[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]
More than a month ago, Peter Levine asked 10 thoughtful questions about Occupy Wall Street. In the spirit of one of the most succinct works of philosophy in Western history, let me provide 11 answers, as 2011 comes to a close.
1) It wasn’t just Time magazine; it was a whole lot of people noticing the same thing: that in 2011, a whole lot of ordinary people–generally not-wealthy people, generally not-politically-engaged people, generally people who apparently would have preferred that the political and economic contexts upon and through which their ordinary lives operated not be playgrounds for elite exploitation–took a whole lot of risks, and made a whole lot of noise. The risks were hardly equally shared: the protests and rebellions across the Arab world that began a year ago involved lives being put on the line (and frequently lost), while the protests in Madison, Wisconsin, last February, or the Occupy Wall Street protests that spread across the country beginning last September, usually involved nothing more than being willing to stand outside in uncomfortable weather and possibly face occasional rough treatment at the hands of the cops. But nonetheless there is a common thread through them all: it was a year in which hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions of people, throughout the Middle East and Europe and North America, went to the streets to be heard.
2) Getting outdoors and into the street–leaving the privacy of one’s home and attempting to literally “occupy” public space–is a principle of deep importance to democratic thinking. It is not, for the most part, a liberal democratic principle, focused on ensuring the privacy and protection of individual rights, but rather is a communitarian/populist/socialist/anarchist principle, underscoring the idea that for a people to govern themselves, to be heard as themselves, then they must assemble as a people, and not from a distance, through (established, and perhaps thus easily co-opted) state channels and experts and forms of representation.
3) Once people assemble together–really assemble, not to listen to already-appointed authorities, but to constitute their own authorities–one result is a community of equals. Again, not equals in the liberal sense–in which all individuals, in their place and with their claims, are duly recognized in the context of a general pluralism–but equals in the sense of being joint participants in a general, collective project.
4) A project such as that potentially leads–or at least potentially should lead–to the disappearance of the lines and norms which keep socio-economic classes and racial groups and genders separate from each other. Obviously, this is not a development which takes place without some context, and in so many of 2011’s protests, from Greece to Wall Street, the context was already pushing many members of the liberal elite into a confrontation with lower-class sensibilities, leading to a re-evaluation of what unites the middle classes with the poor, and a deeper appreciation of thinking in more immediate ways about “sustainability” and “equality.” Was this sort of philosophical realization taking place concomitant to all OWS protests, and all those different types of contests with power which proceeded them? Probably not–but it did take place in at least some of them, or else you wouldn’t have seen the political discourse change as much as it did. (The far-from-complete-but-still-real changes in the public role of women in Arab countries following the revolutions there is another example of this.)
5) Of course, these kind of philosophical realizations usually don’t happen through simple intellectual conversation; they happen as people plan and eat and rub up against and work with one another. They happen, in other words, through dozens, hundred, thousands of people finding ways to keep their assemblies going and succeeding, in the radical changed context which the people involved have placed themselves (or been placed) in. It’s easy to mock some of the at-times-infuriating (even to those involved!) procedures which evolve as “mobs” try to figure out how exist amongst and alongside themselves as equals, but the slow work of participatory democracy is a great teacher nonetheless.
6) One of the key ideas which being assembled together into a community of equals makes clear is that many categories and labels–most of which presume a liberal individualist model of social organization–don’t actually fit. Is OWS a “liberal” movement? Only in the most circumstantial sense of tending to push causes that have a somewhat greater likelihood of being embraced by “liberal” political parties. One could, however, just as easily argue that there is a deep “conservatism” to these protests, in the sense that they are powered by people wanting to conserve the social contracts and communities that they have built (or have attempted to build) their livelihood and neighborhoods upon, social contracts and communities that are being challenged by financial institutions that view homes and retirement funds as speculative playthings, by political parties that are ripe with corruption, and by governments quick to align their interests with those of austerity-minded corporate players. Protests like OWS are liberal, conservative, socialist, and most importantly, anarchist, all at the same time.
