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Is Occupy Just an Event?

and not a movement? This is the question that Matthew Noah Smith makes in an essay titled "Living Politically" on the site to which Lambert recently directed us that had the essay "Occupy Philosophy".

He believes that Occupy was an important "event" in that it captured our imaginations more than other important protests such as the one that shut down the state government in Wisconsin. And the "why" of how it did that is important.

Occupy gave individuals a taste of real democracy.

Democratic movements cannot succeed only through winning certain determinate policy goals; democratic movements aim to transform more than just certain political institutions or leaders. Rather, movements for democracy aim to change people’s conceptions of their own political agency. This personal process involves the alteration of one’s self-understanding. One learns not just to stand up and fight—that is easily and disastrously taught. Rather, one learns to see oneself as having a unique power in concert with others—namely, the power to collectively shape the world in the image of a political ideal. One no longer thinks of oneself as a patient or a lone figure in struggle against injustice. Rather, one begins to think of oneself plurally and democratically. That is, one understands oneself as part of a democratic ‘we.’

Occupy gave individuals a voice that often they didn't know they had because they found strength as members of a group. No longer victims, they felt the power of being part of the "we". Through the "we" they rediscovered their own personal power through the carrying out of actions that had been democratically decided. Exhilarating stuff. It was the power of the "mic check" of the UC Davis thuggish cops. It was the power to change directions and imaginatively lead police on wild goose chases. It was the power of open and transparent debates on how to face an eviction.

I have no trouble agreeing with him so far. But he argues that Occupy was an event and that event is over. He feels it is time for it to become a real movement and to work to create an alternative political order by engaging in the existing order.

Events like an OWS encampment cease to be ends in themselves, and instead become tactics used to build this collective. Alternatively, instead of building a new organization, OWS partisans can occupy established progressive organizations like labor unions, think tanks, and so on, and bring the practice of participatory democracy into those organizations. Regardless of method, this sort of organizational engagement with the political order, with an aim towards bringing a radical vision of the political self into existing sites of institutional political significance, would mark a transition from performance to power. Of course, whatever course of action is taken is for the OWS community to decide together, autonomously, and rhizomatically.

This is where I must part ways. To me it sounds like the old "you must change the party from within" directives of progressives like Thom Hartmann and most of "The Nation" crowd. But I did all that and nothing changed. In fact it has gotten worse. There was a window in 2003 when people joined the alternative campaigns of Dean, Kucinich, and Edwards to wrest control away from the Democratic Leadership Council or New Way/Third Way Democrats. This was the time when Progressive Democrats of America emerged. I threw myself into all of this, but came up against party loyalists that wanted things to stay exactly the same. You became a party member to get favors and give favors. Most full time Democrats just wanted to stay in their job as long as possible until they could parlay it into yet another government or lobbying job.

It sounds great theoretically to co-opt a union or a central committee or a think tank and change it. But in reality it doesn't happen. Perhaps it's that iron law of oligarchy deal where bureaucracy is inevitable. And with it comes cronyism and corruption.

So for now, I may be wearing rose colored glasses, but I see Occupy as a movement that doesn't seek an alternative political reality, but IS an alternative political reality.

What do you think?

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coyotecreek's picture
Submitted by coyotecreek on

...on Corrente. Just re-read it. Things are a little messier than back then, but I still feel the same way about the democratic process I continue to witness. And the video I included is just as impressive!

I still cannot see me - or many others who support the Occupation - working from the inside out of current political structures. Not going to happen.

Why waste our time?

Pure Democracy

Corporatism Department of Bingo!

Tue, 10/25/2011 - 11:38am — coyotecreek

I have been supporting and participating in Occupy Tucson for the past three weeks and I want to share a personal reflection...that I just found out that I share with someone else. (Note: OT now has camps set up in two different locations with about 100 Occupiers every night; 259 citations as of yesterday - they are going to court this AM on the first of those arrests. And Tucson City Government is supposedly considering a change in the law that will allow OT to stay put....keep your good thoughts coming in this direction.)

Every time I leave OT to come home I have had the same feeling - almost like chills running up and down my spine and a big shit-eating grin on my face. First, of course, I am so proud of the actual Occupiers - people who are literally dedicating their lives to the success of this effort. And I am so excited about the pure democracy of this effort - that's how I explain what I am seeing to my friends who ask "what's going on".

Pure Democracy. What a concept.

