“What Now?” — The Question Haunting the #Occupy Movement

Protestors assembled in New York

by Ross Wolfe

The remarkable success of the #Occupy phenomenon to date — in terms of its sheer scope and longevity — has caught nearly everyone by surprise.

Since the demonstrations first began last month in Liberty Plaza, deep in the heart of New York City’s financial district, Occupy Wall Street has achieved a number of unexpected victories.  It has received a lot of media coverage, captured the public imagination, and enlisted the support of a number of different forces: prominent leftish celebrities (Michael Moore, Cornel West, Naomi Klein, Susan Sarandon, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, etc.), prominent unions (SEIU, AFL-CIO, AFSCME, and others), as well as young activists who are new to politics.  Moreover, it has spawned a series of similar protests across many major cities in North America and abroad, generating a truly international buzz.  A week ago, the protestors at Zuccotti Park successfully stood their ground against Mayor Bloomberg’s attempt to forcibly evict them — under the dubious pretext of sanitation.

Cardboard signs at Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park

But this victory can by no means be considered final.  Rather, it has tasked the protestors with the following, foundational question: “What now?”

If this successful moment of resistance against the coercion of the State is to signal a turning point for this movement, it must begin to address the more serious political issues that confront it.  It is crucial that the participants in these demonstrations ask themselves where they stand in history, and more adequately conceptualize the problem of capitalist society.  Only then can it begin to articulate a political vision of global emancipation.

To this point, most of the participants in the various cities under “occupation” have only expressed a sort of intuitive discontent with the status quo.  In order to get a better sense of what they are up against, they must develop a more comprehensive understanding and critique of the prevailing social order.  This, in turn, will require that the protestors take time to theoretically reflect on the #Occupy movement’s trajectory, thereby determining its political potentialities, its practical exigencies, and the path that it will ultimately take moving forward.

Without such reflection, the demonstrations will degenerate into the political malaise and ineffectuality that has characterized so much of the protest culture of the last fifty years — meaningless gestures of dissent, empty theatrical displays, and directionless activism-for-its-own-sake (l’activisme pour l’activisme).  Over the last half-century, theory and practice have become decoupled to the detriment of both.  On one side, “radical” academic discourse has detached itself almost entirely from the realm of politics, while on the other side activism has become increasingly routine, unreflective, and anti-intellectual.  Most career academics dread the empirical messiness on-the-ground political engagement; most committed activists, for their part, avoid at any cost the so-called “paralysis of analysis.”

"Anonymous" protestors at Occupy Wall Street

Up to now, the participants in the #Occupy movement have managed to organize impressive resources for their daily needs: legal services, a first-aid station, sleeping arrangements, food supplies, defense against police brutality, and a consistent media presence.  The satisfaction of these requirements has doubtless been essential to the endurance of the movement.  However, these pragmatic concerns have so far taken precedent over the discussion of long-term political goals.  The broader question of where the movement is going from here tends to get lost amidst administrative details.

In some respect, the main organizers of these demonstrations have — in a rather studied manner — even actively avoided posing this crucial question.  They raise the specter that this will lead to the inevitable fragmentation of the movement, and warn that reflection on the political content of the protests or formulating specific demands might prove divisive.  Until they pause to think of the shape the movement must take from here, however, #Occupy risks being assimilated to the Democratic Party apparatus — harmlessly reintegrated into the social totality of “business as usual.”

I originally wrote this article for the Euro-Mediterranean Academy for Young Journalists (EMAJ).  They have published this article here.

Regressive activism at the recent Toronto G-20 conference

An excellent piece by Ashley Weger of Platypus provides a desperately-needed critical reexamination of the latest round of anti-globalization protests, which took place at the G-20 Conference in Toronto a couple months ago.  Unsurprisingly, the same predictable scenario of spectacular, ineffectual “resistance” played itself out there yet again.  In some ways, it’s a continuation of conventions established by ’60s and ’70s radicalism.  The newer element, noted by Weger in her article, is the peculiar hodgepodge of unrelated and even contradictory tendencies within the Left that have shown up at these events ever since they were first held back in 1999.  Any notion of a common goal toward which these disparate groups are working, under which they are united, is, however, completely lost on the protesters.  Their “courageous” acts of defiance and non-conformity all too often amount to nothing more than empty displays of a vague, generalized discontent with the status quo, however inadequately they understand it.

