A Flying Seminar and Additional Reflections on the GOP, BHO and OWS

Occupy Wall Street reminds my friend, colleague, and frequent “co-conspirator,” Elzbieta Matynia, and me of our long term engagement in the democratic opposition and alternative cultural movements in East and Central Europe. There and then, we coordinated an international seminar, before and after 1989, between scholars and activists, concerning the theoretical and practical problems of democracy, “The Democracy Seminar.” As we observe Occupy Wall Street with a great deal of interest, appreciation and in support, we are moved to act.

We therefore have proposed to The New School community and the activists in OWS the creation of a new seminar, as a place for mutual learning and discussion that can inform action, The Flying Seminar (the name inspired by a dissident academic program during the late 70s and 80s in Poland). The idea came out of an informal chat with one of OWS’ outreach people at Zuccotti Park.  Tomorrow at 3:00 pm, we will have a planning meeting and a first conversation, as part of an Occupy Wall Street Teach In at The New School.

We propose to organize a series of portable conversations with key participants and dedicated observers in various movements and actions in the United States and beyond, which could help to crystallize the differences and parallels between projects of resistance then and now.  We had in mind, for example, the Civil Rights Movement , SDS, the 1968 movements in Europe, the second wave feminist movement in the States, the Solidarity Movement in Poland, The Anti-Apartheid Movement in South Africa (its peaceful and its militant side), the Green Revolution in Iran, and the Arab Spring.  Our goal will be to facilitate discussion about movements past, from here and elsewhere, as a way of guiding the future of movements present. The hope is that this discussion could help address the key question of what is to be done now.

We agree with many of our colleagues, along with our university president, David Van Zandt, that the New School should be an active part of and site for the OWS. Using our specific resources, and in recognition of the special horizontal, open-ended character of the movement, and its fresh language for opposing the status quo, we hope to make our modest contribution. The exact form the seminar will take, and its specific ends, will be determined by those who participate. Our hope, though, is that it will be a place of collective learning that will facilitate common actions, making them more visible, in New York and far beyond.

A few additional thoughts concerning yesterday’s post on the Republicans, Obama and Occupy Wall Street: I asserted that the Obama makes sense, while the Republicans don’t. I had in mind specifically the contrast to the situation in the early 80s. While I strongly opposed the “Reagan revolution,” I knew that it made sense to Americans. They agreed with the idea that government was the problem not the solution as they reflected upon the inefficiencies of the welfare state. The challenge for progressives then was to present an equally compelling opposing story. They failed. Now things are reversed. Even though the Tea Party somehow managed to gain significant and passionate support, the idea that the Great Recession has been caused by government regulations is not compelling to most Americans. Occupy Wall Street suggests a much more sensible diagnosis of our times and has successfully changed the conversation, as Paul Krugman also underscored today. Obama’s account makes sense in this environment. It is for this reason that I think my prediction that Obama will not only win the election, but it will actually make a big difference in the way the American ship of state navigates through rough waters, is not premature as Scott suggested in his comment to yesterday’s piece.

The question of Obama’s chances has been discussed extensively on my facebook page in response to yesterday’s post. Let me underscore, I think because of the Republican disarray, which has to do with the weakness of the specific candidates, but, crucially beyond personalities,  also with their nonsensical positions, not only improves Obama’s chances, but also Democratic candidates for the Senate and the House. And, in my judgment the long term significance of the OWS is that those who are elected are going to be pushed to address concerns centered on jobs and the problem of gross inequality in America.

On a different kind of interpretation from afar: I received an interesting response to yesterday’s post from Daniel Dayan in an email message. It was a theoretical and not a political response, which I appreciated. He noted:

“The ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement has much more echo around the world than the largely undecipherable ‘Tea Party Movement.’ I like both the ample political landscape you describe, and the theoretical gestures you use, including: (1) (thanks!) ‘monstration,’ (2) the role of sacred, or symbolic, space as one of amplifying small gestures into world gestures, whispers into cries, and (3) Arendt’s ‘lost treasure’ of revolutionary engagement….I am intrigued by your view of certain spaces as microphones. This adds a new twist to Turner.”

Dayan and I are fascinated by how the politics of small things, the sacred, monstration (the problem of showing) and visibility in the new media landscape, and the reinvention of political culture (my way of putting it) are now developing. My post and his response encapsulate where our conversation is now and where possible joint research is going. Our task will be to understand the way politics and media relate. This is an important scholarly problem, but also a pressing practical one, which I hope will be investigated in the Flying Seminar.

  • Lisa

    first, I love the title. I have just been doing gallery work with the former head of creative at Y&R and she comes up with titles like that— they pop. Second, the connection of OWS to the rest of the world is interesting and profound and I think you are right to share your friend’s email and observation. The rest of the world cannot relate to The Tea Party— I have never been sure how to explain them—- to non-Americans. They hit the right note for a few weeks and then veered into some odd composition of anti-gay, anti-women, pro-family (who is anti-family) and pro-guns. Third, I am not as sure as you are—- but you know this—- that the Republicans contenders won’t appeal to many Americans. Romney may only look good by comparison but he still has support that cannot be ignored. And I am growing more and more cynical about racism—- and the reaction against Obama— yes, everything he proposes, they slam. I wish we could make him king for a day and he could just push the right things through (not kidding).

    All of the above said, I agree that OWS is like the political avant-garde. They are in the process of framing the discourse for the future and we will all catch up. They are angry at the right people and they are talking about the right thing: jobs.

    As an aside, I know foreign policy will not be a focus of the election but there is so much going on—- it would be interesting to hear some real talk/debate about the continually evolving Arab Spring.