Fabulous Nicasio estate formerly owned by Jerry Garcia. Gated and private, this amazing property sits on a sunny knoll top with views of Tam and the East Bay. Gorgeous main home with wonderful indoor/outdoor connection with pools, fountains, garden beds, play area for children and so much more. Artist’s studio and six car garage, 12 minutes to 101
On May 5th a group of “artists, curators, critics, guard room, graphic designers, performers, actors, dancers, musicians, writers, journalists, art teachers, students, and everybody who works in the field of art and culture” occupied the Galfa Tower (Torre Galfa) skyscraper in the heart of Milan, Italy. We have been in touch with members involved in the occupation and they will be sharing things here on OE in English in the coming weeks. Below please find their first press release.
We are glad to declare the opening of MACAO, the new arts centre in Milan, a great experiment in building with a bottom up approach a space where to produce art and culture. A place where artists and citizens can gather together in order to invent a new system of rules for a common and participatory management which, in an autonomous way, will redefine time and priorities of their work and allow them to experiment new common languages.
We are artists, curators, critics, guard room, graphic designers, performers, actors, dancers, musicians, writers, journalists, art teachers, students, and everybody who works in the field of art and culture. We’ve been mobilizing for one year, meeting in assemblies where to discuss our situation as precarious workers in the fields of artistic production, entertainment, media, entertainment industry, festivals and the so-called economy of the event. A world increasingly hostage of the finance that exploits and absorbs the primary task of culture, which is being an economy of sharing.
We represent a large share of the workforce of this city that has always been an outpost of advanced service sector. We are the multitude of workers of the creative industries that too often has to submit to humiliating conditions to access income, with no protection and no coverage in terms of welfare and not even being considered as proper interlocutors for the current labor reform, all focused on the instrumental debate over the article 18. We were born precarious, we are the pulse of the future economy, and we will not continue to accommodate exploitation mechanisms and loss redistribution.
We open MACAO in order to let the culture strongly regain a piece of Milan, in response to a story that too often has seen the city ravaged by public procurement professionals, unscrupulous building permits, in a neo-liberal logic that has always humiliated the inhabitants and pursued a single goal: the profit of few excluding the many.
Since last spring, many citizens, artists and cultural workers have given life to new experiences through practices of occupation of public and private abandoned spaces. Such experiences are proving to last in time, by taking care of culture, territories, work, new forms of economy and new forms of collective intelligence. The artistic production must therefore be entirely rethought, we must take this time and this right in a serious and radical way, directly taking care of what is ours. Macao is this, a space for everyone, that must become an active laboratory where art, entertainment, culture, education and information workers are invited. Here artists, intellectuals, lawyers, constitutionalists, activists, writers, film makers, philosophers, economists, architects and urban planners, neighbourhood and city inhabitants should take the time to build a social, common and cooperative dimension.
We have a lot of work to do, we must transform these words into real practices, more and more constituent and effective, in order to build alternative models to those in which we live, and everything depends on us. We should not take anything for granted, producing competent inquiries, debates, analysis and confrontations concerning all the territories that produce inequality and expropriation of value, not to mention the new forms into which the capitalist ideology is disguising. We need to have joy and humour to transform this commitment into a human, collective and liberated moment. We should take care of this space so that it can host everyone. It is fundamental that in this space art and communication cease to be ends in themselves. On the opposite, they must explode and find their motivations in this fight, building new imaginaries and bringing into light the world that we see. Viva Macao and keep up the good work!
Editor’s Note: Jodi Dean presented the following text as a keynote lecture for the 2012 iteration of Transmediale, an annual new media festival in Berlin. The theme of the 2012 festival was “In/compatibility…the condition that arises when things do not work together.” The section of the festival at which the author presented was titled “Incompatible Publics.” 1 The discussion that followed Dean’s lecture was moderated by Krystian Woznicki2 —the text of the discussion is included below. –MW
I’m going to talk today about Occupy Wall Street in light of our theme of incompatible publics. I claim that the occupation is best understood as a political form of the incompatibility between capitalism and the people. To call it a political form is to say that it is configured within a particular social-historical setting. To call it a political form of the incompatibility between capitalism and the people is to say that it has a fundamental content and that this content consists in the failure of capitalism to provide an economic system adequate to the capacities, needs, demands, and general will of the people. More bluntly put, to think about the Occupy movement in light of the idea of incompatible publics is to locate the truth of the movement in class struggle (and thus reject interpretations of the movement that highlight multiplicity, democracy, and anarchism—autonomism). So that’s what I hope to convince you of today.
Occupation is best understood as a political form of the incompatibility between capitalism and the people.
The movement opened up by Occupy Wall Street is the most exciting event on the US political left since 1968—it’s like, my god, finally we can breathe, finally there is an opening, a possibility of organized mass political action. As in 1968, the current movement extends globally, encompasses multiple grievances, and is being met by violent police responses. From Egypt to New York, Spain to Oakland, hundreds of thousands of people have responded to capitalist dispossession by taking space, occupying sites that, ostensibly open and public, the process of occupation reveals to be closed to the many and belonging to the few. Also as in 1968, an economic wrong, the wrong of capitalism, is at the core of the political rupture. Recall that in May ‘68, a general strike shut down the French economy. Students occupied the Sorbonne and workers occupied factories. In September 2011, protesters in New York occupied Wall Street. They were inspired by revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, the February occupation of the Wisconsin State Capitol, and the 15 May movement of the squares in Spain (as well as by the occupation movements that in recent years have accompanied protests over cutbacks in education and increases in university tuition in California, New York, and the UK).
What mattered, and what opened up a new space of political possibility in the US, was that people were finally waking up to the ultimate incompatibility between capitalism and the people.
That Wall Street was actually the nearby privately owned Zuccotti Park didn’t really matter. What mattered, and what opened up a new space of political possibility in the US, was that people were finally waking up to the ultimate incompatibility between capitalism and the people—after forty years of neoliberalism’s assault on the working and middle class and after a decade of rapacious class warfare in which the top one percent saw an income increase of 275% (their share of the national income more than doubling) while most of the rest of the country saw an income increase of roughly 1% a year. Instead of continuing in the fantasy that “what’s good for Wall Street, is good for Main Street,” the occupation claimed the division between Wall Street and Main Street and named this division as a fundamental wrong, the wrong of inequality, exploitation, and theft.
The daily activities of occupiers strove to bring into being new practices of sociality, new ways of living together, ways no longer coordinated by the capital but by discussion, mutuality, and consensus.
Occupy Wall Street’s staging of the incompatibility between capitalism and the people was visible, material, and practical. Visibly, urban camping brought to the heart of New York’s financial district the reality of dispossession. It forced Wall Street to look homelessness in the face, both the homelessness of the New Yorkers that the city had been trying to repress, hide, and disperse and that of those across the country who had been evicted in the foreclosure crisis and left to dwell in make shift tent cities reminiscent of shanty towns and Hoovervilles of the Depression. Materially, the presence of people crowded into places where capitalism has determined they don’t belong was manifest in the array of physical needs impressing and expressing themselves in Zuccotti park—the absence of public toilets and showers, the impermissibility of gas-run generators, open flames for cooking, and the illegality of tents resulted in a series of issues encapsulated in the media under the headings public health, filth, and disease. Practically, Occupy Wall Street—and the police reaction to it—led to the proliferation of police barriers all over downtown Manhattan. Even more important, the daily activities of occupiers strove to bring into being new practices of sociality, new ways of living together, ways no longer coordinated by the capital but by discussion, mutuality, and consensus. Not surprisingly, in the course of these practical engagements, new incompatibilities emerged and were only beginning to be addressed when Zuccotti Park was evicted.
The movement’s early slogan, “We are the 99 Percent,” quickly went viral. It spread in part because of the Tumblr collection of images and testimonials to the hardships of debt, foreclosure, and unemployment, a “coming out” of the closet imposed by the conceit that everyone is middle class, everyone is successful. Conservative politicians bristled with indignation at what they depicted as the unfairness of the many who were now refusing to accept the one percent’s seizure of an outrageously unfair portion of the common product. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney scolded what he called the “politics of envy.” These privileged carriers of the 99 versus the 1 percent meme couldn’t quite grasp the change in the situation, the shift in the status quo whereby people no longer believed the myths that “greed is good” and “inequality benefits everyone.” They attempted to turn the issue around, making themselves into victims of exclusion and invective, as if the 99% were the criminals, as if our primary condition had been mutually compatible until some malcontents started to cause trouble, as if class war were a new rather than constitutive incompatibility between those who need to work to live and those who have enough capital not to. A fortunate effect of this tactic was the continued accentuation of class division—as a recent poll from the Pew Foundation found, 66% of Americans think that divisions between rich and poor are strong or very strong, an increase of 19% since 2009. Not only is this view held in every demographic category but more people think that class division is the principle social division than they do any other division.
In the setting of an occupied Wall Street, this “we” is a class, one of two opposed and hostile classes, those who have and control wealth, and those who do not.
The slogan “We are the 99%” highlights the division between the wealth of the top 1% and the rest of us. Mobilizing the gap between the 1% with nearly half the country’s wealth and the other 99% with the rest of it, the slogan asserts a collectivity. It does not unify this collectivity under a substantial identity—race, ethnicity, religion, nationality. Nor does it proceed as if there were some kind of generic and unified public. It rejects the fantasy of a unified, non-antagonistic public to assert the “we” of a divided people, the people divided between expropriators and expropriated. In the setting of an occupied Wall Street, this “we” is a class, one of two opposed and hostile classes, those who have and control wealth, and those who do not.
The assertion of a numerical difference as a political difference, that is to say, the politicization of a statistic, expresses capitalism’s reliance on fundamental inequality—“we” can never all be counted as the top 1%. Thus, the announcement that “We are the 99%” names an appropriation, a wrong. In so doing, it voices as well a collective desire for equality and justice, for a change in the conditions through which one percent seizes the bulk of collective wealth for themselves, leaving 99% with the remainder.
“We are the 99%” also effaces the multiplicity of individuated, partial, and divided interests that fragment and weaken the people as the rest of us. The count dis-individualizes interest and desire, reconfiguring both into a common form. Against capital’s constant attempts to pulverize and decompose the collective people, the claim of the 99% responds with the force of a belonging that not only cannot be erased but that capital’s own methods of accounting produce: as capital demolishes all previous social ties, the counting on which it depends provides a new figure of belonging. Capital has to measure itself, count its profits, its rate of profit, its share of profit, its capacity to leverage its profit, its confidence or anxiety in its capacity for future profit. Capital counts and analyzes who has what, representing to itself the measures of its success. These very numbers can be, and in the slogan “We are the 99%” they are, put to use. They aren’t resignified—they are claimed as the subjectivation of the gap separating the top one percent from the rest of us. With this claim, the gap becomes a vehicle for the expression of communist desire, that is, for a politics that asserts the people as a divisive force in the interest of over-turning present society and making a new one anchored in collectivity and the common.
