Are the Occupy protests composed of douchey hipsters, professional activist types, and hard-left outcasts who have such a core sense of self-righteous self-importance that they have a contempt for the people whose petty lives inhibit their own participation? I was thinking about this as I was sitting in the crowd at a Columbia University lecture hall for the Jacobin and Dissent magazines OWS panel discussion, scanning the room and feeling customarily insecure. Sometimes I think I want to believe the worst about protesters because it would exempt me from having to do more. Other times, though, I am nearly persuaded by arguments like this one from Julian Sanchez and this one from Will Wilkinson that, as Wilkinson puts it, “the Occupy movement fails to take pluralism seriously.” That is, a “self-selecting community” of protesters by and large arrogantly and myopically believes that everyone in their right mind agrees with its methods and its message, so it doesn’t acknowledge the need for persuading those who don’t enter into their orbit. This leads to tactics that alienate the real people out there, the ones who show up in polling figures, who live outside urban centers. I start to worry about being one of the myopic people, not being real.
One of the key narratives about the Occupy movement is its effective framing: We are the 99%, regardless of whatever else we are. But sometimes the cynicism creeps in and I wonder if that’s merely a sham, masking a different sort of cultural identity politics.
None of the speakers on the Jacobin/Dissent panel talked directly about any of this. The absence of theory from the discussion had me daydreaming, though, about protest as means for reshaping subjectivity and laying the groundwork for lasting social change. If capitalism produces the sort of subjectivity that allows it to perpetuate itself — if we learn to become selves and fulfill ourselves only by adopting capitalism’s incentive scheme — then resistance must ultimately be a matter of disrupting that subjectivity and creating a time-space where a different kind of subjectivity can be fostered. It seems to me that this is what the Occupy protests must do long-term, or else they are more or less irrelevant. All they would do is readjust the distribution created by an inherently unjust and stress-producing system. Workers would still bear disproportionate social risks and absorb the stress and dissonance of capitalism’s contradictions in their own psychology; in other words, we’ll still be precarious and depressed.
But while the protests must be about reshaping subjectivity, they must not be about policing authenticity. The spaces of protest are not about generating a more genuine or more laudable individual identity. That is the pitfall of green consumerism or personal boycotts or other heroic stances that always resolve into one’s having improved one’s own cultural capital in some way without making much of a difference in the operation of the world. In fact, there’s some incentive in hoping the world continues to be bad and wrong so that one’s own gestures stand out as courageous and valuable. But even if there were a virtuous cycle of oneupmanship in terms of good deeds (“everyone drives a Prius, so now I need to go one step further and put solar panels on my roof”), the underlying structure of competitive individualism, so vital to capitalism, would be preserved, and along with it all the exploitation and Hobbesean mutual suspicion it justifies. It becomes easy to mistake winning status as virtue, an elision capitalism counts on for its ideological hegemony.
So the protests can’t be about maintaining some sense of what a genuine protester should look like, which means participants can’t get derailed into worrying about whether or not the protests are being hipsterized. Maybe only people like me actually worry about this, because hipsterism and the attention mongering and myopic behavior that goes along with it does seem alienating and off-putting. But I am prone to fall into such traps myself, engaging in zero-sum protection of the cultural capital it requires to pronounce someone else as inauthentic or narcissistic. What accusations of hipsterism or inauthenticity often amount to are pleas to preserve the private ownership of a resource — identity — that could be held in common.
I don’t think I am saying anything new here, but since no one was saying anything like it at the panel, I thought I should. The protests offer an opportunity not merely for organizing electorally but for allowing for a new kind of subject to emerge, one that is collective in character and can exist comfortably in parallel with a private, individual self. Capitalism, particularly with its current emphasis of media and communications as a source of profit, prompts us to regard the public and private self as the same individualistic identity, negating the space for a civic persona. (This is Richard Sennett’s argument in Fall of Public Man.) Protest can allow for a public persona to be reclaimed through the process of struggle, which then becomes not a hardship or an ascetic procedure of self-effacement but a source of deep pleasure — this is why unlikely people report being energized by General Assemblies, when in the abstract they sound like tedious nightmares. The process becomes constitutive of a civic, collective self, which is liberating — it allows the private self to go private again, releasing us from the anxieties of ostentatious displays of identity. That means the use of social media is liberated from the personal-brand-building bullshit and becomes more about transmissions that orchestrate solidarity among politically engaged groups. In a sense, the personal ceases to be political; everyday life in public begins to be lived in a civic space rather than a commercial one, and private everyday life ideally starts to escape exploitative capture.
So the aim of the protests, I think, should be to permit the personal brand to be crowded off the stage by the return or emergence of a collective, civic subjectivity held in common and in parallel to a private self whose economic significance as a “prosumer” begins to be dismantled or more thoroughly anonymized. Paradoxically enough, I hope these highly public and publicized protests are actually about the recreation of privacy.