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 . . .

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

Politics as an End in Itself: The Arab Spring and The Creation of Independent Publics

Young people turn out en masse to lobby for a role in Morocco's future, Casabalanca, May 2011. © Magharebia | Flickr

Social movements create publics. They make it possible for people to express and act on their common concerns together. This creativity of movements has not fully appreciated. It has a long history, and it is also a key characteristic of the new “new social movements.” We discussed this in the Wroclaw seminar, moving from history to the study of the movements of our times.

Our discussion reminded me of the work of one of my former students, Angela Jones. Her dissertation, now a book, is on the Niagara Movement, which preceded the NAACP. The movement established the first national forum for the discussion of African American concerns by African Americans. Until very recently, it has been viewed as little more than a footnote in the career of W.E.B. Dubois. Jones’s work fills in a gap in history, the first fully developed study of this early episode in the long civil rights struggle. The gap existed because of the insufficient understanding of the importance of creating free public interaction in social movements.

In the democratic opposition to Communist regimes, specifically in Poland, the goal of establishing independent publics was not overlooked. In fact, for quite a while, it was the major end of the social struggle. The constitution of a free public space for discussion and action became the primary end of underground Solidarność in the 1980s. Because the regime couldn’t be successfully challenged, the end became to constitute a zone beyond its control. The end was for individual and collective dignity, to create an area where one could express oneself, appear outside of official definition, consolidate agreement among diverse participants in an autonomous public, which could be applied at an appropriate moment. The goal was to engage in a long cultural march, as Adam Michnik put it in a 1976 classic essay, “The New Evolutionism.”

In the new “new social movements,” this movement feature has been cultivated in a new political, generational and media environment. New media forms . . .

Read more: Politics as an End in Itself: The Arab Spring and The Creation of Independent Publics

OWS and the Arab Spring: The New “New Social Movements”

NNSM (New New Social Movements) © Naomi Gruson Goldfarb

I am preparing my class on the new “new social movements” this week. I will be giving it at The New School’s Democracy and Diversity Institute in Wroclaw, Poland in July. I am excited and challenged about the course, happy to be returning to our institute, which has a long history, related to the topic of my class. The seminar, also, will be an attempt to thoroughly address the complex issues in my May Day post.

In that post I noted the media obstacles OWS faced on May 1st. Neither the serious, nor the sensational media portrayed a meaningful popular demonstration, a national commemoration of May Day demanding social justice. While some might see this as a kind of conspiracy, I, as a matter of principle, don’t, or rather won’t until I consider alternative explanations. In the summer seminar, I hope to explore the alternatives with an international student body. Here’s an overview, which is informing my preparation.

Social movements have generally been understood in two ways. They have been seen as non-institutional means of a group of people to pursue their common interests and achieve their shared goals. The traditional archetype for this is the labor movement. Alternatively, social movements have been seen as not only interest focused, but as well, and perhaps more importantly, as non-institutional means for the formation of a group with common identities, concerned with supporting the identities and acting upon them. Civil rights movements, the women, lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender movements, environmental movements and the like, are understood as being newer kinds of movements, “new social movements.” To tell the truth, I never quite understood why the new social movements were considered new. They, like labor movements, emerged in the nineteenth century. They, like the traditional movements, pursue interests. And the traditional movements, like the new ones, are about identity. Yet, I know this is not central. Rather we need to note that new and old movements are not only about the pursuit of interests. Movements are important ends in themselves for the people who create and . . .

Read more: OWS and the Arab Spring: The New “New Social Movements”

Media Conspiracy? May Day, The New York Times and Fox

Transit workers demonstrating on May Day, NYC, 2012 © The Eyes of New York | Flickr

Last week, while observing the nationwide strike on May Day, and also the performance of a sociology student from The New School on Fox News a couple of days later, I wondered about the possibilities and obstacles of reinventing political culture. I was impressed that there was a significant attempt to bring May Day home, and also impressed by powerful media resistance to significant change in our political life.