“Tactics as brand” neglects the way occupation is a form that organizes the incompatibility of capitalism with the people and emphasizes instead a flexibility and adaptability already fully compatible with capitalism.
Admittedly, the occupiers of Wall Street, and the thousand other cities around the world with occupations of their own, have not reached a consensus around communism (as if communism could even name a consensus). The movement brings together a variety of groups and tendencies—not all of them compatible. Many in the movement see that as Occupy’s strength. They see Occupy as an umbrella movement capable of including a multiplicity of interests and tendencies. For them, “occupy” serves as a kind of political or even post-political open source brand that anyone can use. Because occupation is a tactic that galvanizes enthusiasm, they suggest, it can affectively connect a range of incompatible political positions, basically working around fundamental gaps, divisions, and differences. The mistake here is not only in the effort to ignore multiple incompatibilities; it is also, and more importantly in the evasion of the real antagonism that matters, the one that connects the movement to its setting—class struggle. “Tactics as brand” neglects the way occupation is a form that organizes the incompatibility of capitalism with the people and emphasizes instead a flexibility and adaptability already fully compatible with capitalism. I’ll say a little more about this.
Reduced to “tactic as brand” or “tactic as generator of affective attachment,” occupation responds in terms of communicative capitalism’s ideology of publicity. Communicative capitalism announces the convergence of democracy and capitalism in networked communication technologies that promise access and equality, enjoin participation, and celebrate creative engagement. Occupation understood as a tactic of political branding accepts that promise and demonstrates its failure. Communicative capitalism promises access? To whom and where? It promises access to everyone everywhere but really means to enhance and enable capital’s access to everything everywhere. The Occupy movement demonstrates this by occupying spaces that are ostensibly public but practically open only to capital; the 99% don’t really belong. Similarly, communicative capitalism promises participation—but that really means personalization; better to do as an individual before a screen and not a mass behind a barricade. And, communicative capitalism promises creative engagement—but that really means user-generated spectacular content that can be monetized and marketed, not collective political appropriation in a project of resistance. So the Occupy movement accepts the promises of communicative capitalism and demonstrates the contradictory truth underlying then. The resulting disturbance—pepper spray, riot gear, eviction—reveals the incompatibility at communicative capitalism’s heart.
At this point, the tactic of occupation is compatible with the system it ostensibly rejects.
Yet these demonstrations of contradiction rest uneasily against the acceptance of the promises of communicative capitalism. Like communicative capitalism, the movement also valorizes participation, creative engagement, and accessibility. One of the ideological features of “tactics as brand” is the idea that Occupy is an idea, practice, term accessible to anyone. And then there is equality. In the circuits of communicative capitalism, the only equality is that of any utterance, any contribution to the flow, whether it’s a critique of economic austerity of a video of baby kittens. Here, too, the movement can get reabsorbed as ever more informational and affective content, something which may appear on one’s screen, and be felt as good or bad before an image of the next thing pops up. At this point, the tactic of occupation is compatible with the system it ostensibly rejects. The same holds for the movement’s rhetorical and ideological emphases on plurality and inclusivity. They merge seamlessly into communicative capitalism and thereby efface the economic crisis at the movement’s heart. It’s already the case that there are multiple ideas and opportunities circulating on the internet. It’s already the case that people can hold events, form digital groups, and carry out discussions. People can even assemble in tents on the sidewalks—as long as they are in line for event tickets or a big sale at Wal-Mart. Communicative capitalism is an open, mutable field. That aspect of the movement—inclusivity—isn’t new or different. It’s a component of Occupy that is fully compatible with the movement’s setting in communicative capitalism. What’s new (at least in the last thirty years) is the organized collective opposition to the capitalist expropriation. Particularly in the face of the multiple evictions and massive police response to the occupations, the movement faces the challenge of keeping present and real the gap, the incompatibility, between occupation and the ordinary media practices and individualized acts of resistance that already comprise the faux-opposition encouraged in everyday life.
Occupation installs practical unity where there was fragmentation, collectivity where there was individualism, and division where there was the amorphous imaginary of the public.
Thus, it is necessary to consider the gap between occupation and its politicization, that is to say, between occupation as a tactic and occupation as a form operating in a determined setting. The political form of occupation for us depends on its fundamental, substantial component of class struggle as what connects it to its social setting. In this setting, occupation installs practical unity where there was fragmentation, collectivity where there was individualism, and division where there was the amorphous imaginary of the public.
As the occupation movement unfolded in the US during the fall of 2011, it was clear that the occupiers were a self-selected vanguard, establishing and maintaining a continuity that enabled broader numbers of people to join in the work of the movement. Into a field more generally configured around convenience, ease of use, and individual preference—a field noted more for “clictivism” than any more strenuous or exacting kind of politics, occupation installs demanding processes through which protesters select and discipline themselves—not everyone can devote all their time to the revolution. Most activists affiliated with a specific occupation didn’t occupy all the time. Some would sleep at the site and then go to their day jobs or schools. Others would sleep elsewhere and occupy during the day and evening. Still others would come for the frequent, multiple hour-long General Assemblies. Nonetheless, occupation involved people completely, as Lukacs would say “with the whole of their personality.” As the occupations persisted over weeks and months, people joined in different capacities—facilitation, legal, technology, media, medical, food, community relations, education, direct action—participating in time-intensive working groups and support activities that involved them in the movement even as they weren’t occupying a space directly.
Providing a common form that no one could ignore, it drew a line: are you with or against occupation?
The continuity of occupation has been a potent remedy to the fragmentation, localism, and transitoriness of contemporary left politics. Occupation unites and disciplines via local, self-organized, assemblies. This “unity” has not meant accord with a “party line” or set of shared demands or common principles. Rather, it’s “practical unity” as an effect of the conscious sharing of an organizational form. Unity, then, is an affiliation around and in terms of the practice of occupation. One of the most significant achievements of Occupy Wall Street in its first two months was the change in the shape of the left. Providing a common form that no one could ignore, it drew a line: are you with or against occupation?
Protest requires living bodies in the streets.
Given the collapse of the institutional space of left politics in the wake of the decline of unions and the left’s fragmentation into issues and identities, occupation asserts a much needed and heretofore absent common ground from which to join in struggle. In dramatic contrast to communicative capitalism’s promise of easy action, of a politics of pointing and clicking and linking and forwarding, Occupy Wall Street says No! It’s not so easy. You can’t change the world isolated behind your screen. You have to show up, work together, and collectively confront the capitalist class. Protest requires living bodies in the streets.
Virtually any place can be occupied. Part of the affective pleasure of the movement in its initial weeks was the blooming of ever more occupations. The spread of the form spoke to the salience of its issues. Without any coordination from the top, without a national organization of any kind, people asserted themselves politically by adopting occupation as the form for political protest, occupying parks, sidewalks, corners, and squares (although not a state capitol as had been done during the Wisconsin protests at the beginning of 2011). Yet more than political symbolism, the fact that occupation could be adopted in myriad, disparate settings meant that multiple groups of people quickly trained themselves in a variety of aspects of political work. They learned specific local legal codes and shared tactical knowledge of how to manage media and police. Occupation let them develop and share new capacities.
So, duration and adoptability are key benefits of the occupation form. In contrast with the event-oriented alter-globalization movement, occupation establishes a fixed political site as a base for operations. A more durable politics emerges as the claiming of a space for an indeterminate amount of time breaks with the transience of contemporary media culture. People have the opportunity to be more than spectators. After learning of an occupation, they can join. The event isn’t over; it hasn’t gone away. Implying a kind of permanence, occupation is ongoing. People are in it till “this thing is done”—until the basic practices of society, of the world, have been remade. This benefit, however, is also a drawback. Since occupations are neither economically self-sustaining nor chosen tactically as sites from which to expand on the ground (block by block, say, until a city is taken), built into their form is a problem of scale.
Duration and adoptability are key benefits of the occupation form.
In addition to these two attributes of occupation as a form, some of the decisions taken in the initial weeks of the Occupy Wall Street movement added to its ability to establish and maintain continuity. Prior to the September 17, 2011 action, activists from New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts and the artist group 16 Beaver met together to plan the event. The consensus-based approach to collective decisions in meetings called “General Assemblies” was adopted at this time (it had already been a component of the 15 May movement in Spain). Subsequent occupations followed New York’s lead, calling their meetings “General Assemblies” and basing decisions on consensus. Consensus let the movement claim an inclusivity missing from mainstream politics in that everything had to be agreed to by everyone. Participants were doing more than giving money or signing petitions—they were making decisions on the most fundamental concerns of the movement. The emphasis on consensus also meant that no group or position was excluded from the outset. Breaking with tendencies toward the specification of issues and identities, the movement worked to combine voices so as to amplify their oppositional political force. More superficially, but no less importantly, the hand-signals used to guide discussions toward consensus—upturned hands with twinkling fingers to signal assent; cross-arms to block—became a marker and practice of belonging to the movement. Common slogans, especially “We are the 99%”, also linked disparate occupations together into a common movement.
Three primary efforts to eliminate the incompatibility of Occupy with the status quo: democratization, moralization, and individualization.
Maintaining and extending this collectivity, this practical unity incompatible with communicative capitalism, has been and remains a challenge, perhaps the biggest challenge the movement faces. Counter-revolutionary tendencies work with all their might to close or conceal the gap of collective desire for collectivity, for collective approaches to common concerns with production, distribution, and stewardship of common resources. In the first days of Occupy Wall Street, the mainstream media tried to ignore the movement. After the movement was impossible to ignore, after the protesters had demonstrated determination and the police had reacted with orange containment nets and pepper spray, other efforts to efface the fundamental division opened up by Occupy Wall Street emerged. These continue to try to make the movement fully compatible with politics as usual and thus un-threatening to business as usual. They work to reabsorb the movement into familiar functionality and convenient dis-functionality, and thereby fill-in or occlude the gap the movement installs. I’ll mention three primary efforts to eliminate the incompatibility of Occupy with the status quo: democratization, moralization, and individualization.
I use “democratization” to designate attempts to frame the movement in terms of American electoral politics. One of the most common democratizing moves has been to treat Occupy Wall Street as the Tea Party of the left. So construed, the movement isn’t something radically new; it’s derivative. The Tea Party has already been there and done that. Of course, this analogy fails to acknowledge that the Tea Party is astro-turf, organized by Dick Armey and funded by the Koch brothers. A further democratizing move immediately reduces the significance of the movement to elections: what does Occupy Wall Street mean for Obama? Does it strengthen the Democratic Party? Will it pull it back toward the center? This democratizing move omits the obvious question: if it were about Obama and the Democratic Party, it would be about Obama and the Democratic Party—not marches, strikes, occupations, and arrests.
