Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Tuesday, February 11, 2014


Occupy was and remains a mostly marvelous vicissitude in a longer process of democratization, one that gathers speed and stalls over generations, convulsively lurching forward sometimes, sometimes getting squashed for a few decades, but generally moving notionally-representative Americans in the direction of greater equity-in-diversity rather than less, and especially lately, actually, after the long dark night of frowny-faced Nixonian and smiley-faced Reaganomic movement conservatism, gathering from strength to strength.

I suppose some of the would-be "thought-leaders" of this would-be leaderless movement -- the ones who pretended Occupy was the kernel of an anarcho-socialism that would spontaneously expand and suffuse current psychic and institutional norms and forms, a free for all installing freedom for all -- would feel a little disillusioned when that didn't happen (again) and then the spotlight petered predictably out to make way for a Presidential election year. But I have never been a sucker for spontaneisms -- which seem to me usually to be apologiae for elite-incumbency, whatever the apparent or earnest radicalism of their advocates, since it is elites most of all who deem their privileges "only natural."

Of course, many Occupiers just ignored being ignored when the national spotlight turned elsewhere and turned themselves to specific activist campaigns about underwater mortgages and implementing campaign finance reform and engaged in useful forms of social support combining a little critique with a little charity, which is more or less the usual progressive reformism. That might seem a hopeless domestication of revolutionary energies to some, but to me that sort of thing is entirely expected and perfectly legitimate.

When the social populism of Occupy is compared invidiously to the reactionary populism of the Tea Party the chestnuts that are made to do battle to illustrate the point are usually that "Occupy changed the Conversation" while the Tea Party "Got People Elected to Office." What is odd about this ritual confrontation -- setting aside the oddness or outright wrongness of declaring the stealthily Koch organized and supported Tea Party spectacles as "populist" in the way Occupy was populist in the first place -- is that Occupy re-introduced a long censored or at any rate long submerged discussion of the injustice of inequality into election politics that changed the terms in which President Obama was elected and Mitt Romney rejected (the 47%... Makers Versus Takers... You Didn't Build That) and made Elizabeth Warren a superstar Senator in a growing progressive caucus: That is to say, Changing the Conversation and set the terms on the basis of which the next Democrats and others will be running to Get People Elected to Office as well. Meanwhile, the Tea Party got people elected into office by turning primaries into white-racist forced-pregnancy science-denialist plutocratic purity contests that pushed the Republicans so far to the right that they are no longer a nationally-viable party at all but a kind of neo-confederate rump which most of all has changed the conversation... about the GOP, about its future, about the impact of its crazy obstructionism on problem-solving governance and about the utter marginality of its bigoted opinions in a diversifying, secularizing, planetizing present. My point, of course, is that it is just as correct to say Occupy got people elected or at any rate changed the terms on which people get elected as it is to say the same (as is more usual) of the Tea Party, and that it is just as correct to say that the Tea Party kept people from getting elected and changed the National conversation about the viability of the GOP as it to say the same (as is more usual) of Occupy -- not least because there is a deeper relation between getting people elected and changing the conversation than people making this distinction seem to want to grant.

There is more to the political than running for and voting in elections, and there is more to the political than administering legal, healthcare, educational, police, and social support programs. There is education, agitation, and organization beyond legislation and pushing legislation. Also, to be sure, there are exquisitely political pleasures of expression, display, testimony, reconciliation, contestation, intrigue, promise that may or may not materialize in government, but only in assembly secured by government when it is not foreclosed by government. Nor should anybody be too quick to deny the extent to which the pleasures and dangers of free assembly yield unpredictable effects in historical struggles for equity-in-diversity -- even when one knows in so saying never to try to reduce the former to the latter since to do so is always to endorse the status quo (often while imagining oneself ferociously to battle it).

I never made the mistake of fancying that dance parties or freedom marches are either sustainable or scalable into good governments -- nor the mistake of dismissing them politically because they are not -- nor of dismissing the struggle for and toward good government because they are not. Freedom and justice are never the same thing, but nor are they separable. This complicates things, surely, this is one more reason history remains ineradicably unpredictable, but, I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden.

I have been a fan of and marginal participant in Occupy from its early days, and I remain so today. I also know that not all fans of Occupy are fans of my flavor of fandom -- as expressed, say, in this birthday message one year out. I never put any stock in anarcho-inflected theorizations of these movements -- the best of what Occupy's anarchists were talking about is better described in my view as democratization, the rest of what Occupy's anarchists were talking about is better described in my view as the idealism of privilege parading its purities. I disapprove lazy efforts either within or without Occupy to declare anarchists its "thought leaders." The only conclusion that could follow from a mis-identification of the rich, multivalent movements of Occupy with anarchism will be to declare Occupy a failure, the better to silence and demobilize its resources.

I think that most who are disillusioned with the way Occupation has gone were mischaracterizing its democratizing force, significance, and substance and their relations to government. I for one have never wanted to smash the state but to democratize it. I can't really understand how an Occupy preceded by the Wisconsin uprising and followed by Moral Mondays could possibly be the subject of disillusionment. I suspect such disillusion follows from anarchist fancies of dissolution that are pre-political pretenses at political thinking (which fortunately does not altogether impede those caught up in them from succeeding at political acting). I think we should regard disillusionment with Occupy as a rather useless PreOccupation.


Unknown said...

Jay here. I'll be honest, I never saw much potential in Occupy. It seemed rather postmodern, really. The organizers, such as they were, dared not define what it was, knowing that defining it would shatter the illusion of unity. Instead they chose to keep it ephemeral, and it died a slow death as people gradually stopped believing its promise would ever be realized.

Dale Carrico said...

Hey, Jay. If Occupy was an expression of mass discontent over the fact that an ongoing unemployment crisis in which incumbent-elites were more or less uninterested because they cared more about maintaining their unjustly concentrated wealth, then the massive amplification of the powerful "99% vs 1%" slogan in the public consciousness as well as the present comparatively greater focus on unemployment and income inequality as topics of public concern (which is not to deny that false right wing framings of this concern are part of that focus, nor that ongoing obstructionism keeps effective policies like the Jobs Bill or a federal raising of the minimum wage from happening whatever the focus), both suggest reasons to reassess the now common complaint that Occupy had no significant impact. Or it seems so to me.

I also think everybody does Occupy a disservice by judging it according to the standards of the anarchist intellectuals who seem to want to be considered its "thought leaders." Many Occupiers themselves, not only their critics, seem to understand it on terms that cannot help but diminish it in my view. I am not completely sure what you mean when you describe Occupy as "postmodern," but maybe these two points are related.

As I said before, I think the widening Moral Mondays protests are the latest chapter in a longer struggle over democratization of which Occupy was/is also a part, so I'm not sure I even agree its slow death is not better understood as an ongoing life.

Summerspeaker said...

For clarity's sake, note that I was never trying to claim Occupy for anarchism. You could perhaps call me a fan of Occupy, but as a member of (un)Occupy Albuquerque, I'm specifically invested in critiquing the invocation of occupation.

Dale Carrico said...

For clarity's sake, I doubt anybody had you in mind reading this, but it's nice to see you around.