May Day is celebrated around the world as Labor Day, everywhere, that is, except where it all began, the United States. The holiday commemorates the 1886 Haymarket Affair in Chicago and the struggle for decent working conditions and the eight-hour workday. It is an official holiday in over eighty countries, recognized in even more. Yet, until this year, it has been all but ignored in the U.S., except by those far to the left of the political mainstream. Thus, the calls by people associated with Occupy Wall Street for a nationwide general strike was notable, and it was quite striking that there were nationwide demonstrations including many in New York, capped by a large a mass demonstration at Union Square Park, right near my office. Not only leftists were there. Mainstream labor unions were as well. In many ways, I found the gathering to be as impressive as the ones I saw in Zuccotti Park last fall. Yet, it did not attract serious mass media attention.

The New York Times was typical. It had a careful article on May Day in Moscow, but reported the American actions as a local story, focused on minor violence, arrests and traffic disruptions.

The events’ significance did not reach beyond those who immediately were involved or who were already committed to its purpose through social media. Where OWS broke through to a broad public in its initial demonstrations downtown in the Fall, it failed to do so on May Day in demonstrations that were both large and inventive. Beyond the violence of the fringe of those involved in the movement and the . . .

Read more: Media Conspiracy? May Day, The New York Times and Fox

The OWS Think Tank: Then and Now

The People's Think Tank logo © www.nycga.net/groups/think-tank/

In early October a “Think Tank” sprung up in Occupied Zuccotti Park – Liberty Square. This wasn’t the average think tank; there were no wealthy private donors, no agenda driven research topics, and not a cushy chair or mahogany desk to be found. We had a blanket and eventually a carpet, some signage that we’d rummaged up from stray things left about in the park, and a small space that had to be reclaimed/cleared and cleaned every day for our 12pm start. This was nothing like the pristine halls of the Brookings Institute.

What we did have, though, were ideas and a seemingly endless number of people excited about them. Random passers-by, stalwarts of the occupation, lunchtime bankers, after-work social workers, they were all present, and all had a voice. We talked about race relations, corporate personhood, OWS finances, whether this new world of Liberty Park could ever be anything but a microcosm of the larger society as a whole. Anything was up for discussion, and there was always something to talk about, something to listen to, and always a way to feel engaged in the new revolutionary dialog that had been sprouting up all over the country and world.

Unlike a typical think tank, the People’s Think Tank became an institution organically. We didn’t sign a corporate charter, file any legal registration papers with the state, or even hire any academics (they came organically as well). We handed in a piece of paper with our email addresses on it, a paragraph about what our working group would be, and just simply sat back and let the energy of the people involved in the occupy movement take us wherever it did. It didn’t take long before the Think Tank was a fixture in the park, a place where many were introduced to Occupy, its topics, and its horizontal discussions, dialog, and discourse.

The Think Tank has changed mightily today. It is no longer fixated . . .

Read more: The OWS Think Tank: Then and Now

OWS at Six Months: Reflections on the Winter Occupation

Banner made for May Day © March 17, 2012, Christopher Brown

Occupy’s six-month birthday celebration last Saturday at Zuccotti Park was first spent in celebration: the scene was joyous with friends reuniting after winter hibernation. “Spring training” regimes were conducted. The drum circle was back, and mic checks once again created a collective voice.

But when protestors undertook a spontaneous, albeit brief, reoccupation, they were met with the most violent and unrestrained NYC police force to date. MTA buses were commandeered and over seventy arrests were made. The significance and power of the park was clear once again.

Police violence was immediately challenged with solidarity marches in New York and throughout the country on Sunday. In spite of a winter predicting our demise, Occupy is alive again this spring. Not that we were ever really dead, but since the cops evicted Zuccotti the first time last fall, OWS has been struggling to find a way of staying meaningful without the spectacle of the park. Liberty Park offered a sense of commonality, a point of access, and a feeling of empowerment that has been difficult to replicate.