7) The anarchism implied by the assembled, democratic power of people in the streets and the parks has prompted a great deal of commentary, and that’s for the best: it is important for the left to be reminded that the power of collective, utopian thinking about equality is greater than that the forms by which it is usually institutionalized in liberal governments and state policies. But it is also essential that the anarchist reflections which 2011 has generated not be reduced to individualistic bromides; to say that the genius of anarchism is that it combines a “thoroughly socialist critique of capitalism” with a “liberal critique of socialism” misses the mark; to blithely combine the promise of “autonomous associations” with an unspecified “freedom of the individual” does not serve anarchism, or the promise of general democratic assemblies, particularly well.
8) The importance of this ideological observation is demonstrated by simply looking at the actual history and development of the various uprisings of 2011: leadership was always necessary, and always involved, from the very beginning of each of them. Whether it was done formally or informally, invariably community bounds were set, rules were developed, and thus a sense of identification, of mutuality, and of responsibility followed. To pretend otherwise–that 2011 represented some complete break from the nature of human beings as social animals, as creatures that need some sort of structure and stability for their language and passions to even make sense–is to set up these movements for failure before their work is half-started.
9) This is not a contradiction in terms–the reality that these assemblies of protest were organized and had some community integrity and structured maintenance doesn’t mean they were no different from the liberal movements and organizations which they often rejected. The key difference was the presence of these organically emerging and developing community forms; the fact that these movements and their leaders were grounded locally and focused locally. It really is a misnomer, though a handy one, to globally speak of 2011 as “The Year of the Protester” as a singular; I would argue, in contrast, that the reason why so many of these movements had as much success as they did in their various challenges to the many entrenched powers that be, was that they were multiple, springing up and taking shape, whatever their ideological inspiration, in the context of the specific abuses and threats felt by those who shared (and contested over!) these very same cities and institutions with one another. (By the end of 2011, there have been close to 3000 different “Occupy” movements around the United States and throughout the globe; such decentralized, local assemblies are, in the eyes of some, a model for where capitalism needs to go.)
10) The fact that these assemblies of protest and organic communities of equals were so variable and didn’t fit into any universally established procedural boxes was a constant frustration to many. Again and again, commentators who claimed to be concerned about inequality and all the rest looked at OWS and wondered what it was all about, scratched their heads at the supposedly fuzzy-headed notion of that democratic communities have so much to do with “feeling,” and groused that populists fail to recognize–as the neoliberal technocrats presumably do–that democracy is ultimately about political power, and that you can’t have that unless you have a hierarchy setting priorities and getting results. Such carping has a point, of course; to be carried away in experience of democratic belonging, of real in-the-street-change-making, gets one away from the fact that there are allies who are equally grounded, equally local, and equally exploited ready to assist in the protest, so long as those in the community don’t get confused as to who their real friends are. But in the end, the critics missed the point: the ability of people to govern themselves, to truly being sovereign, is fundamentally tied to being, and feeling, outside of and larger than themselves, to being awash in the Arendtian demos. That is, to be sure, a sometimes frightening and dangerous thing, which is why liberal protections and retreats to privacy have an important place in free societies. Moreover, all that is rarely a good recipe for making concrete judgment calls about the wheres and whens and hows of an assemblies operation, and while all of these assemblies did have the kind of evolving, localized, informal leadership which has to happen whenever people get together, it’s probable that, as weeks and months went by, the legitimacy of such structures needed to be better, more fully, recognized. But to insist on such recognition before the experience of being in a community of equals even begins is, I think, to misunderstand the interpenetrative, and interpretive, nature of politics entirely.
11) Finally, remember that in an important sense all of this is besides the point. The real purpose of these hundreds of thousands, these millions, of people who captured the imagination and inspired the rage of millions of others was not to understand what was happening around the world in 2011; on the contrary,the real purpose of 2011 was to change the world itself. And to a small degree, perhaps it did. Let’s hope for more of the same next year.