The remarkable success of the #Occupy phenomenon to date — in terms of its sheer scope and longevity — has caught nearly everyone by surprise.
Since the demonstrations first began last month in Liberty Plaza, deep in the heart of New York City’s financial district, Occupy Wall Street has achieved a number of unexpected victories. It has received a lot of media coverage, captured the public imagination, and enlisted the support of a number of different forces: prominent leftish celebrities (Michael Moore, Cornel West, Naomi Klein, Susan Sarandon, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, etc.), prominent unions (SEIU, AFL-CIO, AFSCME, and others), as well as young activists who are new to politics. Moreover, it has spawned a series of similar protests across many major cities in North America and abroad, generating a truly international buzz. A week ago, the protestors at Zuccotti Park successfully stood their ground against Mayor Bloomberg’s attempt to forcibly evict them — under the dubious pretext of sanitation.
But this victory can by no means be considered final. Rather, it has tasked the protestors with the following, foundational question: “What now?”
If this successful moment of resistance against the coercion of the State is to signal a turning point for this movement, it must begin to address the more serious political issues that confront it. It is crucial that the participants in these demonstrations ask themselves where they stand in history, and more adequately conceptualize the problem of capitalist society. Only then can it begin to articulate a political vision of global emancipation.
To this point, most of the participants in the various cities under “occupation” have only expressed a sort of intuitive discontent with the status quo. In order to get a better sense of what they are up against, they must develop a more comprehensive understanding and critique of the prevailing social order. This, in turn, will require that the protestors take time to theoretically reflect on the #Occupy movement’s trajectory, thereby determining its political potentialities, its practical exigencies, and the path that it will ultimately take moving forward.
Without such reflection, the demonstrations will degenerate into the political malaise and ineffectuality that has characterized so much of the protest culture of the last fifty years — meaningless gestures of dissent, empty theatrical displays, and directionless activism-for-its-own-sake (l’activisme pour l’activisme). Over the last half-century, theory and practice have become decoupled to the detriment of both. On one side, “radical” academic discourse has detached itself almost entirely from the realm of politics, while on the other side activism has become increasingly routine, unreflective, and anti-intellectual. Most career academics dread the empirical messiness on-the-ground political engagement; most committed activists, for their part, avoid at any cost the so-called “paralysis of analysis.”
Up to now, the participants in the #Occupy movement have managed to organize impressive resources for their daily needs: legal services, a first-aid station, sleeping arrangements, food supplies, defense against police brutality, and a consistent media presence. The satisfaction of these requirements has doubtless been essential to the endurance of the movement. However, these pragmatic concerns have so far taken precedent over the discussion of long-term political goals. The broader question of where the movement is going from here tends to get lost amidst administrative details.
In some respect, the main organizers of these demonstrations have — in a rather studied manner — even actively avoided posing this crucial question. They raise the specter that this will lead to the inevitable fragmentation of the movement, and warn that reflection on the political content of the protests or formulating specific demands might prove divisive. Until they pause to think of the shape the movement must take from here, however, #Occupy risks being assimilated to the Democratic Party apparatus — harmlessly reintegrated into the social totality of “business as usual.”