This morning OT posted a video about OWS on OT's FB page and much to my delight and surprise, I found out that others are seeing the same thing I am....particularly the guy in the suit and tie who is also emotionally excited about the concept of Pure Democracy.

If you can get to a local Occupy site, I urge you to do so. You will not regret it...I promise.


coyotecreek's picture
Submitted by coyotecreek on

...the guy at 1:30 in the video.

And the guy at 1:50 is fantastic. You can sense and feel his emotion. And imagine my surprise when he said the same words that I was writing about (above)...Pure. Democracy.

Amen, brothers and sisters.

Submitted by MontanaMaven on

a lot of the time living in Montana now instead of NYC. But I am mapping out some places to go and finally feel the love directly rather than vicariously through posts like yours. Matt Taibbi mentioned this feeling of being somewhere where nobody is trying to sell you anything or make you punch a clock (He said it better).

coyotecreek's picture
Submitted by coyotecreek on

I went to Occupy Congress and came away convinced that if you feel something is important and have any kind of passion about the idea, you must experience this thing first hand. It's hard to put into words exactly what it is, what it can be and, of course, what you hope it will become.

Very electric!

DCblogger's picture
Submitted by DCblogger on

and things got worse. And frankly, the progressives that came into the Democratic party through the Wesley Clark and Dean campaign were, at least in some ways, worse than the party establishment. I am tired of excuses instead of results, and I am tired of being told that my issue is a pet issue. Good bye to all that. Now I support only emergent party candidates and throw my efforts into causes like single payer and Occupy.

In four months the Occupy movement has moved the country farther to the left than the last 10 years of my Democratic volunteer efforts.

Submitted by Alcuin on

When I followed your link to the article, the first thing that jumped out at me was "Social Science Research Council". One of my first posts on Corrente was about the role that liberal foundations play in directing dissent in "appropriate" directions. Joan Roelofs wrote a very important book about this subject, entitled Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism. See if you can't get a copy of this book - it is at least as important as Fresia's book in understanding what is going on these days. One quote from the book: "During the interwar period, socialist theories gradually lost their hold in the academic world. Empirical social science, fostered by the foundation-created Social Science Research Council and the Rockefeller-founded University of Chicago, became the conventional wisdom." (p.29)

I wouldn't believe anything that anyone who writes under the banner of the SSRC puts on paper. The SSRC is an establishment and liberal gate-keeper. Smith is a shill for the establishment.

There are still 9 months to go before the elections. I suspect that the Green Party will play a much more important role than people suspect. Don't be surprised if a lot of the energy in the Occupy movement shifts in the direction of the Green Party.

Submitted by MontanaMaven on

I'm just glad that I can start to smell a rat without even knowing the history of the SSRC. Finally getting my critical thinking cap firmly screwed on my head. I think Adam Curtis writes about the foundation scams on left and right. Heritage and Think Progress are propagandists for the status quo. I'll try to find Roelofs' book. Fresia was depressing but very very helpful. Now when I hear even a good lefty like Mike Feder talk about the wonderful Founders who would oppose corporate power, I look askance at the radio and yell, "But, but, but the Founders were elitists and took power away from the Confederation. Don't you know that?" The Founders, like this Smith dude, thought that our betters need to run things.

Submitted by Alcuin on

Not being familiar with Adam Curtis, I looked him up. I started watching his video on You Tube, The Trap, part 1. I got as far as the mention of Freiderich von Hayek and stopped right there. The hero of Austrian economics? I then did a little bit more research, fortunately, because I was thinking that Curtis was a proponent of Austrian economics. But I thought, that can't be, MM wouldn't mention Curtis if he was a big fan of libertarianism. So I kept on digging and found Curtis's blog, where he outlines what you were referring to, in a post called The Curse of TINA. Of course, he is right, but I'm not sure if he stresses enough that the liberal foundations were set up by men with the same mindset as those who set up the conservative foundations. I've been taken to task for pointing out that liberal foundations are Left gatekeepers. It is obvious to every "progressive" that the right-wing foundations, like Cato and Heritage, are evil, but when it is pointed out that the liberal foundations have issues .... well, that is a horse of a different color! We can't attack icons on our side, after all! I didn't find Freisa depressing at all - I found him to be very liberating. The journey to the truth is a long one and I haven't gotten there yet, but I've made a great deal of progress in the last few years. It is hard to keep balanced - there are so many diversions to tempt us along the way.

