actually changing people’s sensibilities and changing how they live and conceive what is possible makes the protests hard to sustain, especially in the face of empiricist critiques and the practical demand for tangible accomplishments.

It seems like the powers that be don’t feel especially threatened by the protests and have decided not to crack down on them. Presumably the consensus among elites is that the winter will chill the exuberance of the protesters and cause everyone to gradually disperse uneventfully. But it seems to me nonetheless a tactical achievement for OWS that it has managed to seem powerless enough to politicians and powerful interests to be left alone while seeming powerful enough to continue to attract media and popular interest. Perhaps that nebulous, self-denying space is the only one in which new social possibilities have any real chance to incubate. As long as the protesters can maintain that space, the possibility remains alive, which itself is more than I would have thought possible in August.