Archives for posts with tag: #OWS

It is absolutely essential that Occupy Wall Street protestors reject the call to submit a list of demands.

Protestors don’t need to answer to anyone except themselves. They are a symptom of a diseased society. They’re taking to the streets to bring this disease to everyone’s attention, and, in particular, to hold up a mirror to those in power. If the current regime fails, it will be because the rift that finally has been brought to light in a concentrated effort will have made the system collapse under its own weight, because of its own internal contradictions. Everything is collapsing from within. The protestors are just the ones courageous enough to wake people up before it’s too late.

They are not using Us vs. Them logic. That is the exact opposite of what they are saying. They are saying that everyone is part of the same system. They are the 99% reminding the 1% that they too (the 1%) are part of the system. That’s why the protestors represent something Universal. They are speaking for everyone. Everyone is in this. The protestors have just brought to the light of day what others want to stifle and suppress and block from sight, what others are too cowardly or stupid or selfish to face. There are no demands that need to be submitted. The protestors’ responsibility is only to list their grievances, which are the grievances of an entire society.

To submit a list of demands would be to acknowledge the Us vs. Them logic, which has no place in this. It would be a cop-out, an unfair bargain — a purchase of a toxic asset, if you will. It is the responsibility of those in power to legitimate their rule, to justify the way they’re running things. That’s the protestors’ demand: for those in power to answer for themselves, to answer for the deterioration of the society we all share. Those in power have to answer to the protestors, not the other way around. Those in power should be submitting their suggestions for how they’re going to get us out of this (since they have the power to do so). That’s what the protests are fighting for. And that’s why they have to keep growing. The stronger the message, and the longer it’s delivered, the harder it will be to ignore. We’re all neighbors, after all.

As a final word, I want to comment on the remarks of one protestor, a 35-year-old history teacher, interviewed by the New York Times for this piece on the issue of demands. He quotes Frederick Douglass as saying, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” . . . . But #OWS has already made their demand. Mr. Douglass’ point is that people shouldn’t be lazy and wait for others to take action. “Demand” in that case meant “raise your fist in the air.” Abolitionists didn’t need to write up a list of demands. Their demands were well-enough “articulated” through action; they were there for everyone to see, out in the streets. Their demands were grievances, not suggestions (unless you count the suggestion to end the cause of the grievances — “we hate slavery; end slavery” — a pretty simple formula for making demands that #OWS has already used a million times over).

A demand is as much an act as a proposal. The burden of writing up a proposal is in the hands of those who created the situation, not the ones responsible enough to criticize it.

(I started thinking about this after I read Ernesto Laclau’s article The Philosophical Roots of Discourse Theory, in which he discusses hegemonic relations, specifically the categories of difference and equivalence. There’s obviously much more to be said on #OWS and hegemony).

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Occupy Wall Street (#OWS) protestors continue to face police brutality. Now is an excellent time to think about the meaning of the institution of the police, and especially its relation to the political. In Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, Jacques Rancière describes these categories, based on a close reading of Plato’s Republic, as well as numerous other classical and contemporary texts. The difficulty of developing a theory of the political and of democracy cannot be overestimated. Rancière’s work is exemplary in this regard. The following is a basic description he gives of the logic of the police, and of their function, compared to those of the political.

The police enforce “patterns and procedures of ruling that are predicated on a given distribution of qualifications, places, and competencies” (53). This (re)enforcement is anti-political, because true politics negates the status quo. It is the exposure of a rift in society, a dispute within a hierarchy; and in this dispute there appears a re-distribution of social space. Democracy is a form government based on rule by the people, by anyone, regardless of qualification. And because there is no ultimate qualification, power is just temporary, “borrowed” from the people. In order to effectuate a change in power, political conflict is absolutely necessary; political conflict is thus the sine qua non of democratic government. Therefore if the police prevent political action in a democracy, then, paradoxically, they both reinforce and undermine the government, since while they are protecting the current governmental regime, they are also undermining democracy itself, the foundation of that government. The police are there to stifle democratic impulses.