A related democratization advises the movement to pursue any number of legislative paths, suggesting that it seek a Constitutional Amendment denying corporations personhood, change campaign finance laws, abolish the electoral college and the Federal Reserve. The oddness of these suggestions, the way they attempt to make the movement something it is not, to make it functional for the system we have, appears as soon as one recalls the primary tactic of struggle: occupying, that is, sleeping out of doors, in tents, in urban spaces. In New York, protesters were sleeping in the inhospitable financial district, outside in a privately owned park, attempting to reach consensus on a wide range of issues affecting their daily life together: what sort of coffee to serve, how to keep the park clean, how to keep people warm and dry, what to do about the drummers, how to spend the money that comes in to support the movement, what the best ways to organize discussions are, and so on. The language of democratization skips the actual fact of occupation, reformatting the movement in terms of a functional political system and then adapting the movement so that it fits this system. The problem with this way of thinking is that if the system were functional, people wouldn’t be occupying all over the country—not to mention the world for, indeed, an additional effect of the democratic reduction is to reduce a global practice and movement against capitalism into US-specific concerns with some dysfunction in our electoral system.
Occupation is not a democratic strategy; it is a militant, divisive tactic that expresses the fundamental division on which capitalism depends.
Finally, an additional democratization begins from the assumption that the movement is essentially a democratic one, that its tactics and concerns are focused on the democratic process. From this assumption democratization raises a critique of the movement: occupation actually isn’t democratic and so the protesters are in some sort of performative contradiction; they are incompatible with the democratic public because they are actively rejecting democratic institutions, breaking the law, disrupting public space, squandering public resources (police overtime can get expensive) and attempting to assert the will of a minority of vocal protesters outside of and in contradiction to democratic procedures. This line of argument has the benefit of exposing the incoherence in the more general democratization argument: occupation is not a democratic strategy; it is a militant, divisive tactic that expresses the fundamental division on which capitalism depends.
The second mode of division’s erasure, the second attempt to eliminate incompatibility between Occupy and the generic politics of a generic public, is moralization. Myriad politicians and commentators seek and have sought to treat the success of Occupy Wall Street in exclusively moral terms. For these commentators, the true contribution of the movement is moral, a transformation of the common sense of what is just and what is unjust. This line of commentary emphasizes greed and corruption, commending the movement for opening our eyes to the need to get things in order, to clean house.
Moralization…proceeds as if the division Occupy Wall Street reveals and claims were a kind of infection to be cured rather than a fundamental antagonism that has been repressed.
What’s the problem here? The problem is that moralization occludes division as it remains stuck in a depoliticizing liberal formula of ethics and economics. It presumes that it can work around the incompatibility of the movement with capitalist democracy by ignoring the fundamental antagonism of class struggle. Rather than acknowledging the failure of the capitalist system, the contemporary collapse of its neoliberal form and the contradictions that are demolishing capitalism from within (global debt crises, unsustainable patterns of consumption, climate change, the impossibility of continued accumulation at the rate necessary for capitalist growth, mass unemployment and unrest), moralization proceeds as if a couple of bad apples—a Bernie Madoff here, a rogue trader there—let their greed get out of control. It then extends this idea of corruption (rather than systemic failure), blaming the “culture of Wall Street” or even the consumerism of the entire country, as if the United States were a whole and as a whole needed some kind of spiritual cleansing and renewal. In short, moralization treats Occupy Wall Street as a populist movement, mediating it in populist terms of a whole people engaging in the ritual of repentance, renewal, and reform. It proceeds as if the division Occupy Wall Street reveals and claims were a kind of infection to be cured rather than a fundamental antagonism that has been repressed.
An emphasis on individual choice denies the movement’s collectivity.
The third attempt to eliminate the gap of incompatibility comes from individualization. Here an emphasis on individual choice denies the movement’s collectivity. So on the one hand there is an eclectic, menu-like presentation of multiple issues. Occupiers, protesters, and supporters are rendered as non-partisan individuals cherry-picking their concerns and exercising their rights of free speech and assembly. On the other hand there are the practices and tenets of the movement itself, particularly as it has been enacted in New York: decisions must be reached by consensus, no one can speak for another, each person has to be affirmed as freely and autonomously supporting whatever the GA undertakes. In each case, individualism not only supercedes collectivity, but it also effaces the rupture between the occupation and US culture more generally, a culture that celebrates and cultivates individuality and personalization. Given that the strength of Occupy Wall Street draws from collectivity, from the experience of groups coming together to occupy and protest, an experience amplified by the People’s Mic (the practice of collectively repeating the words of a speaker so that everyone can hear them), to emphasize individuality is to disavow the common at the heart of the movement. It reinserts the movement within the dominant culture, as if occupation were a choice like any other, as if choices weren’t themselves fantasies that individuals actually could determine their own lives or make a political difference in the context of the capitalist system and the class power of the top one percent.
Democratization, moralization, and individualization attempt to restore a fantastic unity or cohesive public where Occupy Wall Street asserts a fundamental division, the incompatibility between capitalism and the people. Whether as a democratic political system, a moral community, or the multiplicity of individuals, this fantasy is one that denies the antagonism on which capitalism relies: between those who have to sell their labor power to survive and those who do not, between those who not only have no choice but to sell their labor power but nonetheless cannot, because there are no buyers, or who cannot for wages capable of sustaining them, because there’s no such opportunity, and those who command, steer, and gamble upon the resources, fortunes, and futures of the rest of us for their own enjoyment.
The three modes of disavowing division miss the power of occupation as a form that asserts a gap by forcing a presence.
The three modes of disavowing division miss the power of occupation as a form that asserts a gap by forcing a presence. This forcing is more than simply of people into places where they do not belong (even when they may ostensibly have a right). It’s a forcing of collectivity over individualism, the combined power of a group that disrupts a space readily accommodating of individuals. Such a forcing thereby puts in stark relief the conceit of a political arrangement that claims to represent a people that cannot be present, a divided people who, when present, instill such fear and insecurity that they have to be met by armed police and miles of barricades. It asserts the class division prior to and unremedied by democracy under capitalism. The incompatibility is fundamental, constitutive.
Instead of locating the crime of capitalism, its excesses and exploitation, primarily in the factory, it highlights the pervasive, intensive and extensive range of capitalist expropriation of lives and futures.
For all its talk, then, of horizontality, autonomy, and decentralized process, the Occupy movement is re-centering the economy, engaging in class warfare without naming the working class as one of two great hostile forces but instead by presenting capitalism as a wrong against the people. Instead of locating the crime of capitalism, its excesses and exploitation, primarily in the factory, it highlights the pervasive, intensive and extensive range of capitalist expropriation of lives and futures. As David Harvey notes (244) “the city is as a locus of class movement as the factory.” Occupy is putting capitalism back at center of left politics—no wonder, then, that it has opened up a new sense of possibility for so many of us: it has reignited political will and reactivated Marx’s insight that class struggle is a political struggle. As I mentioned before, a new Pew poll finds a nineteen percentage point increase since 2009 of the number of Americans who believe there are strong or very strong conflicts between the rich and poor. Two thirds perceive this conflict—and perceive it as more intense than divisions of race and immigration status (African Americans see class conflict as more significant than white people do).
How Occupy Wall Street is re-centering the economy is an open, fluid, changing, and intensely debated question. It’s not a traditional movement of the working class organized in trade unions or targeting work places, although it is a movement of class struggle (especially when we recognize with Marx and Engels that the working class is not a fixed, empirical class but a fluid, changing class of those who have to sell their labor power in order to survive). Occupy’s use of strikes and occupations targets the capitalist system more broadly, from interrupting moves to privatize public schools to shutting down ports and stock exchanges (I think of the initial shut downs in Oakland and on Wall Street as proof of concepts, proof that it can be done). People aren’t being mobilized as workers; they are being mobilized as people, as everybody else, as the rest of us, as the majority—99%–who are being thoroughly screwed by the top one percent in education, health, food, the environment, housing, and work. People are mobilized as those who are proletarianized and exploited in every aspect of our lives—at risk of foreclosure and unemployment, diminishing futures, increasing debts, shrunken space of freedom, accelerated dependence on a system that is rapidly failing Capitalism in the US has sold itself as freedom—but increasing numbers of us feel trapped, practically enslaved.
I want to close with the slogan “Occupy Everything.” The slogan seems at first absurd: we already occupy everything, so how can we occupy everything? What matters is the minimal difference, the shift in perspective the injunction to occupy effects. It’s a shift crucial to occupation as a political form that organizes the incompatibility between the people and capitalism. It enjoins us to occupy in a different mode, to assert our presence in and for itself, for the common, not for the few, the one percent. “Occupy Everything’s” shift in perspective highlights and amplifies the gap between what has been and what can be, between what “capitalist realism” told us was the only alternative and what the actuality of movement forced us to wake up to. The gap it names is the gap of communist desire, a collective desire for collectivity: we occupy everything because it is already ours in common.
KRYSTIAN WOZNICKI: Thanks Jodi for this very engaging talk. I’d like to start, perhaps, with just a little of contextualization and also try and figure out where we and the people who are right now in this room and we also, perhaps, I don’t know… the people who are right now also thinking about this, what you’ve said, and where we are standing right now, perhaps, also in history, I mean also regarding the occupy movement… is this something that had its momentum and is now already over?
JODI DEAN: I have to say no, right? Because… I mean, I feel like, as someone participating in the movement, it’s important to keep my eye on the big picture. And so, no, I don’t think there’s a kind of objective, empirical outside view that can say, “Oh well, the movement has peaked.” I mean, everything that one says about it is already incorporated within it.
KRYSTIAN WOZNICKI: Right.
JODI DEAN: So, because it is an ongoing highly intermediated, highly reflexive movement. So, no, it’s not peaked right now… the kind of popular language is “Phase Two” and that Phase Two is the winter-time as we’re reflecting on what will happen in the spring, what the movement needs to do, what kinds of tactics will work, what kinds of… will there be possibilities of more concentration or is dispersion better? So, the first answer is: the movement is not finished, it’s just building, it’s just beginning. There’s also a little bit of a difference in the U.S. between kinds of…I usually think about it… it’s like the difference between New York and Oakland – because they’ve been more militantly active in the streets in the last month or so and in the East Coast it’s a little… you know, it’s colder, and the focus has been a little different. So, I do have a little bit of a New York swing to how I think about it. But no, it’s not… it’s just building.
KRYSTIAN WOZNICKI: Mhm… Are we talking mostly about the United States or other parts of the world as well?
JODI DEAN: I can only talk about the United States, I don’t want to make a guess about other places.
KRYSTIAN WOZNICKI: So, perhaps, just in terms of, like, historical context, etc. So, you’ve mentioned 68, but you’ve been also a little talking about the alter-globalization movement, that perhaps could be said to have started late 90’s, perhaps, Seattle or something. To which degree do you see this movement as a precursor or, perhaps, also as an ideal or, you know, how can I say… something as a reference point, something to learn from and something to build upon?
