Occupation as political form

Jodi Dean writes: The movement opened up by Occupy Wall Street is the most exciting event on the US political left since 1968—it’s like, my god, finally we can breathe, finally there is an opening, a possibility of organized mass political action. As in 1968, the current movement extends globally, encompasses multiple grievances, and is being met by violent police responses. From Egypt to New York, Spain to Oakland, hundreds of thousands of people have responded to capitalist dispossession by taking space, occupying sites that, ostensibly open and public, the process of occupation reveals to be closed to the many and belonging to the few. Also as in 1968, an economic wrong, the wrong of capitalism, is at the core of the political rupture. Recall that in May ‘68, a general strike shut down the French economy. Students occupied the Sorbonne and workers occupied factories. In September 2011, protesters in New York occupied Wall Street. They were inspired by revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, the February occupation of the Wisconsin State Capitol, and the 15 May movement of the squares in Spain (as well as by the occupation movements that in recent years have accompanied protests over cutbacks in education and increases in university tuition in California, New York, and the UK).

That Wall Street was actually the nearby privately owned Zuccotti Park didn’t really matter. What mattered, and what opened up a new space of political possibility in the US, was that people were finally waking up to the ultimate incompatibility between capitalism and the people—after forty years of neoliberalism’s assault on the working and middle class and after a decade of rapacious class warfare in which the top one percent saw an income increase of 275% (their share of the national income more than doubling) while most of the rest of the country saw an income increase of roughly 1% a year. Instead of continuing in the fantasy that “what’s good for Wall Street, is good for Main Street,” the occupation claimed the division between Wall Street and Main Street and named this division as a fundamental wrong, the wrong of inequality, exploitation, and theft.

Occupy Wall Street’s staging of the incompatibility between capitalism and the people was visible, material, and practical. Visibly, urban camping brought to the heart of New York’s financial district the reality of dispossession. It forced Wall Street to look homelessness in the face, both the homelessness of the New Yorkers that the city had been trying to repress, hide, and disperse and that of those across the country who had been evicted in the foreclosure crisis and left to dwell in make shift tent cities reminiscent of shanty towns and Hoovervilles of the Depression. Materially, the presence of people crowded into places where capitalism has determined they don’t belong was manifest in the array of physical needs impressing and expressing themselves in Zuccotti park—the absence of public toilets and showers, the impermissibility of gas-run generators, open flames for cooking, and the illegality of tents resulted in a series of issues encapsulated in the media under the headings public health, filth, and disease. Practically, Occupy Wall Street—and the police reaction to it—led to the proliferation of police barriers all over downtown Manhattan. Even more important, the daily activities of occupiers strove to bring into being new practices of sociality, new ways of living together, ways no longer coordinated by the capital but by discussion, mutuality, and consensus. Not surprisingly, in the course of these practical engagements, new incompatibilities emerged and were only beginning to be addressed when Zuccotti Park was evicted.

The movement’s early slogan, “We are the 99 Percent,” quickly went viral. It spread in part because of the Tumblr collection of images and testimonials to the hardships of debt, foreclosure, and unemployment, a “coming out” of the closet imposed by the conceit that everyone is middle class, everyone is successful. Conservative politicians bristled with indignation at what they depicted as the unfairness of the many who were now refusing to accept the one percent’s seizure of an outrageously unfair portion of the common product. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney scolded what he called the “politics of envy.” These privileged carriers of the 99 versus the 1 percent meme couldn’t quite grasp the change in the situation, the shift in the status quo whereby people no longer believed the myths that “greed is good” and “inequality benefits everyone.” They attempted to turn the issue around, making themselves into victims of exclusion and invective, as if the 99% were the criminals, as if our primary condition had been mutually compatible until some malcontents started to cause trouble, as if class war were a new rather than constitutive incompatibility between those who need to work to live and those who have enough capital not to. A fortunate effect of this tactic was the continued accentuation of class division—as a recent poll from the Pew Foundation found, 66% of Americans think that divisions between rich and poor are strong or very strong, an increase of 19% since 2009. Not only is this view held in every demographic category but more people think that class division is the principle social division than they do any other division.

The slogan “We are the 99%” highlights the division between the wealth of the top 1% and the rest of us. Mobilizing the gap between the 1% with nearly half the country’s wealth and the other 99% with the rest of it, the slogan asserts a collectivity. It does not unify this collectivity under a substantial identity—race, ethnicity, religion, nationality. Nor does it proceed as if there were some kind of generic and unified public. It rejects the fantasy of a unified, non-antagonistic public to assert the “we” of a divided people, the people divided between expropriators and expropriated. In the setting of an occupied Wall Street, this “we” is a class, one of two opposed and hostile classes, those who have and control wealth, and those who do not.

The assertion of a numerical difference as a political difference, that is to say, the politicization of a statistic, expresses capitalism’s reliance on fundamental inequality—“we” can never all be counted as the top 1%. Thus, the announcement that “We are the 99%” names an appropriation, a wrong. In so doing, it voices as well a collective desire for equality and justice, for a change in the conditions through which one percent seizes the bulk of collective wealth for themselves, leaving 99% with the remainder.0

“We are the 99%” also effaces the multiplicity of individuated, partial, and divided interests that fragment and weaken the people as the rest of us. The count dis-individualizes interest and desire, reconfiguring both into a common form. Against capital’s constant attempts to pulverize and decompose the collective people, the claim of the 99% responds with the force of a belonging that not only cannot be erased but that capital’s own methods of accounting produce: as capital demolishes all previous social ties, the counting on which it depends provides a new figure of belonging. Capital has to measure itself, count its profits, its rate of profit, its share of profit, its capacity to leverage its profit, its confidence or anxiety in its capacity for future profit. Capital counts and analyzes who has what, representing to itself the measures of its success. These very numbers can be, and in the slogan “We are the 99%” they are, put to use. They aren’t resignified—they are claimed as the subjectivation of the gap separating the top one percent from the rest of us. With this claim, the gap becomes a vehicle for the expression of communist desire, that is, for a politics that asserts the people as a divisive force in the interest of over-turning present society and making a new one anchored in collectivity and the common.0

Admittedly, the occupiers of Wall Street, and the thousand other cities around the world with occupations of their own, have not reached a consensus around communism (as if communism could even name a consensus). The movement brings together a variety of groups and tendencies—not all of them compatible. Many in the movement see that as Occupy’s strength. They see Occupy as an umbrella movement capable of including a multiplicity of interests and tendencies. For them, “occupy” serves as a kind of political or even post-political open source brand that anyone can use. Because occupation is a tactic that galvanizes enthusiasm, they suggest, it can affectively connect a range of incompatible political positions, basically working around fundamental gaps, divisions, and differences. The mistake here is not only in the effort to ignore multiple incompatibilities; it is also, and more importantly in the evasion of the real antagonism that matters, the one that connects the movement to its setting—class struggle. “Tactics as brand” neglects the way occupation is a form that organizes the incompatibility of capitalism with the people and emphasizes instead a flexibility and adaptability already fully compatible with capitalism. [Continue reading…]

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