Politics as an End in Itself: Occupy Wall Street, Debt and Electoral Politics

Signs at Occupy Portland, November 9, 2011 © Another Believer | Wikimedia Commons

As I observed in my last post, I think that an OWS focus on debt, as Pamela Brown has been advocated, makes a lot of sense. We discussed this in the Wroclaw seminar. I continue to think about that discussion and how it relates to American electoral politics.

The issue of debt provides a way to keep focus on the frustration of the American Dream as it is part of the experience of many Americans, from the poor to the middle class to even the upper middle class. It is an issue of the concern of the 99%.

Yet, there are many activists in and theorists observing the movement who council against this, such as Jodi Dean. Debt is too individualized a problem. It would be better to focus on an issue of greater common, collective concern (e.g. the environment). The issue of debt is too closely connected to the right wing concern about deficits, and criticism of student debt can too easily become a criticism of higher education.

This presents a serious political problem. There is no broad agreement on debt as the central issue, and no leadership structure or decision making process which can decide on priorities. And of course, there are many other issues of contention. Primary among them, in my judgment, is the question of the relationship between OWS and American electoral politics.

It is here where the activists in OWS, like their new “new social movement” colleagues in Egypt and the Arab world more generally, are not prepared for practical politics. Coordinated strategy is beyond their capacity. One faction’s priority, debt or the reelection of President Obama, is not the concern of another’s, or even a position which it is forthrightly against. There are too many different positions within the movement for it to present a coherent sustained position. People with very different positions were able to join with each other and act politically thanks to the new media, but also thanks to that media, they were not required to work out their . . .

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