JODI DEAN: The resonance with Seattle was huge; a number of the same people are also involved. You know, in the U.S., September 11th of 2001 kind of redirected a lot of energy away from the alter-globalization movement in the U. S. It’s not that people weren’t doing it… It’s that the… it wasn’t as galvanizing as it had been with Seattle and this had a number of different kinds of effects. One was people became active in the peace movement for quite a while; another one was just sort of shell-shocked and depressive. So, I think it’s reasonable to think of occupy as a continuation of what started in the globalization movement but had been quite dormant for quite a while and now people are waking up more. I also think that it’s got deeper reach into American culture and society now, right? I mean you didn’t have that with alter-globalization; it wasn’t a big deal in Kansas. It was more coastal. But now you’ve got occupations that have taken hold all over the country. Occupy Lincoln, Nebraska, is hugely active; they’re really engaged, they still have an ongoing encampment, they’re really quite active in their community, they’re all about occupation. So, you have a much more of a spread-out-ness–that’s good–than we did in the alter-globalization movement.
KRYSTIAN WOZNICKI: Geographically?
JODI DEAN: Yeah, in the country.
KRYSTIAN WOZNICKI: And demographically also?
JODI DEAN: It’s hard… that… I wanna say yes, but that’s hard to say cause there’s not great empirical data. I mean, one can say easily that it’s a combination of students and recent graduates with no hope, those who have been foreclosed on, the unemployed, and labor–labor’s still part of it. But, that’s just an impressionistic analysis of the social composition of the movement. There’s not yet really strong empirical data.
You know, it feels a little totalitarian.
KRYSTIAN WOZNICKI: I would like to talk a little about the whole notion of the “we” that you’ve discussed a lot about, but perhaps also in a little bit more – how can I say – pragmatic manner also. I mean, like, looking at the audience I wouldn’t know how many people are sitting here right now with us… but, I mean, addressing for example this audience, I mean, we’ve heard already this part of you know speaking arrangements stripped with the occupy banner, so addressing the crowd, you know, “we are the 99%”. I mean, I would wonder really how many people would say “Yes, I’m part of this”. I mean, how many people would say “Yes, I’m part of the 99%.” … I don’t see all arms up. So, the others who are now not in the air are part of the 1% then? I mean, this is… So, I guess. I’m trying… this is very interesting. I didn’t expect that many hands in the air. But, you know, because what I’m sort of like trying to ask to you, to go into, it’s a little… this all-inclusive reach out, to we are, and you are, obviously, all part of the 99% thing. You know, it feels a little totalitarian.
JODI DEAN: No, there’s a gap. There’s some people who are on the outside. That’s the 1%, right? There’s the deliberate gap, there’s an explicit division so it’s… I mean… if by totalitarian you mean includes everyone… no. If by totalitarian you mean insistent, ok. But I don’t think that’s a problem. The insistence is on a division and then rather than the kind of idiotic assumption, you know, the trickle-down approach to the economy or that somehow inequality is good for everyone, or that equality makes everybody better because we become more, kind of, competitive and driven. Those are the sets of lies, the sets of conceits that the movement is composed against. It’s kind of in some ways… I’ll stop here for right now.
KRYSTIAN WOZNICKI: OK, we hear a lot in the recent, I’d say, two decades about this whole development, you know, of like social structures and how very much divided it becomes between those who gain more and more, you know, and those who, perhaps, gain less.
JODI DEAN: Perhaps? You said perhaps gain less?
KRYSTIAN WOZNICKI: Well, I was…
JODI DEAN: It’s not a perhaps. That’s a myth. It’s true that the majority of the people don’t gain as much, right?
KRYSTIAN WOZNICKI: Yes.
JODI DEAN:Perhaps? You said perhaps gain less? KRYSTIAN WOZNICKI: Well, I was… JODI DEAN: It’s not a perhaps. That’s a myth. It’s true that the majority of the people don’t gain as much, right? KRYSTIAN WOZNICKI: Yes.
JODI DEAN: I mean, in the United States, the interesting thing about the financial statistics is — I’ve mentioned that over the last 30 years, the top 1% has seen their share of the social proceeds increase 275%. For the 99%, it has been 1%. In fact, that 1% slight increase… it goes away completely as soon as you recognize the increase in and the amount of working hours and the increased numbers of dual income households. So, in fact there has been an actual decline in the living standards of most Americans. This also has been compensated for by credit. Credit cards… It’s unsustainable and it’s also grossly unequal. The whole credit card approach to the loss of the standard of living coming from wages has enslaved people to credit card companies. It’s created a nation of debtors. So, I think it’s crucial to recognize it. It’s not like “Well, perhaps some people don’t really benefit.” It’s actual, it’s a fact and it’s politically crucial.
KRYSTIAN WOZNICKI: OK, we just hit a number. You just said 75% of people are getting less money.
JODI DEAN: I said 99.
KRYSTIAN WOZNICKI: 99?
JODI DEAN: Yeah.
KRYSTIAN WOZNICKI: OK…
JODI DEAN: 1% has gotten a 275% increase over the last 30 years. That’s just if you look at income… the numbers get worse the closer you look–as in more and more horrific–at other indicators of wealth. I don’t know if you guys followed the barbaric American presidential process… but Mitt Romney, who’s one of the Republican candidates, pays less… he pays like 15% income in taxes and that’s because most of his money comes from investments… his percentage rate is less than a school teacher’s. That’s bad.
WOZNICKI: This is what I feel about this whole thing is, like, that this whole black and white approach, like to… either with us or against us… is perhaps also… yeah, I wonder – is there space for grey in there? DEAN: No.
KRYSTIAN WOZNICKI: Absolutely. I don’t think we have to argue about that. No, I think it’s more… you know, when I said “perhaps” I think there is still… I mean there is one thing talking about the concept, you know, of 99% and the whole symbolism, but the other thing is, you know, really trying to get down to earth and talk about how we can really also, perhaps, identify with this move and all, with this whole approach, you know, standing here, and not being part of this huge ray, for example, that is going on right now through the United States. And I think, you know, we live in a time also of this increasing gap that you’ve just described, but also in a time, at the same time, of lots of grey zones and lots of perhaps. You know, lots of like, intermediary kind of like situations and… I think that what many people feel is sort of like “Yes, on the one hand, if things are sort of like, you know, the dichotomies are growing at the same time there are many things sort of like mixed and blending, and so this is what I feel about this whole thing is, like, that this whole black and white approach, like to… either with us or against us… is perhaps also… yeah, I wonder – is there space for grey in there?
JODI DEAN: No.
KRYSTIAN WOZNICKI: OK. This is only perhaps to get an idea, spread the word to the audience. There are 2 microphones. Just a second… There are 2 microphones, on the left side and on the right side and you’re very welcome to talk to us and to talk to everyone else. And just another question from Jodi, if we could maybe, perhaps, the light technicians, put the light on a little so we can see a bit better what’s going on there.
JODI DEAN: If this one… if that spotlight can come down… cause I can’t see people, I just see like flashes in my…
KRYSTIAN WOZNICKI: Ok, I think we are ready to take the first comment.
AUDIENCE SPEAKER: Hi. This is sort of like a difficult question. And I think it’s one that’s been asked a lot. I guess, like, in terms of the occupy movement and, like, the whole thing with, like, it’s a sort of movement that doesn’t make compromises, you know. There’s not necessarily specific demands… and I’m not one of those people who could take a movement for not making those specific demands because there’s a way to meet specific demands, obviously. Like, if specific demands also, like, conform to the system, like, you’re just making a compromise, right? And the way in which, you know, maybe this movement is so radical because it’s not compromising, it’s actually wanting to, you know, as you say, perhaps even have a revolution overturn the whole capitalist system. I’m wondering like, in terms of translating that in terms of, like, protest into reality, like, do you see the movement as a sort of like an idealist thing or sort of like… or is there some practical element to making that happen? Because… I guess just in terms of like, you know, the government seeing this movement, they’re probably not gonna give up power and just say…
JODI DEAN: I think that seems correct. It’s clear that the government is not giving up power. It’s clear when they have to use pepper spray on college students… when they have to surround a park with unbelievable amounts of policemen also in riot gear. So, you’re right, they’re not… even those kind of… even small scale set like 30 people in tents in Rochester, NY; these have been … some of them are still surviving and those have been threatened a lot. So, you are exactly right that it does not look, at this point like the United States state and military apparatus is gonna happily go home and say “Ok, your turn”. What does that mean in practice? This is a ongoing discussion. I think we should have a three-prong approach and that the three-prong approach has to be one that combines the… let me say this again. We would need a three-prong approach, but underlying that has to be growth. The movement has to keep getting bigger. It also needs to… it needs to have the practical tactics which come with occupation. You said “is this idealist”, but those are really material practices. Where people are figuring out “Ok, how do we feed 300 people in a park without eating pizza every day.” “How do we do that? Can we use community food groups, can we use collective and community forming groups? Can we connect with already on-going collective projects there?” So, the real practical part of occupation would be one part. Another part has got to be the direct action and the pushing direct action to keep exposing the intolerance of the state or of state governments and city governments. And then, I think, another part does not focus on law or legislation but does think about large management strategies. And, so one of the things to think… one possibility of that is imagining reverse privatization… that would be collectivization. And you can think about that in terms of water commons, land commons… if water’s a common, then… I live in up-state New York. One of our big issues is fracking and it’s where… essentially…. I don’t even know what’s injected – Something is injected into the ground to make natural gas come out. And what it does is it makes natural gas go into the water and so then the water becomes flammable. There are cancer rises, earthquakes happen… I mean it’s unbelievably strange awful kind of energy practice. If water was declared a common, then you would say… all the water, the water belongs to all of us… some people don’t get to decide to infiltrate the water with natural gas in order to profit from this fuel source. You could say education is a common. You would think that would be a natural thing, but right now what we’re facing are tons and tons of cuts to teachers, cuts to school districts, efforts to privatize more and more public school systems. If education is properly a common, then that has to be managed in the common interest. So, I think there’s gotta be a strategy that uses practices on the ground, direct action and a kind of building the scaffolding of a collective system.
AUDIENCE SPEAKER: So, there’s a way in which protesting is really just a starting point, it’s not necessarily, like, in the, you know…
JODI DEAN: No, it’s a means for doing something. I don’t think of protest as an end in itself. I think it’s a really crucial means.
KRYSTIAN WOZNICKI: Ok, thank you. I see we have a question ready in the right.
AUDIENCE SPEAKER: Well, I think there were multiple 68’s, and in Paris, after the strikes ended and Marxism kind of retreated into the universities, where it provided a really interesting excuse for a capitalism to claim that is democracy, was very tolerant and allowed the dissent and so forth. There was another 68 in Prague, where communism or this neo-feudal structure with its own 1% and own 99% was successful and continued for another 21 years, the neo-feudal structure. I just don’t see how a nineteen century philosophy that failed immensely, catastrophically in the XX-th century can deal with XXI-st century problems and I… well, I think the occupy movement and all the protests starting about a year ago in Tunisia and in Cairo and living up to now are about the failure of systems and about the failure of capitalism… I don’t necessarily see that that means that there’s a success of Marxism… it very well could be that Marxism has failed and capitalism is failing and maybe we should be looking for something else.
