Occupy Anti-Politics

In my new neighborhood, in Baltimore, “Occupy the Vote: Re-Elect Obama” signs still pepper the landscape. They’re planted in front yards, posted in front windows, positioned on sidewalk strips.

This irks me, to an extent — this wanton appropriation of the Occupy name, used to declare allegiance to a president firmly ensconced in the very neoliberal consensus the movement hoped to dislodge. Yet as much as I find the diction disquieting, its social movement-electoral politics linkage is provocative and pregnant, given Occupy’s missteps.

Last year at this time, the Left was emboldened and highly visible. And now? Occupiers are providing important support to existing struggles and launching their own campaigns. Last week, Sarah Jaffe documented Occupy’s heartening role in the post-Sandy recovery in these pages. But this is all occurring locally, on a relatively small scale.

As Thomas Frank points out in the current issue of the Baffler, the term “the one percent” has been the movement’s only lasting contribution to national politics; a tax code classification morphed into a usefully polarizing pejorative. But that’s it. The way Obama and Romney campaigned, you’d think Occupy never happened.

So what went wrong? Frank is unsparing in his criticism, hitting occupiers for being self-absorbed and self-aggrandizing, more taken by esoteric theorizing than apt to take consequential action. Frank also assembles a rather conventional list of objections to Occupy: its absence of enumerated demands, its consensus model and distaste for structure, its outsized love for building community.

The blows that really land all have a common thread. Each are, at bottom, instances of occupiers’ aversion to politics. This antipathy wasn’t unanimous among the movement’s ranks, but it was pervasive. And it was, along with police repression, one of the key reasons Occupy failed.

Early on, many occupiers, myself included, fretted that established progressive groups and Democratic partisans would try to funnel the élan of Occupy into mainstream politics; the movement would then quickly wither and die. Co-opt: utter the word, and the implicated party was instantly put on the defensive. These worries weren’t entirely born of paranoia, and activists were right to keep a wary eye on the center-left. But the vigilance had the unfortunate tendency of cloistering and marginalizing the movement. Activists customarily viewed anyone connected to electoral politics with suspicion.

And when not a few occupiers averred that the movement was resolutely anti-political, they weren’t being glib — they meant electoral politics, the political process, everything. The world they sought would have no politics, no debased struggles for power. They didn’t just want to democratize power, but eradicate it. In their minds, the encampments were harmonious, experimental sites of prefiguration, a glimpse into the politics-free future. Transforming a stodgy corporate park into a liveable space, they would provide the model.

The desire to foster community and build emotional bonds was well-intentioned and, in small doses, salutary. Developing and maintaining relationships is vitally important to retaining and attracting new people, to building a strong movement. Casual participants are more apt to leave — or limit their involvement — if they lack personal connections to other movement members. Particularly trying junctures are easier to handle if you know your comrades have your back, and vice versa. Facing a phalanx of riot cops becomes disconcerting, not disabling (that is, until they start letting their truncheons fly).

So community is important. Occupiers were wrong, however, when they viewed it as a resounding step towards a more egalitarian, just society.

I remember a beautiful moment this spring. It was a Sunday night in Chicago, the weekend of the Occupy anti-NATO protests. Most everyone was tired after several days of meandering marching. Following a thousands-strong, permitted march earlier in the day, several hundred of us had tried and failed to break through a police line; our chimerical goal was to shut down the conference. Now it was night, and hundreds of us had headed north to the Art Institute, the site of a dinner for NATO leaders’ spouses. Police ringed the building. We could make some noise and mount a sit-in, but little else. Soon, it started pouring. The rain didn’t precipitate despair among the youthful throng, though, but euphoria. There was a street dance party, and then a group hug. A feeling of deep, visceral cohesiveness with my fellow occupiers overcame me. I felt fulfilled. This was, in many ways, Occupy encapsulated.

It was marvelous. And, in retrospect, meaningless.

The one percent is content with the fetishization of feelings, because it poses little threat to their plutocratic power: Build your small, mutual aid communities. We’ll continue our rapacious behavior, unmolested and untouched. We’ll continue to brandish the coercive power of the state, a state that, if so pressured, could pose an existential threat to capitalist power.

Politically, Occupy accomplished little because we were often too wary of acting politically, of making demands on the political system, of acknowledging conflict and structuring our movement accordingly. Many in the movement thought structure carried the patina of the establishment, that demand making would simply serve to legitimize the malevolent state. So we got an amorphous, highly decentralized movement that, after a miraculous flourish in its embryonic stages, tapered off.

This wasn’t the practice of politics. It was an attempt to transcend it.

Joseph Schwartz, a political philosopher at Temple University, argues in his 1995 book The Permanence of the Political that the Left has long had these anti-political inclinations — “either through the stifling solidaristic general will of Rousseau, the spontaneous postscarcity anarchism of Marx’s ‘full communism,’ or the technocratic, scientistic rule of Lenin’s vanguard party.”

Schwartz continues:

 [A]lthough viewed by some as patron saints of “radical democracy,” these theorists did not conceptualize a further democratization of political life but rather the transcendence of politics through the creation of societies characterized by minimal social conflict and universally shared conceptions of the public or human good.

Sound familiar?

Even for those who find the state of American politics repulsive (and I, emphatically, do) the principle, the idea, of politics and the democratic process must be defended. Jaundiced resignation redounds to the benefit of the Right. They relish anti-political cynicism. They oppose concerted collective action, so they harness the sentiment to subvert politics itself. They adopt a sort of aloof, cooler-than-thou detachment from the political arena, a pernicious posture that ineluctably elevates apathy and inaction to the status of beau ideal.

Politics-averse leftists risk falling into the same pattern of passivity and discrediting the necessarily political solutions to our social ills.

What we have in the case of climate change, for example, is both the largest market failure and most daunting collective action problem in human history. The hyper-decentralized, quasi-primitivist solutions popular in some corners of the radical left are laughably inadequate or execrably anti-humanist. The antidote to a collective problem is collective action. So too with issues of inequality, poverty, and imperialism.

Acting politically means confronting power, not side-stepping it. It means reshaping existing institutions, not just building alternative ones. It means directly and indirectly engaging the state, not cocooning oneself from it.

Even as we on the democratic left offer impassioned critiques of our political system we mustn’t eschew politics. We’ve already seen what that can do to our most promising social movements.