In fact, as the winter approached, the occupation had already started to weaken. Social problems appeared within the park. The influx of those bearing the stigmas of long-term homelessness, substance abuse and mental illness had already created divisions, cutting across the usual lines of class, race and “mental status.” Neighborhoods and maps developed to segregate social groups, restricting movement within what was established and claimed as a space of “openness.” Just after the fall storm, a woman pushed past me rushing from one side of the park to the other, and I heard her say to a friend, “Oh noooo, we don’t want to get caught in that part of the ‘hood.’ ” That comment stuck.

Many of us felt relieved that the police closed the park – that the occupation went out with a bang, rather than slowly disintegrating in front of an increasingly disinterested television audience, suggesting the movement’s ideals as being fundamentally in conflict to the wider public.

Nonetheless, the movement did continue. The loss of the park . . .

Read more: OWS at Six Months: Reflections on the Winter Occupation

Between Radical Hopes and Practical Projects: Reflections on the Flying Seminar Session with Bill Zimmerman

Bill Zimmerman speaking at "The Flying Seminar" at The New School, Dec. 3, 2011. © blogs.newschool.edu/tcds

Monday morning, I took a bit of a break from my plan for the day. I decided my class preparation and work on some overdue papers would wait. After I replied to Corey Robin’s response to a critical passing comment I made about his book, The Reactionary Mind, on Facebook, I put off until later in the week my search for interesting conservative intellectuals. I decided to ignore the Republican madness, and not worry about the ups and downs in the upcoming Presidential race, and didn’t read the reports on the Super Bowl (the annual sports media event that I usually ignore but did tweak my interest this year, New Yorker that I am). Instead, I opened my computer and watched the video of the Flying Seminar meeting with Bill Zimmerman (which I missed because I was at that time at a conference in Sofia). It was a particularly interesting meeting, very nicely captured in the video (thank you Lisa Lipscomb). I entered a different world, beyond the mundane, considering the connection between radical hopes and practical projects.

This is what the Flying Seminar is. Recall, Elzbieta Matynia and I developed the Flying Seminar in response to Occupy Wall Street. OWS reminded us of our days observing and participating in the Solidarity (Solidarność) movement in Poland, and the great independent academic project of Solidarity times, the Flying University of the Polish underground. We started with a meeting with activists in Shiroto no Ran (Amateur Revolt), a counter-cultural anti- nuclear movement which came to take part in the occupation of Zuccotti Park. We then arranged a meeting with Adam Michnik, the outstanding Polish critical intellectual and political activist, who also visited the Park. Our third meeting was with Zimmerman, an old New Leftist (it takes one to know one), author of the recent book, Troublemaker: A Memoir From the Front Lines of the Sixties. Last month, after a technical delay, we posted the video recording of that meeting.

The seminar . . .

Read more: Between Radical Hopes and Practical Projects: Reflections on the Flying Seminar Session with Bill Zimmerman

Mayor Bloomberg versus Occupy Wall Street

Mayor Michael Bloomberg © Rubentstein | Flickr

“Protestors have had two months to occupy the park with tents and sleeping bags. Now they will have to occupy the space with the power of their arguments.” -M. Bloomberg

I find this to be the most interesting component of Bloomberg’s statement today. On its face, it appears to be an appeal to the virtues of public discussion and critical public debate. Bloomberg suggests that if the Occupy Wall Street movement is in possession of the most truthful account of our current collective predicament, then it will be proven in the so called marketplace of ideas.

Yet, in my judgment, Bloomberg’s appeal to the tenets of deliberative democracy is nothing more than cynical, and, in fact, a strategic attempt to silence protest and squash democracy. At the forefront of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement is a critique of the inequality of voice within the public sphere. The kinds of arguments members of the political elite, such as Bloomberg, are even capable of hearing is precisely what is at issue. Take, for example, Bloomberg’s recent critique of the association of Wall Street Bankers with the 2008 economic collapse. Bloomberg blames the collapse on government housing policy that encouraged the expansion of the home owning class in the United States. In Bloomberg’s mind, the federal government put pressure on lenders to lend to unqualified borrowers. Yet, as Michael Powell of the New York Times points out, all available evidence proves this argument to be baseless. Bloomberg cannot even imagine that Wall Street banks could possibly be at fault for the great ongoing economic calamity we are all suffering through.