JODI DEAN: You know, people like to use that against any references to communism, though no one ever says “oh, democracy… That was such a fifth-century Greek idea, I’m just gonna let that go now.” So, you know, I think that if an idea is worth struggling for then it’s gonna come about in different iterations and it will change over time and it will be responsive to the present. A common academic title is “reimagining X.” So there’s reimagining gender and there’s reimagining markets and reimagining the family and reimagining democracy and I think a project of reimagining communism has a lot of possibly and a lot of vitality and we don’t have to get locked into the frame of a system that is past. I also think that we need to learn more from that system. It’s just… it’s remarkable how quickly the struggles and achievements of 70 years have been swept under the rug as if nothing is to be learned. And I think that’s a huge mistake, I think we can learn from all of the communist experiments.
KRYSTIAN WOZNICKI: Ok, we can’t hear you so you have to stand up in line again, please.
AUDIENCE SPEAKER: Aren’t you just hijacking the occupy movement to justify your own ideological position?
JODI DEAN: Maybe. But I don’t think it makes me like a situationist. The truth of the movement, no matter how you look at it, has been the way it is responding to capitalist crisis. And that’s true no matter what perspective you take on it. I see the strength in the new collective forms that are emerging. So I don’t consider that I’m hijacking, I consider it an opportunity, for thinking better and again about communism and collectivity.
KRYSTIAN WOZNICKI: Ok, I see many hands up in the air. I have to remind you, please go to the microphone stands and line up. Ok. It was you who’s next, please.
AUDIENCE SPEAKER: Ok, I got kind of a sense of proposition.
KRYSTIAN WOZNICKI: Well, go ahead.
AUDIENCE SPEAKER: Coming from Israel, I’ve had my share of occupation and it wasn’t mentioned here, but also in Israel there was kind of a big protest, ended up bringing out about half a million people on the streets that week. That was the biggest one. And it kind of concluded in this… nothing. You’d have pretty much the government wrapping themselves, like, Mohamed-Ali, around the ropes, letting the opponent strike them and then kind of like giving the final blow. And I was really intoxicated and it was an exuberant… the entire time of the protest. We were thinking “Ok, there’s a way we can maybe… but we’re also really, really skeptic… because we thought maybe this is kind of a way of aestheticizing politics that it making us to tackle, showing our unity, we’re together, we’re on the streets, we have power, and at the end of the day, everyone goes back to his day job and nothing happens. And one of the questions was… ok, what about violence? What about just… you know, raising your fists and just, you know, bringing rocks and in the old sense and that’s kind of, on one hand, a troubling notion, but then you think about revolutions that succeeded like, the French one, and … I don’t know. I’m really confused myself, I was looking back and … were we just invited to take part in a spectacle and now go back home… what are your thoughts about the possibility of use of violence or just a physical occupy Wall Street movement.
JODI DEAN: So, I wanna say two things. One has to do with spectacle. One of the things that’s been really great about phase two of the Occupy movement is the proliferation of actions that may not have a spectacular effect but have important political effects. In New York particularly, the movement against foreclosures has been very strong and so some of the different actions that were in the movement around foreclosure have been to take properties and then to put people in, who are homeless into those properties and then try to defend them. Others have been to occupy auctions where previously foreclosed homes are now being sold to bidders and the disrupt… like, one of the most recent actions around that had 60 people singing all the way through the action to stop the auction, so that it wouldn’t happen anymore. Instead, most of them got arrested and they had to close down the auction. What’s interesting about that is legally the auction is required to be public. And, so, they created a nice performative problem for the people in the court carrying that out. That’s not spectacular in the sense of there are 5,000 people in the streets, but it’s also a way of pushing the movement, and the movement growing, and the movement doing more than a spectacular politics. Ok, that’s the first thing. On violence… In the United States, there’s so many different legal levels. City governments, state governments, the national guards, county officials, like the county might maintain the jail, the city might have the police force and then you have privatized security forces, security guards… that differentiated structure can mean that you can’t say across the board yes or no to violence. I mean, the violence that’s happened in the movement has been coming from the police. The police have been the ones attacking the people. So, that’s not the movement’s fault, that’s the police’s fault. So, I think that understanding that part of it makes the question more complicated than just “what’s the role?” I mean, look, if a bunch of civilians who are not armed, you know, tried to engage in a violent struggle, we are likely to be massacred. So, it’s tactically just kind of stupid. But there are good reasons to push other kind of actions that might involve property damage or that might involve exposing the violence of the police. But something like a violent overthrow doesn’t really make a lot of sense on the ground, especially right now.
KRYSTIAN WOZNICKI: Ok, thank you. Let’s see… I think it’s you that’s next.
AUDIENCE SPEAKER: Ok… maybe I agree with the idea of maybe thinking about Marxism again, but the idea of imposing strictly class struggle, to me, doesn’t sound right for some reasons. One is we’ve not been to 68, meaning that some of us have been born afterward, and there were people like ** introducing the concept of **, which in some ways legitimated the police and them, after that, in the 70’s, in the European countries of Eastern Europe there was a real socialism and that changed in a way readings possibles of Marxism, and I feel even also with production of personality in a way moves the question away from class struggle and on a pure question of infrastructure when Marx wrote the capital, we had tower plans based on water, now we have electricity, we can own a printer and have a publishing house in our home, and that creates new possibilities for collectivities which is less centralized and class struggle is an idea based on centralized struggle of the class, but we can now have independent publishing house in our living room and is no more even a strange anarchist idea. It’s something that someone can do where digital era is possible in a way. Someone can do with a Mac and a printer. And it’s like 1,500 euros to have a publishing house and to lead a publishing house and you don’t need a centralized structure. And occupy not being centralized to me it’s kind of putting a focus on that and bringing class struggle as this massive force into the question and annihilates other possibilities related to this.
JODI DEAN: I don’t think that class struggle requires centralized struggle.
AUDIENCE SPEAKER: Class is one.
JODI DEAN: No, I don’t think that’s true. If we recognize, with Marx and Lenin, that classes are fluid, particularly the proletariat… it refers to anyone who has to work for a wage, for anyone who has to work, who has to sell their labor. That’s a fluid category, so we can think in terms of not a fixed category of proletariat. There are those who are proletarian-ized , those who are at risk under capital and those who are solidly the 1%. So, I reject the premise that a class analysis has that centralizing tendency that you’re assuming. I also don’t think that the fact that everybody can, you know, write a blog or self-publish means anything about revolution at all.
KRYSTIAN WOZNICKI: Ok, thank you very much. From this intervention we go to the next one.
AUDIENCE SPEAKER: Thank you very much. I think that I agree with you on this idea that the 99% is kind of galvanizing collectivizing slogan in a sense that creates a sense of collective identity, but I wonder if there is necessary a dichotomy between individualization and collectivization. And I think one thing I really like about occupy and about the way it used consensus is that perhaps it problematizes an easy distinction between the individual and the collective… without providing simple answers and I think it problematized that dichotomy.
JODI DEAN: I think you’re right, it does problematize that and that’s a good thing… I think that what’s been really interesting particularly during phase two has been the critique of consensus and the, sort of, breakdown of general assemblies. Both in terms of just a tendency… people showing up have a legitimating a role in different occupations. So, it’s interesting, it’s like you say.. dichotomy is breaking down. What I try to do is to keep pushing the collective part so that the cult of the individual as the locus of everything goes away. My hope would be that within the next 6 months to a year that the emphasis on “ Oh, every individual this, individual that…” that that will go away so that the kind of dichotomist thing that I use here wouldn’t be necessary anymore. I just think it’s necessary because of the rhetoric, or not the rhetoric, because of the strength of individualism in both the liberal and the autonomous forms in the movement.
KRYSTIAN WOZNICKI: We’re coming to, I think, the last three questions. We are running out of time. So, I see one here and another here. Is there someone else? Ok, so you’re the third. Please go ahead.
AUDIENCE SPEAKER: So, there were several questions arising in my mind when I was listening to you talking. The first one was… it’s a question for your presentation. When I think of myself, I have many identities, many… and one of my identity is I’m a medium/upper-class girl, I represent here 1% of society. I have my good job, I have my good education, I’m taking part of a diverse university, these courses, I really social mobility and when I look around here, in this room, “we” does not represent society as its whole, yeah, a lot of elements are missing here. When I think about the 99% out there, there’s, I think, no one here, I recognized one guy of this 99%. He’s homeless and he’s trying to warmth in here. I met him the first day I was arriving here and I pursued talking with him and I got to know him a little bit and he will be part of this festival in his own way.
KRYSTIAN WOZNICKI: That’s the question?
AUDIENCE SPEAKER: No, it will come. Ok. When you’re talking about or listening about collectivism you think it leads to communism. And, my question is, what about anarchism? What about anarchistic ideas about collectivism? What about anarchistic ideas to reorganize society and in the academic discourse are always rejected or ignored and I don’t like that. And I would really be interested about your thinking about anarchism. Thanks.
JODI DEAN: Well, I guess in the, kind of academic theory circles where I travel anarchism is not ignored, it’s very strong. And I think it is strong because Marxism became really unfashionable in the late 80’s and 90’s… and it’s not just a coincidence that this corresponded with the fall of communism in ‘89 through ‘91. But in the academic world, Marxism sort of suffered a major decline… instead people did a bunch of cultural work. At the same time, what’s happening is the overall sweeping nature of neo-liberal capital. In that setting, anarchism actually started to flourish academically. It was also very strong in the alter-globalization movement because it seemed to offer people a lot of choice, a lot of alternatives, an absence of repression, a focus on specific issues, specific actions right now. So, I don’t see the absence of it, particularly in occupy Wall Street. In the U.S, David Graver was very visible and he never claimed to be a leader, he was very upfront about that, but his views were visible as important and guiding for some of the people initially. So, the first part I don’t think it’s been missing. I disagree with it because I think we need big state structures.
AUDIENCE SPEAKER: Hi, so you mentioned that occupy Wall Street is in, kind of, phase two at the moment. And it slowed down a bit over winter and we all hope it’s gonna come back. As far as I see, politics or working in politics is something that you have to do for quite a long time, like, you wanna have… you wanna work in politics over decades and you want to have a structure to sustain yourself. Occupy Wall Street is only a year now… but… isn’t it?
JODI DEAN: Not even. Occupy Wall Street just started in September.
AUDIENCE SPEAKER: Ok, sorry. But the occupy movement… anyways, sorry. So, my question is why don’t you or what’s your plans into using maybe existing democratic structures, which is something that for example, the german green party did the private parties did, like the anti-nuclear power movement in Germany did to sustain their politic work over decades?
