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Monday, September 17, 2012

And Many More! (A Happy Birthday to Occupy As It Is Growing Up)

The Occupy protests have been one of the most vital and heartening phenomena on the American scene in years. In fact, only the Obama campaigns themselves have really rivaled its vitality and hopefulness for me personally.

That's really saying something, because as a queer who played a minor part in Act Up and Queer Nation and in the teaching of queer theory at the height of its exuberance, I can fairly say that I have been lucky enough to have participated in one of the few actually energized, actually accomplished protest and civil rights movements in the post-Reagan epoch of Movement Republican ascendancy. That queer movement has been thrilling, and I am proud of it, and I am a beneficiary of its accomplishments. That is true, by the way, even if it is also true that queerness has always meant something more capacious to me than the rather bland bourgeois bundle now celebrated in its name, even though gay marriage seems to me like conventional marriage to be a vestige of human trafficking and sentimental marketing, even if I am opposed to the prevalence of military institutions subverting our democracy and military actions enforcing our fateful exploitations even after they become more gay-welcoming, even if I think it is a kind of madness to choose to bring babies into a world burdened nearly beyond healing by the weight of extractive-industrial society. Being more radical than the movement I am a part of doesn't blind me to the way countless wanted lifeways are rendered legible and livable on its terms, and how that is a marvelous thing even if it isn't exactly the thing I might have wanted myself, how my own way of life benefits by its accomplishments even on those terms, and how the ongoing struggle to transform those terms is actually facilitated and not frustrated by those accomplishments even if they fail to be equal to my radical vision, even if most seem content to settle for those less capacious terms.

As you might have guessed by now, what might have seemed a long misplaced digression into queer politics in a post about Occupy is actually a first effort to remind us about the relationship in politics between guiding ideals and actual progressive accomplishments, about the need of radicals to know how to walk and chew gum at the same time and not to look gift horses in the mouth. These reminders will come in handy sooner than you think. Let us return to Occupy.

Occupiers know that when conspicuous media narratives endlessly ask the question "Where did Occupy go?" these days this rather joyless ritual of narrative repitition is an expression of a kind of willful blindness, it is a question that functions less to solicit an answer than to efface the obvious answer right in front of the questioner that the Occupiers never left, that the Occupiers are still right there Occupying. The same websites and meeting places still announce, and organize, and then report the aftermath of the efforts and events in which they are still palpably participating. This questioning that is really an ignoring isn't exactly a surprising strategy for Occupiers, of course, but a tired re-run, for where media trolls now ask "Where did Occupy go?" not so very long ago they were asking instead "What is Occupy for?" "What has Occupy accomplished?" and these questions operated in the same way, not to solicit answers but to obliterate the obvious.

Anybody who devoted five minutes' attention to any Occupier knows what Occupy is for, to protest the anti-democratizing concentration of wealth, privatization of commons, and corruption of governance across all of our normative and institutional landscape. Anybody who observes that prevailing public discussions of the national deficit and macro-economically illiterate and cruel recommendations of austerity at a time of a crisis of massive unemployment, underemployment, and precarity became instead at the height of the Occupy movement last year a discussion of economic injustice and the jobs crisis knows very well what Occupy accomplished. The necessity of passing jobs bills for the 99%, as well as the most forthrightly feminist calls in a generation to defend women's health and choices and celebrate queer equality, are themes that now suffuse and invigorate the terms of 2012 election campaigns and the Democratic National Convention. Occupy and the Republican War on Women are the reason these themes have become so central in the public imagination even as they have been crucial for so long however ignored.

I do think, however, that many Occupiers will feel discomfort about the turn this happy birthday message is taking. Even as they ruefully recognize media mischaracterizations of their messages, efforts, and accomplishments, I suspect that many Occupiers will disdain the extent to which the Obama administration suffers the same mischaracterization with precisely the same effects: as when Obama is blamed by the media for failing to raise the tone of public life and change the way politics is done even as he made strenuous efforts to do so and was met with literally unprecedented obstruction and derangement at a time of historical crisis by Republicans who seek to benefit from the failures they themselves ensured ("Where has Hope and Change gone?" "Where did Occupy go?"), as when so many accomplishments of the Obama administration are systematically ignored by many even as they cry out for outcomes that are actually already realized or underway ("What has Obama actually accomplished?" "What did Occupy want? What has it actually accomplished?").

