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The Way We Protest Now

It is increasingly evident that, in pivotal realms such as global economics and international affairs, the United States has lost its superiority – its capacity to lead. In fact, since the September 11 attacks, American democracy has been on a course of precipitous decline – a fact confirmed by two economically and morally draining foreign wars, excessive restrictions on civil liberties at home, and a corporate aversion to economic innovation and risk-taking, resulting in a painful and disheartening “jobless recovery” in whose grip we will remain, if the economic forecasters are to be believed, for the foreseeable future. Here, the tragedy is that the decline is the result of a self-inflicted wound – a consequence of conscious policy choices that have negatively impacted our national well-being. Thus if one surveys the state of American politics in the aftermath of last summer’s debilitating debt ceiling stalemate – an irresponsible game of political brinkmanship that could easily have precipitated another major economic tailspin – it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the political system has broken down, and that there is no imminent remedy in sight capable of repairing it. When one side of the congressional aisle (the Republicans) openly proclaims that its primary goal is to prevent the party-in-power (the Democrats) from implementing programs that might redress the nation’s socio-economic ills, the civic ideals upon which the nation was founded have been disqualified.

A keen awareness of this situation, and of the dearth of realistic prospects for remedying it, has fueled the fires of the Occupy Together movements that have by now mushroomed in over 150 cities across United States: among them, Atlanta, Austin, Denver, Oakland, Orlando, Nashville, and, of course, New York.

Typically, extra-parliamentary protest movements reflect a deep-seated frustration with the political status quo. They intentionally avoid existing institutional mechanisms of conflict resolution, since they regard those mechanisms as essentially dysfunctional – or, at the very least, as inadequate to address the pressing problems at hand.  The Occupy Wall Street movement has performed a great service in giving voice to this sense of well-nigh total frustration with politics qua business-as-usual. The standard criticisms of it that have been aired – that OWS is disorganized, unfocused, self-marginalizing, and self-indulgent – miss the point. Only those who are politically tone deaf would deny that there is something admirably utopian about the activists’ purism: their idealistic belief in the values of political transparency and consensus, their strict adherence to the laborious practices of direct democracy. (For a measure to pass the OWS General Assembly, a 90% majority is required. If decisions are unanimous – or nearly unanimous – there can be no “tyranny of the majority.”)

It is common knowledge that parliamentary government congeals into a lifeless mechanism unless it is periodically revivified by civil society as a repository of negative-constructive-vigilance. This characterization captures much of what the Occupy Wall Street movement is about. In an October 17 New Yorker article, Hendrik Hertzberg aptly described the OWS mentalité as “a cri de coeur, an exercise in constructive group dynamics, a release from isolation, resignation, and futility.” By remaining non-goal-oriented, by renouncing explicit platforms and demands, the OWS movement has better served its own purposes, diffuse though the latter may be. In seeking to understand OWS and its sister movements across the nation, we must take leave of the domain of instrumental politics and enter the terrain of symbolic politics.

Ultimately, of course, these two realms are interrelated. Symbolic politics possess the capacity to frame and reorient establishment politics. Like civil disobedience, symbolic politics call attention to grievous wrongs that remain imperceptible from the standpoint of the existing political system. The obscene level of socio-economic inequality that has become more acute over the course of the last decade – recent estimates suggest that the top 1% of the American population now controls nearly 40% of the nation’s wealth; hence, the OWS battle cry: “we are the 99%” – is only one manifestation of this dilemma. The fact that the Obama administration made resuscitating Wall Street its top priority, whereas Middle America was allowed to founder – at present, an estimated 25 million Americans remain unemployed – is another.

Symbolic politics – an approach that has proliferated in the post-1968 years – are a form of counter-politics. Counter-politics are explicitly non-revolutionary. Their aim is not to overhaul the existing political system – despite its manifest dysfunctionality – but to incite and promote radical reforms. As such, counter-politics may be defined as a modality of “contestation”:  one of the central leitmotifs of post-1960s politics, in which a variety of promising new social movements – ecology, women’s rights, gay rights, rights of the disabled, and so forth – flourished.  As a mode of contestation, counter-politics self-consciously reject the Western revolutionary tradition, the discredited Jacobin-Bolshevik model. They do not aspire to seize political power. Instead, the aims of counter-politics are avowedly evolutionary rather than revolutionary. They seek to probe and challenge the existing political system at its most vulnerable points, its weakest links.

Suffice it to say that there is nothing distinctly left-wing about counter-politics. In an American context, in recent years the Right has often learned the lessons of political self-organization and grassroots struggle as well as, if not better than, the political Left. Here, one need only think of the Tea Party, OWS’s main rival, a movement that, as the 2010 congressional elections showed, has succeeded in shifting the spectrum of Republican (and national) politics distinctly to the Right.

When all is said and done, the Occupy Wall Street movement is symptomatic of a new politics of refusal. Increasingly, popular sovereignty manifests itself as a power to contest government decisions and parliamentary outcomes that are perceived as having violated the social contract or the public weal. Thereby, a new democracy of oversight or refusal superimposes itself on traditional legislative democracy. In this way, the people strive to reclaim the prerogatives of sovereignty which they feel their representatives – who, in their eyes, have failed to represent them adequately – have usurped. In their new role as political overseers or watchdogs, the people seek to reassert their lost political-constitutional centrality. As a result, the conventional opposition between direct and representative democracy would seem to merit serious reevaluation.

As the French political theorist Pierre Rosanvallon has observed, insofar as the lexicon and grammar of democratic citizenship has broadened, “these narrow [traditional] categories must give way to a more diverse understanding of democratic activity.” Citizens no longer exert their political will solely via the sporadic and occasional mechanism of voting, but by vociferously voicing their opinions, admonishing their representatives, engaging in public debate, and undertaking demonstrative symbolic acts.

In all of these respects, the political significance of the Occupy Together Movements is much greater than it may appear upon first view. These movements seek both to reinvigorate the notion of democratic participation as well as to redefine the grammar and lexicon of popular sovereignty.

 

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