Jeff W's picture
Submitted by Jeff W on

People can make up their own minds and watch the film here.

This short parody of Curtis’s work—so dead-on it almost constitutes an homage—is thoroughly enjoyable:

CMike's picture
Submitted by CMike on

The guy's done brilliant work. I'd have thought Curtis couldn't have topped his introductions both to the neoconservative movement and the formative history of al-Qaeda here in Part 1 of his "The Power of Nightmares." But then, his Ayn Rand biography and his explanation of the meltdown of neoliberal economics are two among several astoundingly insightful summations from his more recent three part "All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace" documentary (which is not currently available at YouTube).

Submitted by MontanaMaven on

In that he makes you look at history at another whole angle than what you are used to. Perhaps he makes democracy a "wicked problem". What depresses or saddens me is all the leftists that end up exiled or dead from Emma Goldman to Fred Hampton to all the resistance fighters in Latin America. So yes, I agree, he is very liberating in that he helps us see clearly as the malefactors of great wealth try to use their gazillion smoke and mirrors assaults.

Adam Curtis does the same thing. His BBC documentary "Century of the Self" is the usual starting place for people discovering him. And my post "Is This the Start of the Century of We?" (also titled "What Do They Want?") was attempt to connect the Occupy movement to the century long assault by marketers and propagandists to turn us away from thinking communally. I have the link to "Century of the Self". Prior to Freud's nephew's whole hog marketing schemes, working class people bought what they needed. He made them buy what they thought they desired. Occupy is trying to reverse this.

Jeff W's picture
Submitted by Jeff W on

I have a different view of what he’s saying:

Alternatively, instead of building a new organization, OWS partisans can occupy established progressive organizations like labor unions, think tanks, and so on, and bring the practice of participatory democracy into those organizations.

If I understand Smith correctly, he’s not talking about “wresting control” away from one group and putting it in the hands of another, which is what Thom Hartmann is arguing (i.e., let’s get the Democratic Party controlled by progressives), he’s talking about having something different:

Simply watching through various media as OWS unfolded, it was hard to avoid encountering the radical order embodied by the protesters. When visiting encampments, especially Zucotti, it was hard not to be drawn into this radical order. Many people showed up and then just found themselves caught up in OWS activities. Radical, democratic decision making means that even those at the fringes can easily become involved, invested, and inspired. A few more visits, the simple act of participation in a working group, or just toting flyers back to one’s apartment and then dropping them in the neighborhood—each of these actions can initialize a reconception of oneself as a political agent.

This also occurs during the best union-organizing and community-organizing campaigns.…

He seems to be saying something similar what coyotecreek and lambert are saying: the process itself is transformative—you feel (more) efficacious. He’s not focused on outcomes or results.

The problem, of course, is that “established progressive organizations” (or most other established organizations) aren’t particularly keen to have radical democratic decision-making as their process and don’t want to their members acting as “political agents” on the organizations themselves. Making “process” changes within an organization is probably more difficult than making “substantive” (i.e., policy) changes for many reasons, not the least of which is you have to have a consensus to agree on consensus as a process.

As for his view that Occupy Wall Street is just an “event,” it’s not clear what Smith means by that—but whatever he means, his conception appears to be too narrow. So Occupy did not “transform itself into a standing organization that can systematically generate these sorts of transformations in self-conception” (isn’t that the problem of all “revolutionary movements”?)—that doesn’t mean it collapses into an “event.” The Occupy movement—and I’d say it is that—speaks to some very broad, systemic issues—inequality, government by and for élites, and more—what Matt Taibbi calls

…a visceral, impassioned, deep-seated rejection of the entire direction of our society, a refusal to take even one more step forward into the shallow commercial abyss of phoniness, short-term calculation, withered idealism and intellectual bankruptcy that American mass society has become

—and such issues do not simply go away.

A bit OT: The SSRC might be, as Alcuin says, “an establishment and liberal gate-keeper” but this piece which talks about the lack of demands of Occupy and “the politics of the commons” (which is explained more fully here) doesn’t exactly sound like an establishment/liberal screed. (I’m not sure I agree with it—some, but not all, of what Occupy is drawing our attention constitute wicked problems, ones not susceptible to easy definition, much less “demands”—and it’s not easy reading but I found its discussion of Occupy’s lack of demands and its own idea of using demands to redefine the frame of the debate [my interpretation] interesting.)