For me, Occupy is a beautiful and necessary and long longed-for mass movement, changing the terms of public discourse to better reflect real and shared problems and possibilities long silenced and deranged by plutocratic broadcast media forms and government by crony credentialism. There is a way in which its provocation to more relevant public discourse on the one hand and its ongoing production of spaces of conviviality, resistance, cross-pollination, testimonial exchange on the streets is an end in itself, democracy realized in the flesh.

But for those Occupiers who fancy that Occupy is instead an embryonic alternative society, it appears that parochialism and selective filtering has mislead yet another cohort of would-be radicals into fancying that the edifications to be found on dance floors and in public festivals can be sustained indefinitely and scaled nationally, even planetarily. Those who seek in Occupy yet another hammer to smash the state, were they to manage to make their facile misconstrual of the phenomenon in which they are caught up the prevalent understanding of it, would only manage to derail the actually indispensable part Occupy is actually playing and can -- and must, in my view -- continue to play in the ongoing democratization of the state. The vital political work of creating and maintaining institutional spaces for the non-violent adjudication of disputes (including disputes about what will count as violence) and for the equitable solution of shared problems (where the diversity of stakeholders to those problems will have actually different ends in mind) still needs doing as ever. Progressive reform and democratic struggle through, and over, the state remains indispensable, and Occupy is most indispensable in my view in its work in that very ongoing democratization of the state.

Occupy has functioned together with the tattered remains of organized labor to push the terms of actually shared concerns into public view and to push the organized partisan left from the left into a greater acknowledgment of these concerns and more organized effort to address them. It is my deepest hope that Occupy will continue to do this work.

People can and absolutely should not only occupy, but vote. People educated and empowered by Occupy can and absolutely should become candidates for public office and will be supported not by plutocrats but by occupiers in their journeys into and through public service (as others can become or become changed as teachers, artists, researchers, professional activists and organizers, policy makers, social workers, volunteers). Occupy can and absolutely should remain more than an exhortation to vote or an organizational tool for party politics, it should remain separate, critical, provocative, radical.

But to the extent that Occupy fancies itself a substitute rather than a supplement to the state it will inevitably be domesticated into harmlessness to the status quo even as it congratulates itself on its autonomy and radical purity.

While radicalism is almost always born in frustration at the inadequate and inequitable terms of the incumbent order, whenever that frustration is not transformed through education, agitation, and -- crucially! -- organization into actual resistance, then it becomes an empty ritual expression of frustration that ultimately testifies not to change but stasis, it remains a narcissistic how of infantile distress the satisfaction of which replaces the fraught and always frustrating effort to address that distress in collective action.

It is not only ignorance or injustice that stands between our ideals and our reality, but an ineradicable measure of the diversity of those with whom we share the world, our histories, our hopes, our problems, our possibilities. (This is a point that should be remembered when people try to pretend that to support Obama to his actually existing alternative is somehow to embrace all of his policies, including for example the many shocking and awful forms his militarism has taken, rather than to recognize the executive branch actually exists whether we disapprove of it or not and that we have a non-negligible measure of power as citizens in the determination of who will fill that branch, for comparatively better or worse, not to mention simply to affirm the reality of accomplishments that really are real and wouldn't have been otherwise just as we protest the reality of injustices that should have been otherwise.)

No one ideal will prevail over the diversity of our peers, nor should we want it to even as they cherish that ideal so bound to fail. Democracy is the idea that people should have a say in the public decisions that affect them, and democratization is the struggle through which ever more people have ever more of a say in those decisions (including struggles over what constitutes such a say and such a decision and such a public).

The effort to translate our ideals into more material realities in contestation and collaboration with the diversity of our peers is the substance of the political.

That this contestation and collaboration be democratic, nonviolent, consensual is indispensably indebted to the maintenance of a democratic state as the arena in which ongoing social struggle takes place, an arena funded by progressive taxation to create institutional alternatives for the equitable and nonviolent adjudication of disputes, to maintain a legible scene of informed, nonduressed consent to the terms on which we engage in general commerce with our peers, and to circumvent the exploitative mismanagement of common and public goods.

Occupy and other nonviolent radical movements for equity-in-diversity (like green, feminist, queer, labor, secular movements) are indispensable to our society on their own terms as well as to the work of spurring progressive partisan reform politics to its greatest possibilities and keeping all of us both inspired and honest.

Speaking of keeping us honest, walking and chewing gum at the same time is politically possible and also necessary. It is in the context of those truisms that I wish Occupy a happy first birthday and hope that there will be many more to come.


