The Third International after Lenin

Thursday, September 29, 2011

"Neoliberalism couldn’t ask for a less threatening kind of dissent."

The Occupy Wall Street non-agenda

Doug Henwood

I'm not here to disparage Occupy Wall Street; I admire the tenacity and nerve of the occupiers, and hope it grows. But I'm both curious and frustrated by the inability of the organizers, whoever they are exactly, or the participants, an endlessly shifting population, to say clearly and succinctly why they're there. Yes, I know that certain liberals are using that to malign the protesters. I'm not. I desperately hope that something comes of this. But there's a serious problem with this speechlessness.

Certainly the location of the protest is a statement, but when it comes to words, there's a strange silence—or prolixity, which in this case, amounts to pretty much the same thing. Why can't they say something like this? "These gangsters have too much money. They wrecked the economy, got bailed out, and are back to business as usual. We need jobs, schools, health care, and clean energy. Let's take their money to pay for them." The potential constituency for that agenda is huge.

Why instead do we see sprawling things like this (A Message From Occupied Wall Street), eleven demands, each identified as the one demand? Or this: The demand is a process? A process that includes this voting ritual: Select Below and Vote to Include in the Official Demands for #Occupy Wall Street.

Why the emphasis on multiplicity and process? I think it's a living instance of a problem that Jodi Dean identified last November—a paralysis of the will, though one disguised as a set of principles:

Once the New Left delegitimized the old one, it made political will into an offense, a crime with all sorts of different elements:

  • taking the place or speaking for another (the crime of representation);
  • obscuring other crimes and harms (the crime of exclusion);
  • judging, condemning, and failing to acknowledge the large terrain of complicating factors necessarily disrupting simple notions of agency (the crime of dogmatism);
  • employing dangerous totalizing fantasies that posit an end of history and lead to genocidal adventurism (the crime of utopianism or, as Mark Fisher so persuasively demonstrates, of adopting a fundamentally irrational and unrealistic stance, of failing to concede to the reality of  capitalism).

An agenda—and an organization, and some kind of leadership that could speak and be spoken to—would violate these rules. Distilling things down to a simple set of demands would be hierarchical, and commit a crime of exclusion. Having an organization with some sort of leadership would force some to speak for others, the crime of representation.

But without those things, as Jodi says, there can be no politics. "It is instead an ethics. Is it any surprise, then, that under neoliberalism ostensible leftists spend countless hours and pages and keystrokes elaborating ethics? The ethics of this or the ethics of that, fundamentally personal and individual approaches that obscure and deny the systems and structures in which they are embedded?"

Occupiers: I love you, I'm glad you're there, the people I talked to were inspiring—but you really have to move beyond this. Neoliberalism couldn't ask for a less threatening kind of dissent.

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