Jodi Dean on What Now #ows

November 22, 2011

What now? #occupywallstreet

Suggestions are appearing for the next phase of #OWS. On the one hand, this isn’t new. Suggestions and advice have accompanied the movement from its inception. On the other, with the eviction of protesters from Zuccotti Park, fierce police repression all over the country, and the holiday weekend coming up, it feels like things are changing, like the momentum of the past two months is shifting.

Even as I write this, though, I am skeptical of this description–I’m not sure whether it’s too NYC-centric, insufficiently attuned to the multiplicity of movement, the differences from occupation to occupation, the valences of local issues. These valences are significant–different cities have different codes (no camping after dark; no sleeping on sidewalks; no open flames), which means that occupiers have different relations with police, local governments, campuses. These different relations to law also occasion different relations to violence, that is, the effectiveness of  non-violence as a tactic and the amount of violence part of the daily experience of the occupiers.

What now? The occupation form, the common fact and symbol of the tent, the slogan (we are the 99%), the consensus based practice with the twinkle fingers, and the insistence on no leaders have created a vocabulary, maybe even a discourse, where there wasn’t one before. They have carved out or produced a space, rupturing everyday practices, the previous sense of what was possible.

Will this discourse, vocabulary, and sense persist in the absence of physical occupations? Will the multiplicity of occupations–the fact that occupations, big and small, pop in and out, appear and reappear, are shut down and reestablished–amplify and link them in their singularity, making them be and appear as the something larger than themselves that they instantiate? Can they continue to feel like the movement of the 99%?

Maybe these are the wrong questions. Maybe what matters are the multiplicity of different practices, the real existing experiences of occupiers, protesters, supporters. Maybe what’s at stake is the creation of new practices, people forging new ways of communicating, getting things done, being together. It’s about remaking the world one marathon discussion at a time, changing the world through changing ourselves as we changing the world.

I think there is probably some truth to this. We can’t keep doing the same things and thinking that we will get different results (so, all the internet petitions and lol-pepper spray cops in the world won’t bring down Goldman Sachs). But the practices associated with occupation–the long deliberations and living in tents–don’t scale enough to be the change. So for those involved, the movement is a change and a possibility and for the everybody else it’s content, stuff on FB and YouTube, the opportunity for a petition. It maybe sorta new (but haven’t there always been these protests, like the anti-globalization movement and the anti-war movement? –someone said this to me the other night). But even if it is, what can it really accomplish? Protests don’t work (someone said this to me last week).

The issue around scale and the connection between the practice of occupation and the politics of occupation have been around since the beginning. For the last two months it’s been the case that there are occupations and that there are the politicizations they effect: primarily the politicization of inequality, the making visible and undeniable the wrong that is the 1%. This politicization has been a first major political achievement of the first phase.

Now, because the movement, no one can deny that the capitalist system is broken, that the last thirty years have been a project for the restoration of the class power of the capitalist class  (especially but not exclusively via finacialization), and that the state has been a crucial weapon of class war (tax policy, police and prison, etc). In the last 10 days, the occupations have been especially effective at eliciting the brutal, repressive, para-military side of the side–a side that people on the lower part of the food chain already encounter more than the rest of us (so it’s news when cops hit college students; it’s reality television when they hit poor people.

It’s possible that eliciting the violence of state and campus police will be continue to be a crucial element of this next phase. I don’t think it’s likely for two reasons: first, Christmas break is coming up and campuses go into  a lull during the break; second, not every college administrator is an idiot, so the smart ones will tolerate occupations and teach-ins and all the rest, confident that the activists will remain a campus minority and that eventually something else will attract their attention.  A better alternative: building alliances and creating occupations that span from students to others, including staff and workers on campuses, and those off-campus, those for whom college hasn’t been an option. These occupations could be on campuses–and they raise opportunities for conflict because of the presence on campus of “those who don’t belong there.” And they could be off-campus–in bank and hotel lobbies, in the offices of mortgage brokers, in empty buildings.

At this point, if the next phase of the movement relies on college campuses, I think it will be to the detriment of the movement. Its concerns and audience will narrow. It will become disarticulated from inequality and a politics of the 99%. It will become a student movement, which is still something, but it is not a movement that by itself can keep the politics of inequality alive–most of the people going to college already have better odds of an economically better future than those they left behind in high school. The odds for college grads are getting worse, sure, and their debts doom them to wage-slavery, but that’s not sufficient for a movement that will produce a positive, egalitarian alternative to capitalism–and I don’t say bring down capitalism because that is already in the works; it’s already clear that it’s broken–no one denies this. The argument is over what to do next.

Other alternatives that are emerging include legislation and fragmentation. These are connected. Legislative battles (whether in the form of constitutional amendments or tax policies) are technical and specific. They require people with legal knowledge and full-time lobbyists.  These requirements in turn require focus, on a specific issue or proposal to the exclusion (even if just momentarily) of other issues. Given the multiple issues, proposals, and even demands circulating within #OWS, this fragmentation seems very likely, a devolution into affinity groups and issue politics. Especially in a milieu that privileges autonomy, this “do you own thing” or “if you think it’s a good idea, go for it” could well be the next phase of the movement.

This will also be a bad development–it will sacrifice the collectivity that the movement has been creating, the very collectivity and common pursuit that are the second major achievement of the movement in its first phase.

Collectivity rather than fragmentation has been the difference between #OWS and the last thirty years of left politics. It’s what feels fresh, vital, essential. It’s what we’ve been missing and what we’ve gotten back–a common front, a shared struggle (even when we disagree). Maybe more than anything else, we have to use this new phase to strengthen collectivity, to cohere and grow in discipline. The video from UC Davis is powerful not just because of the blatant violence–we’ve seen lots of violence. It’s powerful because of the extraordinary solidarity and discipline demonstrated by the students–those linking arms and sitting together and those who encircle the police. How do we foster and extend that sort of solidarity?

Maybe by occupations–whether tents or buildings, whether ones that endure or ones that are short–that share skills, instill trust, take risks. Already the occupations have common kitchens, medical tents, libraries, mediations, yoga, lectures, civil disobedience training, and legal services. What more can they provide so as to bring more people into the movement and create new loci of political and economic power? How can they take the place of local governments, boards, and institutions?

And how can these new loci build the solidarity that will inspire security guards, data processors, programmers, bank tellers, insurance claims adjusters, and office personnel to undertake risky acts of sabotage and refusal–imagine how inspiring would be the refusal of hundred office workers charged with collecting on debts or processing foreclosures, and how that could lead to a variety of copycat actions in a Fight Club that breaks its own first rule: everybody talks about Fight Club, or about taking not just parks but all the industries, companies, and enterprises that are already ours, we already occupy them. Taking them, making them ours, is just paperwork–the refusal to acknowledge any claim to private property.

All of these ideas are already circulating. Which ones are we and should we link, amplify, and extend?

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