JODI DEAN: I think that’s a good question. I can only answer for right now. Cause right now there’s a lot of hostility towards going into any kind of of mainstream party direction. Part of that, though, is really specific to the U.S. context of only two parties. And we only have a maximum of 7 states that allow fusion voting. Fusion voting is where you can vote for someone that’s in the green party, the socialist party, but it’s like… with fusion voting someone can run like a candidate in, like, 4 parties. So, let’s say like Ralph Nader would have been green party, but he might have been counted as a member of 2-3 other parties. For state that allows fusion voting, he can accumulate the votes from any one of those parties. Other states don’t allow that. So, if you ever vote for a third party candidate it’s just a race that doesn’t exist at all. So, we’ve got a voting structure, an electoral structure that makes third parties really, really difficult. When they’ve been successful, that’s tended to be because of someone with an immense amount of money. So, I think a party idea is not great for us. The other structure that has been influential but highly criticized is “Move On”. “Move On” has done some stuff in solidarity with occupy Wall Street, but for the most part, most people in the movement don’t want to be co-opted by “Move On” because we see it as essentially a funnel into support for the democratic party. And it does, it tries to push the Democratic Party away from the right, where it is right now. As a long term thing… what I’d want to see is a long time thing… This focus on finding ways for collective management of the commons and then trying to insert those kinds of plans in a whole variety of locations… And I think that that’s a different way of approaching a long-term process than a party-directed one.
Woznicki wrote a remarkable art review for Eurozine in Fall 2008, in which he claimed the “Zombie” as the most accurate representation of society’s excluded: “Referring to photographs by Bruno Serralongue, Woznicki suggests that the excluded are best represented as zombies: they appear as a community that wants to force its way into society. Their goals are unclear.” [↩]
A new occupation guide, as a continuation and re-adjustment of the previous DIY occupation guide that emerged during the student movement in the fall of 2009. This guide takes into account the strategy and tactics of the previous student movement in relation to Occupy Oakland and the J28 Move-In Assembly. With various practical how-to’s as well as general strategic and tactical questions, this guide hopes to further the discourse and debate on how to occupy.
To consider what Occupy Wall Street has to do with philosophy, to Occupy Philosophy, is already to depart from one of the longstanding dictums of the relationship between philosophy and political invents. I am thinking of Hegel, who as much as he argued that philosophy is its own time comprehended in thought, also famously argued that philosophy can only comprehend its own time retrospectively, can only paint grey on grey once the ink has dried. Occupy, or OWS to use a preferred moniker, preferred not because it ties the movement to the hashtag, making it one of the many instances of the supposed twitter revolutions, but because it abstracts the movement from a specific place making it a general political transformation and not a specific occupation, is very much an active movement. Any statement about it, about its ultimate meaning, possibility, or limitations, must confront the fact that it is still in the process of shaping and forming.
This difficulty, the difficulty of saying something about a movement in process, is complicated by at least three other factors. First, there is the complexity of the movement itself. The fact that there are one, two, many occupations means that any one of the occupations may have very different characteristics, characteristics determined by local histories and reactions. Occupy Oakland with its militant “general strike” against the ports, its refusal of police cooperation, and its occupation is very different from the Occupations elsewhere, such as Maine or Cleveland, that have actively courted support from the local police. Second, any description of what Occupy means must confront not only this geographical complexity, but the complexity of orientations and interpretations that defines and divides each occupation. The political goals of occupation are diverse, from a destruction of capitalism itself and the creation of a new political and economic order through the general assemblies and commons of the occupation to political and economic reforms brought about through a left counterweight to the “Tea Parties.” The tactics are no less diverse, from direct attempts at the communization of existing private property to organized exodus of money from large international banks to local banks and credit unions. This strategic and tactical diversity can be seen as a symptom of a certain void a lack of dominant intellectual and political voice or organization to address the fundamental issues at the heart of occupy. Every issue addressed by Occupy, from the most reformist, the dominance of lobbying and big money in politics, to the most radical, the dominance of capital itself over all elements of life, is outside of the range of the dominant parties, unions, and mainstream political organizations in the US. Of course this void can be space of possibility, a space that has been kept open by the sustained attempt on the part of the occupations to not be coopted by a party or organization. However, this void is also a gap between the critiques of capital that have at the very least persevered (if not flourished) in various sections of Anglo-American academia and anything like a movement or political party. Just as the dominant political parties were caught off guard by people suddenly wanting to discuss the very issues that the immense political spectacle is meant to conceal, academics and intellectuals have been caught off guard by the idea that someone outside of a lecture hall or hotel conference room might actually want to hear and discuss what they want to talk about. So is not only Occupy difficult to discuss because of its active transformations and contradictions, talking about it involves speaking to new audiences, creating new vocabularies and new modes of transmission.
The difficulties and contradictions could be enumerated ad nauseam, but it might be possible to work through them, rather than use them as an excuse or statement of (false) academic modesty. What I propose here is to work through some of the tensions and contradictions. To begin with, and at the most basic level, it might be worth starting with a few of the things that differentiates Occupy from a long history of protests against wars and other government acts, that have vanished from memory almost as soon as they begin. First, we have the location itself, the occupation of Wall Street rather than another march on Washington. This entails a shift of focus, and a shift of an awareness of the locus of power, from the Capitol to the symbolic center of capital. As much as the focus is on Wall Street, on the center of financial capital, many of the signs and slogans refer to the decision of Citizen’s United, to the idea of corporations as personhood, not to the economic power of corporations, power over work and consumption, but to the political power of corporations, the power that corporations wield in the writing of laws, policy, and the election of candidates. The very slogan, “We are the 99%” is situated in the space between economics and politics. Statistically it refers to the 99% of the population that controls a dwindling percentage of wealth in this country, in contrast to the immense wealth of the 1%. However, it gets much of its rhetorical force from its appeal to majority rule, to the populist idea of 99% of the population excluded from political power. Thus, despite the focus on Wall Street, on inequality and wealth, the focus of Occupy Wall Street is on the political effects of the economy, not the economy itself. Hence the often repeated slogan of getting the money out of Washington and the goal of destroying corporate personhood, all of which are about the idea of not so much changing the economy, of contesting capitalism, but limiting its influence on the political process.
Another way to sum up these aspects of Occupy Wall Street would be to say that they are gatherings of citizens rather than workers. Their goal has been to reclaim a public space, a public space that is increasingly disappearing, rather than to politicize the factories, workplaces, and offices. Following Étienne Balibar and Bernard Stiegler’s work on Gilbert Simondon, we can define a citizen as a particular kind of transindividual individuation, a particular formation of collectivity, a “we,” and individuality, an “I.” The citizen is a transindividual individuation in which the collective and the individual reinforce each other, in which every claim for rights, even the rights to be left alone, unaffected by others, is dependent upon its recognition by others. The citizen is neither exclusively collective nor individual, neither simply equal or free, but the intersection between equality and liberty, what Balibar calls “equaliberty.”[i] This transindividual relation is thus always in flux, not just between the individual and the collective, but between its role as constituted power, function as the basis for state authority, and its constituent, or insurrectionist dimension, claiming the right to contest power and legitimate new structures. In the case of Occupy, we see a claim for the citizen as not only an insurrection, as a right to revolt, but one that claims the will of the people as the source of authority, against representatives and the perversion of the political process by corporations and money, the citizen against Citizen’s United. This is what differentiates the Occupy Movement, even in its most populist dimensions, from the Tea Party; the latter fetishized a founding moment, a founding document, as the source of authority, a source that we could only be viewed as having fallen from, while the former claims the right to revolt, to invent new structures and new relations in the present. Moreover, the spaces that are occupied are what remains of public space, parks, town commons, etc., which initially had a political as well as a recreational function. The conflicts over these occupations, conflicts over the right to occupy, have pitted first amendment principles against a series of laws against public loitering, public sleeping, and public urination aimed at the homeless and guaranteeing “quality of life.” Thus in this sense to, in the control of space, they could be understood as claims by citizens against the reconstruction of urban space around a public that is only a docile consumer.
Focusing on the claims for citizenship, for the restoration of democracy, or even the invention of new forms of democracy, risk concealing the manner in which the economy, capitalism, figures in a more direct way in the politics of Occupy even if it does not take the recognizable form of past demands against capitalism, demands for increased wages and benefits, demands structured around the transindividual individuation of the worker. A quick purview of the “We are the 99%” tumblr site which emerged in the opening days of the Occupation, sees debt, housing debt, student debt, and the debt incurred through medical costs, appearing again and again as a central complaint. The centrality of debt begins to foreground a different relation between politics and money than the demand to simply remove the former from the influence of the latter. This is still not exploitation in its Marxist definition; the economic equation at the center of these protests is not framed between wages and profit, the exploitation that defines surplus value, but between wages and debt. This difference is immense, as students, unemployed individuals, and others burdened with massive debt calculate the gap that separates debt and earnings. These debts are not just quantitatively huge, qualitatively they are unpayable; houses are underwater, caught between a high mortgage and current devaluations, and students who took on massive debt to finance their education find that there are no jobs waiting for them when they graduate. Or, to quote, After the Fall, a document produced by the wage of Occupations in the University of California, “We work and we borrow in order to work and to borrow. And the jobs we work toward are the jobs we already have.”[ii] Or, to put it more succinctly, “No future.” Future is what debt, especially the debt of student loans, counts on, the promise of future earnings, and it is precisely this promise that appears radically foreclosed. The future appears to be sold off in advance.
Starting from debt, from the economics and politics of debt, offers another understanding of the intersection of politics and economics than the populist idea of democracy without capitalism, even if this idea is not articulated. In both case it is a matter of a fundamental blurring of the divides between economics and politics, private and public, but in the first case, that of the citizen against Citizen’s United, there is the idea of a possible reform, a restoration of politics without money, however flawed it may be. The focus on debt, however, changes the focus on both economics and politics. Economics is no longer restricted to the power of big business, of corporations, to lobby and influence politics, but is the exploitation of day-to-day life; in a similar fashion, politics is no longer democracy, either in its representative form, or in the invention of new direct forms, but is the control over life. As Gilles Deleuze states in his text on control, “A Man is no longer a man confined, but a man in debt.”[iii] Which is to say that debt, student debt, housing, and the debts of health care is as much about control over life as it is an extraction of wealth. As Maurizio Lazzarato argues, debt “functions equally as an apparatus of production and a way to govern individual and collective subjects.”[iv]
On the economic side, debt is situated in the transformations of neoliberalism. With respect to the debtor, debt was able to augment the declining real wages of the last forty years, making it possible for people to still make the same purchases and maintain the same status, and it provided access to things such as higher education, even as state expenditure to such services declined. With respect to the creditor, we have an increase of the power of money, and the possibility to extract money from activities that were once expenditures. Declining wages and declining state services not only tip the balance from expenses to profits, as labor becomes cheaper and payments to the state is reduced, but become themselves a source of wealth. We can already begin to see the “subjective” dimension of this accumulation by debt as well. First, at the most basic level debt, in the form of second mortgages and credit card debt, makes it possible for people whose wages are declining to see themselves as still able to purchase the same things, as middle class. Middle class being defined less on a particular economic status, let alone a relation to the means of production, but on the capacity to purchase certain goods, homes, cars, and higher education. In the US much of the legitimacy of the political and economic order rests on the ability of the majority to identify with this class.