A fundamental critical point of OWS is that political elites have difficulty even hearing certain kinds of arguments. The fact that the elite commentators and politicians continuously prove their myopia by misunderstanding the basic structure and symbolics of OWS movement demonstrates the movement’s ongoing critical importance. Some, such as the Times’ David Brooks, acknowledge that the OWS movement has successfully “changed the conversation,” but they still decry the movement’s lack of leadership and what they perceive to be . . .

Read more: Mayor Bloomberg versus Occupy Wall Street

The Clear, Present and Positive Goals of Occupy Wall Street

Occupy Wall St. Think Tank topic for the day "The Role of Spirituality in Social Movements", Day 50, Nov. 5, 2011 © David Shankbone | Flickr

What do these people want? What are they advocating? In the opinion of many, including Gary Alan Fine in his last post, it is easy to discern what OWS is against, but unclear what they are for. They know how to say no, he knows, but he wonders if they can say yes. He thinks this both about OWS and The Tea Party, as a detached but sympathetic observer of both.

Looking at OWS up close, taking part in a small but significant activity, I think the positive commitments of OWS are actually quite clear, and in marked contrast to The Tea Party. As I maintained in The Politics of Small Things, the democracy is in the details. I had an opportunity to look at some details in a corner of Zuccotti Park, joining the OWS Think Tank.

Many of the OWS activists who have taken part in The Flying Seminar sessions are active in the Think Tank. We started working together at The New School teach in. They have been among the active members of the seminar. I have visited them a couple of times in Zuccotti Park, and earlier this week, on Monday, I joined them in their work there. It was an illuminating afternoon.

From noon to 6:00, the Think Tank conducts discussion sessions of a special sort on a variety of topics.  Many different people facilitate the discussions. I responded to an email call for help and volunteered to do my part. The workshop topics range from the quite general, to the immediate and practical. They hope to inform decision-making in the park and to further understanding of problems of broad public concern, and even contribute to the formulation of policy positions and recommendations. It’s one of the spaces where the big questions about the occupation are being answered in daily practice, a striking case of the politics of small things. It confirmed for me that in politics the means are a significant part of . . .

Read more: The Clear, Present and Positive Goals of Occupy Wall Street

Toward Sustainable Occupations by Amateurs: Reflections on the OWS – Shiroto no Ran Flying Seminar

OWS meets Shiroto no Ran at The Flying Seminar at The New School, Oct. 25, 2011 © Kei Nakagawa

Contingency is of the essence for creativity. The Flying Seminar session with members from Shiroto no Ran (Amateur Revolt), an anti-nuclear and counter cultural social movement group from Japan, and Occupy Wall Street, I think, was not an exception. What started as a rash decision by the Shiroto no Ran to come to New York to show their support to the OWS protest and to experience the heart of the occupation first-hand took an unplanned change after a chance meeting. Through a New School effort to create the time and space for deeper and meaningful dialogue, a valuable Japanese – American encounter occurred.

I heard the news about Shiroto no Ran’s visit just a day before their arrival. During their short stay at the Liberty Square, we met and talked about OWS. From our conversations, I began to realize how difficult it was for them to actually get the opportunity to really meet and get to know the people who are most engaged in the OWS movement. The activists in Zuccotti Park were too busy and things were changing too rapidly there. I realized that there was a need for creating a space that would facilitate a dialogue between these two groups of activists. A teach-in session organized by two New School professors, Jeffrey Goldfarb and Elzbieta Matynia, not only opened a door of opportunity, but also gave a concrete structure to my vague idea. From listening to their ideas about the Flying Seminar, I realized that we could have a serious conversation between these movements from different cultures. Just two days after I proposed the event, we all met, and my sense that it could be worthwhile, proved to be correct.

As a participant in both movements, I see my contribution in creating a space for dialogue as a modest one. But on the other hand, as a researcher who is working on the Japanese 1968 movement from a transnational perspective, I am especially interested. I am fascinated how such a dialogue is now possible . . .

Read more: Toward Sustainable Occupations by Amateurs: Reflections on the OWS – Shiroto no Ran Flying Seminar