Whether or not the riots were provoked by undercover police agents posing as Black Bloc members is irrelevant to an investigation of the fundamental premises of the G-20 marches.  This is so no matter what the excesses committed by the police might have been, since these are matters of purely legal and ethical consideration.  Though many of the accusations of police brutality against innocent protestors might be well-founded, this does not in any way retroactively justify their tactics, goals, and antics.

The characteristics exhibited by the demonstrations in Toronto in late June are nearly all symptomatic of what Theodor Adorno termed “actionism” in his “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis” and in his final published essay, “Resignation” (1968).  His evaluation of this phenomenon was as follows:

Actionism is regressive.  Under the spell of the positivity that long ago became part of the armature of ego-weakness, it refuses to reflect upon its own impotence.

Adorno was here responding to the new wave of mass social activism that was first beginning to emerge in the 1960s, culminating in the widespread protests, demonstrations, and university takeovers of 1968.  When he expressed his misgivings about these protests, Adorno was accused of turning his back on the students’ revolutionary struggle.  To this he responded:

We older representatives of that for which the name Frankfurt School has established itself have recently had the reproach of resignation leveled against us. We had, it is stated, developed elements of a critical theory of society, but we were not prepared to draw the practical consequences from this theory. The objection raised against us be states approximately in these words: a person who in the present hour doubts the possibility of radical change in society and who for that reason neither takes part in nor recommends spectacular, violent action is guilty of resignation. Thinking activists [claim]: among the things to be changed is that very separation of theory and praxis. The trouble with this view is that it results in the prohibition of thinking. The often-evoked unity of theory and praxis has a tendency to give way to the predominance of praxis. Today…one clings to action because of the impossibility of action.

At the present point no higher form of society is concretely visible: for that reason, anything that seems in reach is regressive. The Utopian impulse in thinking is all the stronger, the less it objectifies itself as Utopia whereby it sabotages its own realization.

Repressive intolerance toward a thought not immediately accompanied by instructions for action is founded in fear. Thought, enlightenment conscious of itself, threatens to disenchant pseudo-reality within which activism moves. This activism is tolerated only because it is viewed as pseudo-activity. Only thinking could offer an escape. It is the responsibility of thought not to accept the situation as finite. If there is any chance of changing the situation, it is only through undiminished insight.

Adorno witnessed the anti-intellectualism of popular protest movements firsthand.  This character of unthinking has been more recently addressed by Liza Featherstone, Doug Henwood, and Christian Parenti, in their 2003 article “Action Will be Taken”, written in the context of the (now largely forgotten) antiwar movement.  Activists and protesters, they observed, would rather not “get bogged down in analysis.”  Featherstone, Henwood, and Parenti thus asked: “So over all is the activist left just an inchoate, ‘post-ideological’ mass of do-gooders, pragmatists, and puppeteers?” To which they promptly answered:

No.  The young troublemakers of today do have an ideology and it is as deeply felt and intellectually totalizing as any of the great belief systems of yore.  The cadres who populate those endless meetings, who bang the drum, who lead the “trainings” and paint the puppets, do indeed have a creed.  They are Activismists.

That’s right, Activismists.  This brave new ideology combines the political illiteracy of hyper-mediated American culture with all the moral zeal of a nineteenth century temperance crusade.  In this worldview, all roads lead to more activism and more activists.  And the one who acts is righteous.

Those who participate in events such as the recent G-20 protests often leave with the sense of smug self-satisfaction that comes from knowing that they have “done their part” in order to somehow “make a difference” in the world.  The danger for the Left is not police repression, but rather its own thoughtlessness.  Or, as Weger puts it, in a magnificent line: “[the current crisis for the Left is] not a rain of rubber bullets aimed at it, but the perverse, perennial celebration of its own comatose state.”