The subjective dimension of debt is not limited to the way in which it extends class belonging, patching over a decline of wages. There is a dark side as well; debt infuses this belonging with insecurity, and isolation. There is a qualitative difference in going to college because it has been made affordable by public funding and financing an education through loans. The first is won and maintained collectively as a social good, the second is not only maintained individually, but individuates, subjecting people to their debt. This individuation takes many levels, some of it takes place beyond one’s back, in the form of a credit score and the multiple ways one’s activity can be tracked online. In other ways it is directly manifest in actions and relations. This can be seen in student loan debt. As students take on more and more loans to fund their education, their education changes form. Anyone who teaches at a University is perhaps aware of the chilling effect that student debt has an intellectual inquiry and education. Students do not ask themselves the questions: what interests me? And what discipline or field do I show talent for? But ask instead: what will get me a job? What will the market demand? Debt is the future acting on the present. The idea of future debt, of the cost of student loans, acts on the present, determining choices and limiting possibilities. Debt is mode of governmentality, a way to restrict and curtail actions; a mode that is all the more effective in being internalized.
Student debt can be understood as a transformation of the educational experience and the university, one that uses the power of the state, taxation and the allocation of funds, to restructure the university from below.[v] Indebted students, students desperately seeking wages adequate to their debt, are less likely to demand courses and programs engaging in critical thinking, let alone engage in the political activism that made the “student” a political transindividual individuation, defined by its liminal position between home and work. Debt produces students who are desperately try to match their actions to the mercurial job market, rather than rethink society and their place within it. The politics of debt are produced from above, but the effects are felt from below in the daily actions of not only students, who ask only “how can this course get me a job,” but also an increasingly precarious adjunct teaching faculty forced to tailor their teaching to whatever can get them work.
In an early text by Marx this internalization of credit is described as transformation of morality and human relationships. With debt, everything that was outside of the monetary relation, particular skills, talents, desires, and aptitudes, becomes part of it. As Marx writes,
Credit is the economic judgment on the morality of a man. In credit, the man himself, instead of metal or paper, has become the mediator of exchange, not however as a man, but as the mode of existence of capital and interest. The medium of exchange, therefore, has certainly returned out of its material form and been put back in man, but only because the man himself has been put outside himself and has himself assumed a material form. Within the credit relationship, it is not the case that money is transcended in man, but that man himself is turned into money, or money is incorporated in him. Human individuality, human morality itself, has become both an object of commerce and the material in which money exists. Instead of money, or paper, it is my own personal existence, my flesh and blood, my social virtue and importance, which constitutes the material, corporeal form of the spirit of money. Credit no longer resolves the value of money into money but into human flesh and the human heart. Such is the extent to which all progress and all inconsistencies within a false system are extreme retrogression and the extreme consequence of vileness.
As Lazzarto argues, the entire economy of debt is implicated within a work on the self, in which the individual is governed by the idea of maximizing value and managing risks in a series of choices that are not only radically individuated but moralized. Morality is not the subordination of economic concerns to moral criteria, to some concern with the individual person, but the reverse, the subordination of morality to the economy, the subsumption of morality to the economy. Trust, responsibility, and obligation become concepts of the moralization of the economy, the point where economic relations become moralized. Debt is a mutation of homo economicus: it is no longer, as Marx argued, the subject of “freedom, equality, and Bentham,” but the subject of obligation, inequality, and Becker.
The subject of debt is isolated, separated from others, who are no longer seen as part of a collective condition. With debt there is only one’s responsibility, one’s isolation, one’s fears up against an economic situation of abstract calculation. It is very difficult to say “we” debtors, in the way one could say “we” citizens or “we” workers. Part of debt passes beneath us, in the calculations, quantifications, and aggregations that make up our digital self, our virtual identity, and is this respect we cannot even say “I.” But even that part that individuates us, the part that we carry with us as a burden, does not allow for the creation of a “We.” This is because debt is seen less as a collective condition, as part of a new regime of accumulation and a new governmentality, than as an individual fate. Debt splinters into its myriad kinds, student debt, mortgage debt, and consumer debt, and the various individual relations to it, the choices made and risks taken. Viewed in this way debt, or financialization, is perhaps only an extreme point in the neo-liberal economy. Its general characteristics are, as we have seen, an extraction of wealth from relations outside of the worker-capital relationship, as not just production but reproduction become the basis for debt and wealth, and a production of subjectivity, that is oriented towards isolation, fragmentation, and inequality. In this manner debt is consistent with transformations of labor in the thirty years, which have lead to short term contracts, temp work, limited union membership and collective bargaining. It is also consistent with the rise of digital technologies that create new possibilities of individuation in consumer profiles, tailored advertisements, etc. all of which transform consumption and leisure into ways of capturing attention and generating profits.
If one looks beyond the focus on lobbyists, on the claims for citizenship, to the anxiety about debt and precarious labor, then it is possible to begin to understand a different relationship with the economy and politics. Yes, it is true, the various occupations are not organizing as workers, in terms of the identities, tactics, and spaces occupied and this has lead some to dismiss the occupations as simply populist movements with no real critique of capital. We should not rush to conclude that the lack of the worker as transindividual individuation to be a negative thing, there is, after all, a long tradition of writing in the Marxist tradition, which has argued against the ideal of critique capital from the perspective of workers. This tradition, beginning with Mario Tronti and the autonomist tradition and continuing through the idea communization, has stressed that the politics of such a critique can only be a politics of reform, a struggle for better wages and benefits. “To abolish capital is at the same time to negate oneself as a worker and not to self-organize as such: it’s a movement of the abolition of enterprises, of factories, of the product, of exchange (whatever its form).”[vi] From this perspective we should not spend too much time mourning the lack of the worker as an identity organizing Occupy Wall Street, or hold out hopes for unions to be revitalized. Such actions can only lead to reforms, to better wages and more work, and would return us to the division of worker and student, waged work and unpaid reproductive work. There is a positivity to this absence, a positivity that only takes an inchoate form in not just the politicization of debt, but also in the global nature of the protests, a positivity that recognizes the full spectrum of exploitation.
The question remains, however, as to how to articulate this nascent critique of capital that is framed in terms of debt and insecurity and how to organize this mass of debtors, unemployed, and precariously employed. Some writers, such as David Graeber, have turned to the long history of debt to see the current situation as yet another chapter in a long history of debt revolts. In this five thousand year history, the struggle over wages and exploitation, appears only as a brief chapter in a long durée of struggle of debtors against creditors. The present is the time of jubilees. Opposed to this return of the past there are those who argue that we find in the contemporary production process an entirely new subjectivity, a new conception of politics, a multitude or precariat. As work becomes increasingly oriented towards the reproduction of social relations, knowledge and affects, it also becomes increasingly vulnerable as the boundaries between waged and unwaged become even more permeable. The present is understood as either the reflection of the oldest inequalities, or to be made up of new exploitations. This same contradiction between the new and the old can be found at the level of liberation, at the level of the possibilities for organizing: some point to the resilience of the oldest tactics, direct democracy, direct action, and even espouse an ideal of locality as a goal, as the general assembly becomes the new democratic model; on the opposite side there are those who point to the role of facebook, twitter, and social networking as the central organizing tools, placing these actions, like the revolts in the Arab world, under the rubric of twitter revolutions, as new political possibilities opened up by networks of communication. Exploitation and liberation is caught between the old and the new. Rather than reconcile these two points of view in a sort of on the one hand and then the other, or attempt to find some kind of dialectical sublimation of the two, it is necessary to examine the contradictions and limitations of the Occupy Wall Street movement through an examination of its composition.
Composition in this sense follows the work of the Italian autonomists who emphasized the examination of class composition. This work, which began with the early autonomists such as Mario Tronti, was intended to move away from taking class as a given, as a subject forever poised between the in-itself and the for-itself of the “now hidden, now open” class struggle. In its place there is an examination of both the way in which class is constituted, according to its technological and political components, the division of labor and the level of organization, and constitutive, reshaping capitalist accumulation through its struggles. I would add to this, following the worker of Franco Berardi, Stephven Shukatis and Maurizio Lazzarato, that this composition the subjective composition, the affects (hope, fear) ideas and images that motivate and drive individuals and collectives. We have already seen how these three elements combine in the case of debt: debt is dependent upon a new technological regime of surveillance and data sharing, is part of a political strategy of neoliberal governmentality, and perpetuates a subjectivity of isolation and anxiety. A fleshed out compositional analysis would examine this not just in terms of debt, but also work, consumption, and the relation to the state. I can only provide a few notes in that direction here.
The various relations to the kinds of debt, housing, student, and consumer, is one of the constituent dimensions of the occupations. As such it defines both a commonality, a common grievance against Wall Street, against the power of finance, and a point of contradiction and division. As I have already stated this division concerns the various types of debt, student, housing, and consumer, all of which are endlessly individuated according to risks and choices, responsibility as fragmentation. It constitutes an economic and affective commonality, but one that is experienced in terms of individuation. The fragmentation and isolation of debt, with its individualization through surveillance and anxiety, is mirrored in the sphere of production. Work has been restructured through temporary contracts, loss of collective bargaining, and generalized insecurity all of which lead to similar isolation and individuation. Work, even the work at a given office, call center, or distribution site, is no longer that of a “we,” of a collective identity, but is individualized into temporary contracts, continual performance reviews, and dispersed incentives. To call this an “I” with all of its connotation of independence and autonomy, is not entirely accurate. As with debt the balance sheet of any one’s particular performance and hard work remains completely outside of their efforts. People are hired and fired not because of their efforts, but because of the balance of profits and losses, and the cost of wages halfway around the globe. Despite this the “work ethic” remains, or it is perhaps all that remains. Work ceases to be the predominant productive force, displaced by the general knowledge of society externalized in various machines, what Marx called the “general intellect” but it remains the enforced measure. All that remains of work as it loses its central economic function and its transindividual dimension, constituting the basis for collective belonging and individual identity, is its disciplinary function, the demand to “be professional.” Thus to some extent work goes full circle: it began with the protestant ethic, with a discipline without guarantee, a work on oneself to remind oneself of one’s chose status, and it ends that way as well.[vii] All one is left with is a dogged determination to keep working, to take out another loan to learn a new skill, to maximize one’s potential.
