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adieu #OWS

A year later, Occupy Wall Street is a faded memory. What I wrote in October 2011 was, if not fully predictive, at least diagnostic.

The #OWS crowd is the typical mix of left-wing and progressive causes one finds at any large demo. The symbolism of the mass gathering is, however, losing its efficacy as a carrier of political meaning. It is telling that only confrontations with baton-wielding and mace-spraying police (as opposed to Blackberry-wielding and derivatives-spraying financiers) have brought it wider attention: alas, the police don’t run “Wall Street” or crash the Lehmann Brothers of the world. At some point, enlightened elements of the #OWS will figure out that engagement with the Democrats is the only means to bring about practical reforms. Clever Democratic politicians would be wise to leverage this left-wing angst. But short of an actual revolution, no new form of people’s capitalism is likely to emerge and the youth of the nation must grow accustomed to conditions of scarcity that have beset most people at most times in history. The golden years of the housing and credit bubbles are gone forever.

From a more sympathetic, participant’s experience, Laurie Penny offered the following Decembrist view.

There are different ways of being on the streets, and all of them are political. As the recession immiserates more and more of us, resistance will increasingly become a process of negotiating trauma, of developing economies of care that include the lost, the destitute, the down-and-out, those who cannot be “fluffy” because they have become crusted over with the debris of desperation. When these occupations are evicted, not everyone involved will be able to go home, scrub the dirt out of their hair and go back to work. Those who have lost their jobs and homes, those who left them to protest, and those who never had them in the first place attract disapprobium from their own side as well as from those determined to slander the anti-capitalist movement as filthy and unkempt. Useful activism, however, usually involves getting your hands dirty.

Recalling an earlier “Society of December”: 

Alongside decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaus, brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ-grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars – in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French term la bohème. MarxThe 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.

 By February 2012, it was over.

The time for the Occupy movement has passed. In part, because it failed to generate practical political engagements and fixated on meaningless, narcissistic skirmishes with police, it allowed its message to be co-opted (in the USA by Obama). Even its allegedly novel “process” was merely the second coming of 1960s style (see the “Port Huron Statement”) participatory democracy; worse, the inefficiency of this process model has not been criticized within Occupy, it has become an article of faith, of identity, of self-congratulation. Consequently, Occupy is now no more than an entertaining charivari that offers a pleasing, even charming, distraction from the tawdry circus of the Republican Party’s presidential primary and the dissembling rhetoric of political authorities around the globe.

As winter and police thinned out the remaining urban campers, and as spring became summer, #OWS slipped further into history, displaced by obsession with American presidential politics and the corporate logo-besotted Olympics. Even the pathological character flaws of celebrity hacktavist Julian Assange managed to blot out the infodumpery of wikileaks, the last standard bearer for speaking truth to power left on earth.

#OWS was a beatnik charivari, the last gasp of New Left nostalgia, still inhaling the purple haze of countercultural patchouli. While it is not quite right to dismiss the Occupyistas merely as Starbucks-drinking hypocrites, the encampments did give the appearance, as one CNBC commentator noted, of an Apple products expo. The revolution will not be livestreamed. The dream of “people’s capitalism” is still a literary wish fulfillment.

The actor’s performance inflamed the audience, and subversive proposals came from all parts of the hall.

‘No more academies! Away with the Institut!’

No more missions!’

‘No more matriculations!’

‘Down with university degrees!’

‘No,’ said Sénécal. ‘Let us keep them, but let them be conferred by universal suffrage, by the People, the only true judge!’

In any case, this was not the most important thing to do. To begin with, the rich had to be levelled down. And he depicted them wallowing in crime under their gilded ceilings, while the poor, writhing with hunger in their garrets, practised all the virtues. The applause became so loud that he broke off. He stood for a few minutes with his eyes shut and his head thrown back, as if he were rocking himself to sleep on the wave of anger he had aroused.

Then he started speaking dogmatically, in phrases as imperious as laws. The State must seize the banks and the insurance companies. Legacies would be abolished. A public fund would be set up for the workers. Flaubert, Sentimental Education.

May Day 2012: Not exactly the massive General Strike hoped for by Occupyistas. This is not as devastating as the miniscule turnout in Chicago for the Weathermen’s “Days of Rage” in October 1969, but it is a clear setback for a form of political organizing that rejects vertical structures and the articulation of goals.

Occupy in America is over (perhaps prospects in other places are brighter). Its predilection for process over substance, for needlessly narcissistic confrontations with the police, and for grand, self-congratulatory gestures, has rendered it immobile, gelatinous, and passé. What comes next must be a rethinking of the entire Occupy paradigm, starting with Graeberian Assemblages and Situationist manifestations. Positive engagement with existing political stake-holders will mark a step forward.

The time for the Occupy movement has passed. In part, because it failed to generate practical political engagements and fixated on meaningless, narcissistic skirmishes with police, it allowed its message to be co-opted (in the USA by Obama). Even its allegedly novel “process” was merely the second coming of 1960s style (see the “Port Huron Statement”) participatory democracy; worse, the inefficiency of this process model has not been criticized within Occupy, it has become an article of faith, of identity, of self-congratulation. Consequently, Occupy is now no more than an entertaining charivari that offers a pleasing, even charming, distraction from the tawdry circus of the Republican Party’s presidential primary and the dissembling rhetoric of political authorities around the globe.


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The critique of bodily appearances is simply ad hominem, a lazy form of criticism. But more importantly, the aesthetic criticism of Occupy is a way of avoiding engagement with its politics.


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What impedes a more practical orientation to the political? Based on the handful of GAs I attended in NYC, the goal is to reach unanimity, which means issues are debated ad nauseum. I think minority views are so totally given an airing that it stifles movement. Achieving clarity and a specific purpose means not all will agree, but in my experience the premise of the GA is that lack of unity is a fatal flaw, not an expected, or even reasonable, outcome. In my view, the process inhibits the politics.

Hysteria*: Class of neuroses presenting a great diversity of clinical pictures… . anxiety hysteria, where the anxiety is attached in more or less stable fashion to a specific external object (phobias).

I attended one of the #OWS events yesterday, a gathering at Union Square. I would characterize the scene as one of hysteria on the part of the mayor’s response to the demonstrators and the behavior of the NYPD. I sense this from the regular occurrence of vans carrying five or six officers, racing for a few blocks with sirens blaring, and with no apparent emergency in sight; the presence of the hundreds of riot gear clad police confronting an unarmed collection of citizens, moving to and fro, moving barricades, blocking the coming and going of pedestrians, for no apparent reason; the tiny Asian-American cop, casually wielding his baton in a menacing fashion, attempting to intimidate his distracted audience, represents any number of pseudo tough guys decked in blue, with the names on their badges conspicuously covered – their cowardice exceeded only by the arrogance of their interactions with bystanders. It is undeniable that the disruption of traffic is caused by the ridiculously massive police presence, which may be a tactical move on the part of the NYPD and mayor to make it appear as if the occupiers are fucking up life in the city. The failed third mayoral term that Bloomberg purchased from the City Council – which eagerly plucked lint from his deep pockets – has been marked by an extreme level of political and administrative incompetence. This feral mayor’s reign of error can’t come to an end soon enough.

* J. Laplanche and J.-B. Pontalis, The Language of Psycho-analysis, 194.