“Police interventions in public spaces consist primarily. . .in breaking up demonstrations. . . .[Their] slogan is: ‘Move along! There’s nothing to see here!’. . .[They] assert that the space for circulating is nothing but the space of circulation. Politics, by contrast, consists in transforming this space of ‘moving-along’, of circulation, into a space for the appearance of a subject: the people, the workers, the citizens. . . .It consists in re-figuring space. . .It is the instituting of a dispute over the distribution of the sensible” (37). If we are to experience a democratic moment – the anarchic reframing of the sensible – then “power must become political;” that is, it must be challenged, disputed, loosened. And “for that to happen the logic of the police has to be thwarted by the logic of politics” (53).

Look at the photos from #OWS. The aesthetic features are virtually the same as any other protest, worldwide. Police line the streets, watching protestors march, waiting for them to cross the line, literally and figuratively. What police accomplish by giving protestors a specific space in which to protest is the “purification of politics [which] is actually its eviction.” It is a portioning of the sensible into categories which follow a mandated, authorized logic. This logic is what politics itself is meant to disrupt; “the political” is a superfluous “extra” part of social life that shows itself in acts of defiance against an official order.

Democracy in particular is a paradoxical form of government: those who govern have no particular qualification to govern; their qualification is the absence of qualification. They are “unqualified” precisely because in a democracy there is no one particular thing that qualifies someone to govern – whether age, socioeconomic class, ethnicity, intelligence/knowledge, or wealth. The obvious difficulty with this is that modern, actual governments want stability, rather than democracy. They have trouble thinking like the #OWS protestors and their supporters. They have trouble understanding how workers councils and general assemblies work. They have trouble understanding the sense of what all those luminaries who inspired revolutions had to say about running a democratic government. But it’s understandable that governments today don’t think these alternative forms of government are possible. They are stuck, like the rest of us, with huge, militarized nation-states and multinational capitalism. And this is simply unsustainable, at least if we want to avoid dictatorship. That is why what’s happening at #OWS (and around the world) is so important. People don’t really want reform. They want massive change. A revolution. The protestors in this photo put it best:

And so looking at the way the protests are going, one has to ask, why are the police resorting to violence? Perhaps this is because the democratic impulse is too strong. It is humiliating, in a way, to be with the police, watching democracy unfold in the streets and standing on the sidelines, allowing it to roll by; the police are in the absurd position in which their job is to watch the negation of their function. They are there to watch others reject the very purpose of the police, to watch protestors thwart the smooth functioning of the status quo. They are being told to obey orders that threaten their very existence. Sometimes this absurd inactivity becomes too much. Sometimes the contradictions become unbearable, and one’s purpose must be defended, even if it means resorting to violence and making illegal arrests en masse.

But in the same way, it is also humiliating to be a protestor, corralled by the police, watching as the police negate the reason for your protest, watching them reduce the meaning of this Event to a predictable, managed aspect of an illegitimate governmental arrangement, one which you’re attempting to change. I imagine the contradictions mount in the minds of many protestors who turn to violence. Frankly, I’m not sure what to think of this. If we believe in a true politics, if we want to be faithful to the idea of universality, then should we not reject the authority of the police outright? Should violence not be a legitimate form of demonstration, if that violence is directed against the police of the ruling regime?


