Occupy Wall Street in context

Here is a really interesting analysis of the participants and supporters in the Occupy movement, by Ruth Milkman, Stephanie Luce and Penny Lewis, providing both sociological and historical context: Changing the Subject: A Bottom-Up Account of Occupy Wall Street in New York City.

Theda Skocpol interview

Interview with Skocpol at Juncture, the IPPR’s journal, on the Tea Party, Occupy, health care, 2012 Presidential election, the importance of organisation, and other things. A taster:

“The lesson looking back over the modern history of democracies is that a crisis itself doesn’t create the response: a crisis simply create an opportunity for the well-prepared. History also shows that whatever forces and ideas were in play going into a crisis usually get either intensified or are often successfully adapted during that crisis. The crisis struck in 2008 after a long period of decline of the labour unions, particularly in the private sector, and a long period of intellectual hegemony for free market ideas and the idea that government stands in the way of economic recovery and progress. So it was very difficult to assemble a popular organised coalition that could suddenly present an alternative to the solutions that were being suggested by the financiers who created the crisis in the first place. Essentially, the failure of left forces in many countries to build broad coalitions with democratic roots over time really meant that they weren’t in a position to do that much.”

Where can I find real democracy?

Simon Critchley has a short piece in The Guardian today, on the lessons and future of the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring. It argues that these events show us that ‘true politics’ involves two things – ‘a demand that flows from the perception of injustice’; and ‘a location where that demand is articulated’. There is, he concludes, therefore ‘no poitics without location’.

I’m interested in this sort of argument, and its appeal to these contemporary events, because they resonate with some of my own intellectual predispositions, yet I find something troubling about them (I’ve been trying to express some of the worries while e-chatting recently with Mark Purcell at Paths to the Possible about some of these things). I like the idea that politics, of the sort we like at least, democratic-y politics of a more or less radical sort, arises from a ‘felt sense of injustice’ as Honneth puts it somewhere, and have been trying to write about this idea and how it might be used to think about the relationships between democracy, place and space. So I keep writing papers which have titles like ‘locating democracy’, but the point of them is that actually (democractic) politics doesn’t have a location at all, it’s dispersed across different spaces; it might not even have a proper relation to any specific spatial figure of whatever sort.

Critchley’s piece is just one example of a range of academic commentaries which tend to repeat fairly uncritically the self-representation of activists about the political forms of Occupy, Indignados, and other movements – that these really are the emobodiment of a genuine re-birth of direct, consensual democracy stripped of the parasitical intrusions of representative politics. That’s what ‘real democracy’ turns out to mean.

I think it should be possible to affirm one’s solidarity with these movements without necessarily reiterating these claims without question. It should be possible to analyse the rhetoric and practice of anti-representation in these movements – ‘no parties, no banners’ – as a phenomenon worthy of investigation, not just present such claims as a matter of fact. Jodi Dean and Jason Jones have a really interesting piece on the question of how to think representation in relation to OWS, and it’s one of the few things of it’s sort that I can think of (it’s part of a special edition on the topic of ‘in defence of representation’). I’ve just started reading Pierre Rosanvallon’s Democratic Legitimacy, and it seems to me, for example, that these movements might fit quite well into his genealogy of the emergence of new modes of democratic legtimacy based on values of proximity and presence – my point being that what is required is an analytic imagination that can recognise the emergence of new forms without simply reproducing simplistic dualisms between direct and representative democracy which, while politically effective perhaps, don’t have much interpretative purchase if you think about it for a moment.

Back to Critchley; his piece starts out with a standard narrative device, we’ve all done it: power, as the ability to get things done, has become spatially divorced from politics, the means of getting things done (a globalization cliché he draws from Bauman). Well, maybe, maybe not, but even if this were the case, it would seem to require some thought about how poloitics can be re-spatialised to match the scaling up of power – an argument made by various traditions of thought, including plenty of geographers, and a staple of David Held-style cosmopolitanism. This is easier said than done in theory and practice no doubt, and the diagnosis might just be flawed anyway. But what I’m not sure about is whether Critchley’s conclusion from his starting point follows at all – that the divorce means we need to think about ‘true politics’ in terms of the figure of location. Something seems to get to go astray in the reasoning that starts by saying that power and politics have become too distant from one another and end up by saying that the most effective response is to take a stand in one place (after all, the most interesting aspect of these movements might well be not their ‘occupation’ strategies per se, but the movement of the strategies – that’s why they are called movements).

The attachment to location seems to have something to do with Critchley’s chosen view of contemporary protest movements as embodying values of directness, horizontality, assembly – it’s just one example I think of more general intellectual ‘moment’ in which the idea of true politics and real democracy has become associated with an image of the spaces of politics and democracy as real, physical places of co-presence and gathering together.

