Some Thoughts On Occupying Everywhere

The Occupy movement's brilliance at sustaining a physical presence in public space is awesome--and if sustaining a physical presence in public space is your political goal, well, then we can be very, very happy. But that is not my political goal.

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  1. The Occupy movement's brilliance at sustaining a physical presence in public space is awesome--and if sustaining a physical presence in public space is your political goal, well, then we can be very, very happy. But that is not my political goal. In fact, the increasing devotion to that goal as an end in itself has come to define the movement, which makes it guilty of the iron law of bureaucracy: the danger that arises when sustaining the bureaucracy becomes more important than advancing the goals for which the bureaucracy exists. That Occupiers have traveled a ways towards this danger shows, for instance, in the ticker that heads the Occupy Chicago site counting out "Time Occupied," as if this time was an end in itself.
  2. Many Occupiers, especially young ones, have come to define themselves by their refusal to identified with any larger organizational force that can conceivably be conceptualized as "part of the system that got us into this problem in the first place." The anarchist notion of building a new world in the shell of the old, and an angry refusal to even identify this as a "left-wing" movement, are part of this phenomenon. Refusal to engage in "traditional politics" has been seen as no less than a goal. In Chicago, where I live, one manifestation of this has been refusing to negotiate directly with the city; instead, representatives of City Hall have been invited to sign up for two minutes of speaking time at the General Assembly just like anyone else. Some seem to be succumbing to that old left-wing temptation—that voting does not matter. I certainly saw signs to that effect when I visited Occupy Wall Street. I hope to write about this in more detail in the future, but for now i just offer this as an axiom on which to build my reflections; and offer this link as an index of just how prevalent that attitude has become regarding the participation of MoveOn.org, whose 24-hour mobilization was probably responsible for there still being a peaceful Occupy Wall Street in the first place after Mayor Bloomberg made moves to evict them. But MoveOn is largely seen as a front for the Democratic Party, in bed with President Obama, and something to be disparaged.
  3. The Occupiers can point with justifiable pride at two kinds of awesome political victories. The first involves what I write about above: success at keeping and holding public space. For instance, Albany police, recognizing themselves as part of the 99%, have refused orders to making trespassing arrests. And the Los Angeles City Council voted twelve to zero to support Occupy L.A.
  4. The second victory is more subtle: it involves the shifting rhetoric and action of politicians both locally and nationally away from the austerity bullshit that defined politics through spring and summer. But why is this (tentative) victory happening? Why are politicians "listening" to the Occupiers? The answer to this question many Occupiers have reached is that this is proof of the ideas in paragraph (2): that their ideology is working—that the moral force of their refusal to engage in "politics as usual" is making change happen.

  5. I argue that this is wrong, dangerously so. In fact, the reason the Occupiers have changed attitudes in politicians, or at least become a nagging presence in the back of would-be-austerians minds, is a bluntly traditional reason. It is the same reason politicians have always responded to "street heat." Politicians see a crowd, and count votes. Not just the votes of the people in the protesting crowd—the count two votes, ten votes, a hundred votes for every member in a protesting crowd. They understand people willing to undergo hardship—certainly people willing to make the awesome commitment to keep and hold public space—as people with the motivation to influence voters around them.

All this adds up to a conclusion that should be frightening to those most committed to the notion of the Occupy movement as radically removed from traditional politics, who are actively working to keep it as pristinely removed from traditional politics as possible—who say, in short, that the movement shouldn't have anything to do with politics or politicians. The conclusion, simply, is this: once politicians figure out that this is what is going on—that as a matter of principle the most dedicated Occupiers won't be working to make the most traditional of political threats: do what we want or lose your job—the political change will simply stop happening. Politicians will have been given a reason to ignore the movement—even if it doubles or triples in size. It will have become about as political as a rave.

Once more:

If sustaining a physical presence in public space is your political goal, well, then we can be very, very happy. But that is not my political goal.

If figuring out nifty new ways for large groups to make democratic decisions is your political goal, then we can be very, very happy. But that is not my political goal. My goal is...economic justice.

Change, Occupiers, or die. Scare politicians. Systematically. Do politics—even if it means the messy of forming coalitions with the nasty organizations "that got us into this mess in the first place." Human beings got us into this mess in the first place. And no one is saying we shouldn't be working with them. Or if you are, I don't want to be part of your revolution.

About Rick Perlstein

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