The deliberative democracy project, in which politics can be governed by rational decision making and the process of public deliberation can be guaranteed to have reasonable outcomes, makes sense only when conditions of ideal discourse prevail. These conditions, however, imply the removal of power relations from discourse; or in other words, they assume that ideal speech situations exist in which discourse is driven communicatively, rather than strategically; a position which must be rejected. One must understand that language use itself is colonized by power. The goal of greater inclusivity through discourse fails to stand up in the face of the undermining of inclusivity by the use of language. What is at stake in the claim that politics is unnecessarily adversarial is the denial of the central role of conflict in politics and collective identity formation. This is the work the concept of hegemony does, as the point of convergence and collapse between objectivity and power. The hegemony of a depoliticized public discourse, that of ‘third way’ politics is that there are correct answers to be had, which politicians are unwilling to take for whatever reason. This is rubbish, the answers in reality become clear only in retrospect (http://www.cnn.com/2011/09/30/opinion/toobin-government-not-broken/ argues for a similar point, but without being willing to take the final step the argument entails, perhaps the government is not broken, but the point is that social conflict such as #occupywallstreet shows that the polity is not broken. Such movements are properly agonistic rather than adversarial, they still seek to include other members of the polity, unlike an adversarial movement such as the tea party which seeks to expel members from the polity.) And then only because they are now historically imperative. This concept mirrors Foucault’s description of human history:

Humanity does not gradually progress from combat to combat until it arrives at universal reciprocity, where the rule of law finally replaces warfare; humanity installs each of its violences in a system of rules and thus proceeds from domination to domination… Rules are empty in themselves, violent and unfinalized; they are impersonal and can be bent to any purpose… [I]nterpretation is the violent or surreptitious appropriation of a system of rules, which in itself has no essential meaning, in order to impose a direction, to bend it to a new will, to force its participation in a different game. (Language, Counter-memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews)

All language, and by extension politics, is warfare by other means.

Without the presence of the Lacanian master signifier, the signifier of symbolic authority founded only on itself, language has no meaning. The introduction of the master signifier to discourse distorts the symbolic field by introducing the intrinsic violence of language, which is generated by clashes over what constitutes appropriate language use, and who can use it, without which the entire symbolic field would evaporate. Similarly, the same violence is perpetrated, for example when some events are deemed worthy of public attention while others are marginalized through a refusal to acknowledge them. However, if the violent, authoritarian, master-signifier were removed from the symbolic field, then the field itself would vanish.

One must acknowledge the existence of power relations and the desire to alter how power is allocated, but perhaps more importantly one must renounce the illusion that we can ever be completely free from power. The complete dissolution of all power is a naive goal, one must instead see that power is constitutive of human relations and what is contingent is how it is used and by whom it is held. Of course protestors at #occupywallstreet will hold different goals, we already understand that every consensus is merely the temporary result of a provisional hegemony, that is, nothing more than a stabilization of power in the moment which can just as easily fracture the next. When establishment groups joined the protest after 2 weeks what effect can be expected? Will this lead to increased resolve, will the strategic rationality of large organizations give power to the movement, or will it undermine the truly radical potential? These mainstream groups joining the protest provide legitimacy but the ability to speak always already represents recourse to systems of power that give one the authority to speak, and to require the other to listen. By gaining legitimacy in this way the movement gives up part of its status as “outside” the order. To this point, many claims are made that the protestors are just children with nothing better to do, or only the unemployed; but isn’t it obvious that those are exactly the people who capitalism has most let down. The future that past generations have been able to count on is not available to today’s youth, and of course the high rate of unemployment is a symptom of the economic situation. If these are not the voices we should hear, the voices of those most affected, then who should we turn to.

The question is if such a political move is capable of building up a broad coalition of support without diluting its message too far. Will’s recent post brilliantly argues that the true meaning of the protest can be read off from its many messages, that is a disillusionment with the capitalist hegemony. One can read the endless interrogations by commenters online about how the protest is unguided and ask how can they not see the common theme, the solution which is already evident in the protest, but such a question comes about only after making the subjective determination as the one’s role. If one has already committed themselves to such a change then the question is obvious, but for one who still holds onto the ideological blinders of the prevailing hegemony how can such a solution ever appear ready-at-hand? Such a solution is already part of the counter-hegemony (that is a new hegemony, not a naive anti-hegemonic stance).

EDIT: Another interesting post by Daniel Drezner, at Foreign Policy, which moves in a similar manner to my argument, went up several hours after this post went live, for more check it out.