If one goes back to Critchley’s point about demands and injustice, then the figure of location seems, again, not to be quite adequate. If demands need to be articulated, then I’m not sure they need a location at all – a specific point, a localisation in space and time. They are, after all, articulated – a demand has a spatiality that is open to connection, combination, joining up. Not one of punctual presence or location. The space of demands generated by injustice is strung out, not gathered together.

Which doesn’t mean that ‘real spaces’ aren’t important. I just think it might be better to think of these spaces of demonstration as enacting a demonstrative force that is better thought of in terms, say, of the idea of spaces of address developed by Kurt Ivesen‘s work on public space. Or of locations as starting places, temporary stopping points. Which might well be move akin to the political geography of ‘occupying’. Even then, though, there might be pause for thought – Crtitchley ends with a call to move on and apply the force of this ‘true politics’ to the London Olympics, a recommendation which might well suggest a form of politics reduced to the purely tactical, tracking the eventalization of the world wrought by spectacular capital with events of its own. So much for getting things done.

And one final thought – Critchley is one of my favourite thinkers, his book on ethics and deconstruction was a fundamental influence on my thinking as a graduate student. It’s one place, though not the first (that was an essay by Nancy Fraser) where I remember learning about the importance of Claude Lefort to a whole strand of French thought that at that time was still being rudely called postmodern. I just wonder, remembering those things I learnt from reading Critchley back then, whether an analysis of true politics and real democracy that rests on the idea that power and politics have become divorced hasn’t lapsed into a certain sort of romantic amnesia about which it should really know better. Conceptually, normatively, the idea that power and politics should be married together, as it were, might be only rather ambivalently ‘democratic’, at best. Which isn’t to say that they should be separated, it’s just that what matters is the quality of the relationship. And conceptualising that relationship, its optimum shape, needs better analysis than can be provided by claims about the importance of location or the form of ‘true politics’.

Demonstrative Theory

Current events ‘out there’, in the streets no less, have been an occasion for the rehearsal of various theoretical standpoints on the meaning of democracy and the status of politics. Some writers have presented recent politicizations of public space as models of a purity of political action consisting of the expressive presence of bodies in space, as confirming both that this is all that is left politically and that this is what is most proper to left politics (a shout-out here for my old friend Andrew Merrifield, who provides a most eloquent variant on this theme in the latest New Left Review). I’m in no position to evaluate or assess the contours of these movements (there is no Occupy Swindon movement, nor do I expect there one to be anytime soon), but there is something about this sort of interpretation that doesn’t quite ring true for me.

There are some interesting blog discussions sparked by a piece at Critical Inquiry’s new blog site on Occupy Theory. What this piece raised for me was the question of how far one thinks of theory as essentially an interpretative device, used to give meaning to an event or events; or how far one thinks of theory as a hypothesis generating machine, something that raises questions about an event. There is a new site at Possible Futures that does some of this latter sort of theory work, including essays by Saskia Sassen and Craig Calhoun (newly announced as the next Director of the LSE – what a great appointment). Calhoun’s piece, for example, raises some interesting questions about how policing of protest has changed time. At TomDispatch, Rebecca Solnit has a piece about the Occupy movement in the US connects with longer traditions of civil society and non-violence movements, and this reminded me of arguments about the idea of the US in particular as a ‘movement society’ – there are interesting generational effects at work behind these protest movements which deserve more attention.

The fascination with the occupation of real space also surely needs to be put in the context of how this form of ‘presencing’ reverberates through other spaces, including mediated ones (it was all kicked-off by Adbusters, remember), but also through time, and above, there is the vexed question of how this moment of protest (not just the Occupy example, but also the return of street protest in Egypt) interacts with the sequencing of electoral cycles. Given the likely geographical dynamics of the 2012 US Presidential election, for example, it is interesting to speculate on how far the populist sentiments expressed by the Occupy movement will be articulated in the coming year, and by which side. Sidney Tarrow had an interesting little piece in Foreign Policy a month or so ago, on OWS as a ‘we are here’ movement akin to the women’s movement, the point being about the long-term effects of this ‘event’. Tarrow and Doug McAdam also have an interesting piece on the relationship between social movement scholarship and electoral studies, from 2010, but which is rather prescient in light of recent events in the USA – one of their points is that analysis of movements tends to be overly movement-centric, and underplays the role of electoral politics in generating and orienting non-electoral, non-party mobilisations, campaigns and protests: this point appears to be well supported by the resurgence of protest in Egypt these last few days, as Mariz Tadros argues at the IDS blog, in which the relationship between street mobilizations and elections is central.

Welcome to the occupation

The protests associated with Occupy Wall Street are already generating some interesting more-or-less theoretical reflection and analysis – from Judith Butler, McKenzie Wark, and Naomi Klein for example. Oh, and also lots of first hand accounts of course, including one from the lovely Mark Ruffalo.