Anonymous said...

But where is religion in your worldview? Without it, you are just promoting more hopeless, fleeting man-made ideologies which are doomed to failure. The vast majority of humanity isn't very interested in "green, feminist, queer, labor, secular movements" any more. The real revolution of our time is humanity's rediscovery of religion and timeless values.

Dale Carrico said...

Brave "Anonymous" -- as it happens I'm not religious myself, but I have no problem with the religious except when they try to identify religious faith with warranted science (which it is not) or religious moralizing with political reconciliation (which it is not).

When you say that humanity isn't interested in green, feminist, queer, labor, or secular movements (secularization includes interfaith alliances by the way), this view is contradicted by actual evidence of struggles for equity-in-diversity and against mistreatment of women, queers, precarious, and so on.

When you speak of "religion" as one thing and attribute "timelessness" to that one thing, once again this view is contradicted by the actual evidence of the ineradicable diversity of belief systems and faith practices, not to mention ongoing evidence of the need for democratic politics to adjudicate disputes among these differences.

libramoon said...

Summerspeaker said...

Nonviolent statism is a contradiction in terms. Please ditch one or the other. For a fuller critique, see here.

Dale Carrico said...

I disagree with you.

Understand what I am saying: I am very familiar with your objections, I understand where you are coming from, I am very aware that it is commonplace to define the state as that institution that has a monopoly on the "legitimate" use of force and that this is often taken to justify the identification of state with violence (even when it is quite obvious that enormous amounts of what happens through government has nothing at all to do with violence on any plausible description).

I am aware that my viewpoint is a minority viewpoint, in fact I will go so far as to say that I know of no one at all who characterizes this issue in quite the way I do. Nonetheless, I believe what I do and for reasons I think are good ones.

Violence precedes the emergence of the state. And I am far denying the obvious fact that many (even most) states historically do indeed engage in systematic exploitation and offensive warmaking. The radical left critique of states that function as nothing but the institutional legitimation of violence for elite-incumbent classes is a powerful one with which I strongly agree as it applies to many historical states or historical episodes.

But I simply do not agree that states are exhaustively or even essentially characterized by violence or that their abolition would eliminate violence from human affairs.

I think these are profoundly mistaken views, widespread though they are. I think that democratization is the historical struggle through which states are rendered ever less violent.

Democratization rendering states less violent happens when elections make possible peaceful transitions among leaders. It happens when civil rights and juries and court appointed defense attorneys render ever wider more equitable recourse to courts for the nonviolent adjudication of disputes. It happens when taxation is yoked to representation government is made accountable to the consent of the governed. It happens when checks and balances render parts of government compete for positional advantage not through corruption but through the policing of corruption within governance. It happens when social democratic states provide the security of general welfare, basic income, healthcare, education, access to reliable information to ensure that everybody can engage in everyday commerce on consensual terms. It happens when public goods and common goods are accountably administered by democratic states in the name of the common good to circumvent the violence of their exploitation or mismanagement for the parochial benefit of minorites. The examples can be multiplied, but I am illustrating the initially counter-intuitive principle I am advocating.

Dale Carrico said...

The truth is that no state, even totalitarian ones, has sufficient means of violence to subdue entire populations in every aspect of their lives to the will of their rulers. Violence CANNOT be the essential characteristic of even the most tyrannical states, and countervailing strains of civitas, consensual accountable equitable participatory governance, are always discernible.

Again, my point is not to deny but to decry the violence of undemocratic states. But in my view the democratization of the state is indispensable to nonviolent revolution. Fantasies of smashing the state rely on a mistaken identification of the state form with violence, and always amount to the facilitation of violence on the part of merciless muscled moneyed minorities who will go ahead and legitimize their abuses as the cost of whatever measure of order they maintain. In democratic states order and consent are one and the same (and exceptions threaten the legitimacy of that order) and the permanent vulnerability of the state form to corruption, abuse, violence confronts the vigilence of an empowered population to which that state is beholden for its funding and maintenance at every layer.

I appreciate the politeness with which you to entreat me to renounce either my commitment to the democratic state form or my commitment to nonviolent stakeholder politics and change, but I fear I must decline. I am committed to both, and I believe that it is those who find these commitments incompatible who are wrongheaded and confused.

Barkeron said...

Pfft, but Occupy is an utter joke.

Saw that verdict on South Park, so it must be true.