The transformation of work from an economic necessity to an ethical or disciplinary imperative is reflected in some of the opposition to Occupy Wall Street. The first real reaction to Occupy Wall Street, the “We are the 53%” tumblr site not only shifted the entire idea from exploitation to taxes, but the various testimonies stressed the idea of hard work, often including testimonies of people who worked multiple jobs. That these individuals had to work multiple jobs, or worked long hours, was not presented as a critique of the economic system but a testament to their individual worth and virtue. This idea, or at least an inclination of it can be found in all of the counter-protesters who some up their opposition by yelling, “Get a job!” As much as this critique carries with all of the old ideological ghosts of welfare queens, of people living off of the public, it also expresses a kind of disciplinary injunction. The “job” is not so much an economic imperative, but a moral and political one, a job is understood as precisely what keeps people off the street, keeps people from protesting, keeping them too buy or too tired to do anything but work. The idea of everyone doing their job and nothing but their job, the fantasy of Plato’s Republic returns as work is shrinking. What we are dealing with is not the work ethic living on long past its economic usefulness, an imperative to work haunting an economy that automates and out sources jobs, but an intensification of it. As work disappears especially in the face of a mounting recession, it becomes all the more imperative at the level of ethics and morality. The unemployed are told to blame themselves, for some failure in their attitude, rather than look to the economic and social conditions of their situation. This insistence of the moral over and above the economic can also be seen in terms of debt as well. As much as it might make political and economic sense to offer some kind of debt forgiveness to those burdened with mortgages or students facing loans that they cannot pay, it is argued that the moral risk is too great, forgiveness would corrupt the foundations of the republic. The moral imperative to pay one’s debts and to work hard outlasts the economic imperative and possibility. If the obligation to pay one’s debts and the work ethic are ghosts, remnants of another economic era, then they are angry and vengeful ghosts, becoming more intense as they become more impossible.
To complete the picture of the current historical moment, one would have to add punishment and the penal regime to debt and work. Punishment and law have also combined the individualizing techniques of surveillance and the moralizing rhetoric of individual responsibility to impose a new authoritarian regime. Individual responsibility has become the lynchpin linking debt, work, and law. Any discussion of social conditions, especially the social conditions that have driven people into debt, left them without work, makes the drug trade the only possible economic activity for some, is excluded in advance, all that remains is individual responsibility. Collective action to remedy these conditions is thus also excluded, and when government acts it can only act to further discipline individual responsibility. This moralizing lynchpin is absent when it comes to discussing the collapse of the economy, all accountability disappears in the supposed complexity of the economy itself. It is for this reason that Loïc Wacquant describes the contemporary state as a Centaur, with fundamentally different rules for those who find themselves at the top or bottom. “Actually existing neoliberalism extolls ‘laissez faire et lasser passer’ for the dominant, but it turns out to be paternalist and intrusive for the subaltern, and especially for the urban precariat whose life parameters it restricts through the combined mesh of supervisory workfare and judicial oversight.” [viii]
The common denominator of debt, work, and punishment in the current conjuncture is not only that of their ethical dimension, their existence as individual imperatives rather than collective economic condition, but of insecurity and precariousness. This precariousness is often branded, which is to say marketed, as autonomy and freedom. The lack of collective bargaining contracts, of stable commitments, and of social provisions that pass through the state, is presented as a kind of freedom and liberation. The subject of contemporary society, of neoliberal society, is one who is free to maximize his or her human capital, as well as other resources such as a home, benefiting from the lack of constraints and connections to maximize profit. This is a situation in which any lateral connection, any connection with other workers, students, or even other customers of insurance, that is not networking, not oriented towards maximizing one’s potential is unnecessary or avoided. It is perhaps more accurately described as class decomposition than composition, as students and workers are isolated and fragmented into individuals and aggregates of fragmented bits of intelligence and knowledge. The identification is not between other individuals, any collective, but with capital itself, with the enterprise. The worker becomes an entrepreneur of the self, and the student an investor in one’s own human capital. It is perhaps in this sense that “corporate personhood” should be taken as issue: it is not that capitalism would be better if we could some how just return it to individual’s exploiting individuals, but capitalism functions by modeling a person that aligns his or her striving, with its functioning.[ix]
The identity of individual striving with the functioning of capital has its limits, however, and these limits came to the front as the economy collapsed. One could possibly say that just as there was a housing bubble, and we are in the midst of a higher education bubble, there is also a subjectivity bubble. As long as housing prices increased, as long as it seemed possible to continue to maximize one’s potential, one’s profit, then this identification of individual striving with the economy as a whole persisted. As the economy collapsed so too did this ideal of subjectivity, this way of relating to other and the world. The turn out, the popularity of the occupations around the country, is itself a symptom of a breakdown of the identification of individuals and the interest of capital. The occupations are a cause as well as an effect of this rupture, the presence of occupations all over the country makes it easier for people to identify, to act. The action and presence of others becomes a catalyst. It is precisely this spiral of cause and effect that has intensified the Occupy Wall Street movement in the last few months. However, the collapse of the asocial sociality of debt and precarity does not in itself constitute a new collectivity, a new transindividual individuation. Instead, as we have seen, there is a return to all the old ideologies and histories of the past, such as the ideal of the citizen and the populist ideal of a 99%. While this language of citizenship and a republic sold out makes for snazzy placards and effective slogans, something different takes place in the actual occupations, as people from different economic strata, differently situated with respect to risk and uncertainty, to exploitation, come together. The problem is immense as a society lacking class composition, or even any identification across class is suddenly confronted with forming relations and solidarity across divisions of class, race, and other inequalities.
The occupations have become not just symbols, protests against inequality, but symptoms as well, as the collapsing “safety” of a society of debt and inequality dumps people into one place. As much as there is a unification, albeit an inchoate one, of a central message, there is also a division across the degrees of precarity, the difference that divides a student facing immense debt and an uncertain job situation from an unemployed person who has lost her home As George Caffentzis has argued, unemployment and homelessness has been one of the major divisions within the occupy camps. The media has presented this as a division between the dedicated, principled occupiers and the dangerous and unstable freeloaders that have come to the occupations. That dichotomy has not been confirmed by my experience, or much of what I have read of Occupy. However, it has forced the occupations to deal in a concrete way with the very effects of the policies and politics they are protesting. It is one thing to be opposed to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, against the cutting of mental health programs, and the defunding of homeless shelters, but it is another to be in a sleeping bag woken up by someone suffering post-traumatic stress order. To suggest that the homeless are a burden to the camps is incredibly unfair. In my experience many homeless have embraced the camps, sometimes even leaving the disciplinary confines of shelters that police their comings and goings to enter into a space where they are not only fed and sheltered but where they can act and speak, changing the world around them. It is in this aspect that the occupations deserve the name communes, in place of a system that can only deal with collective conditions individually, moralizing and disciplining dependence, the occupations suggest another possibility based on solidarity and commonality. They are factories for generating solidarity.
This does not mean that there are not divisions within the occupations. The division might best be described as a division between different stakes in the occupation themselves. For some they are homes, providing necessary food and shelter, while for others they are symbols, actions, even if they are suggest the possibility of another economy. It might be useful to think of the compositions of the occupations as crisscrossed with different relations to not only the contemporary situation of exploitation, debt and work, but investment in the existing system, the capacity or desire to identify with it. There are those that believe that the existing economic system can be reformed, that its failures can be traced to recent transformations, and those who understand, sometimes at the core of their being, that it cannot. Which is not to see that these two axes are coordinated, not all of those who are most exploited are most radical in their demands and comfortably employed activists and tenured radicals can be seen in the occupations. There is, however, a heterogeneity of concrete needs and abstract desires, of economic and affective composition.
Any discussion of the composition of the occupations must also include the transformative effect of the occupation themselves. The four months of occupation have provided lessons for those inside and outside the occupations about the functioning of power. First, and foremost the very existence of the Occupy Wall Street has proven that what we speak of in monolithic terms as “the media” or the spectacle, that distracts people from the economic and political realities of the world, is not as monolithic as it appears. It can be punctured by actions, coopted by memes, and gradually infiltrated by narratives that outside of its purview. Second, it has exposed the brutality and corruption of the police. The police have shown themselves again and again to be protectors not of “the peace” but of existing property relations, of exploitation. The entire history of occupy is punctuated by images from the pepper-spray in New York, to Scott Olsen, and the cop at UC Davis, which have exposed (to some) the violence of our own social order. Of course many of these images have been circulated through the internet, drawing these two points together: the images of police violence and the protests against inequality combine in a corrosive mixture that eats away at the dominant image of a benevolent and just order. This is not news to everyone, but the occupation has become an education to many, as videos of a very different America than the one broadcast on television is shown on youtube. However, as much as these two lessons have transformed the movement, and have shifted the very contours of political action, the central point of Occupy, the economy, inequality, or capitalism, has not emerged with any clarity. This is not a matter of demands, demands are always addressed to some power, rather it is a matter of internal theoretical understanding and clarity. For Occupy to last, for it to truly become a transformative moment in national and global politics, it must counter the tendencies of isolation and fragmentation with shared concepts and shared debates, with an intellectual project that can outlast the shared campsites and cooking pots. This is difficult given the long history of not only anti-intellectualism, but of the intellectual hegemony of the spontaneous philosophies of fragmentation and isolation. As I have already suggested, this lack can be seen in the gulf that separates the stories that the 99% tells about itself—stories of debt and economic insecurity—which indicate a fundamental intensification of exploitation, and the slogans it carries—which suggest an ideal of a kinder and gentler capitalism.
As much as Occupy signals a change in the relation between economics and politics, a relation that still needs to be thought out, still needs to be theorized. It also involves a fundamental transformation of the relationship between theory, between intellectual production, and political action. For decades, at least in the US, this relation was primarily a non-relation: academics talked of critiques of capital, of exploitation, of the new power relations, knowing full well that only other academics were listening. Occupy Wall Street has changed this, as inequality, class, debt, and even the nature of capitalism itself suddenly emerges on the national and global discourse, like the return of the repressed. This represents a challenge and an opportunity for renewal and transformation of thinking, for political thought that is not just a reflection on something called politics, but thought that actively engages with the conditions and limits of its transmission, articulation, and reception (conditions that are primarily economic). It is is a matter of not just a thought of politics, but a politics and economics of thought. The challenge then is that this is happening at the very moment where the institution that has historically supported such political reflection, the university, is being undermined from within by debt and the economic insecurity of casualization. The opportunity is that suddenly all these questions and intellectual traditions that have remained sequester in graduate seminars, like so many terrariums for endangered species, have the chance to not only be heard but critically examined and transformed. How and why the current economic order can be transformed is appearing to be less and less of academic question. Working through these limitations and opportunities is what it might mean to occupy philosophy. As I have suggested here, the starting point that I would suggest for such an occupation, is first and foremost the intersection of politics and economics, an intersection that goes beyond the influence of lobbyists to encompass the transformation of daily life according to new economic structures, and secondly it involves the articulation of individuation and collectivity.
Presented at Occupy Philosophy Conference Michigan State University
[i] Etienne Balibar, La Proposition de l’Égaliberté pg. 71.
[ii] “After the Fall: Comminique from an Absent Future.” Pg. 8.
[iii] Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on Control Societies” pg. 181
[iv]Maurizio Lazzarato La fabrique de l’homme endetté p. 27
[v] Wacquant describes neoliberalism as “an articulation of the state, market, and citizenship that harnesses the first to impose the stamp of the second onto the third.” [Loic Wacquant, “A Historical Anthropology of Actually Existing Neoliberalism,” pg. 71] To which I would add that it is not just the citizen is restructured, becoming a consumer of state services, but other identities such as the students.
[vi] Communization and its Discontents pg. 43
[vii] Kathi Weeks, The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries pg. 75.