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Occupy Wall Street and the Challenge of the “New”

The occupation of Zuccotti Park (now, renamed Liberty Square) in New York City is an inspiring political action. As a symbolic act, it has focused attention on the geographic center of the financial industry that bears responsibility for the current financial crisis. It has drawn in thousands of Americans who have suffered as a result of being out of work, in debt, or who have had their homes foreclosed. Zuccotti Park has become a meeting ground for individuals of varying political ideologies who share a common frustration with the political response to the economic crisis. It has also served as a model for similar actions across the country. Walking through the Park, one participates in and overhears heated political discussion. There is a strong sense that active democratic participation has been reinvigorated in this space. A singular feature of these discussions is a fixation on “newness.” An occupation like this has never occurred before. It is something new in that regard. But the “new” permeates this action at every level. The organizational structure is attempting to be entirely new. Many of the activists think that we need to talk about politics in an entirely new way. They say that the old ways of thinking about politics and the old political structures have failed us and we have to start from scratch. Everything has to be rethought and the Park is increasingly being seen as a site for experimenting with the reinvention of society. This particular action may be new, but the uniqueness of this form of activism should not lead to the mistaken view that this is an action without historical precedent.  The issues of wealth inequality and the distorting effect of wealth on democracy, which are the only discernable common concerns that have brought people to the Park, are very old. The theoretical and practical responses to these issues are as old as the issues themselves.

There are many aspects of this action that have received regular criticism in the press. The lack of a coherently stated message and the lack of a strong organization have been the features most commonly singled out for critique. These problems can be addressed in time. They will not, however, be successfully confronted if the activists do not begin to orient themselves within a tradition. The point is not to blindly embrace a model that would hegemonically dictate the aims and organization of a movement to come. Rather, there must be a critical engagement with tradition. Traditions provide an arsenal of principles, ideas, and models for movements that activists can draw upon and put to new use. Rousseau and Hegel dealt with the problems of political representation in radical ways. Smith, Marx, and Keynes offered critiques of the negative impacts capitalism in ways that would seem prophetic if we lose sight of the fact that their concerns about capitalism are very much like ours. The activists in the Park do not have to comb through all three volumes of Capital or agonize over Keynes’ General Theory in between their confrontations with the police and their efforts to defend themselves against the rain and the oncoming winter. They do have to recognize that their action is situated within a tradition of theory and practice that has combated oligarchy and economic inequality.

Traditions are not absolute. They change and develop in light of new ideas. The old problems and solutions can be reevaluated to make them relevant. A commitment to a tradition is never necessarily a commitment to a doctrine. It is an acknowledgement of the fact that we have a ground to build on. Frederick Douglass was keenly aware of this when he pitted the claims of the Declaration of Independence against the reality of slavery. He was simultaneously challenging the old order while using its principles against itself. He appropriated a conception of political equality with an old pedigree and used it to fight a new battle. The Occupy Wall Street activists can do the same. They can ground themselves within a tradition that has opposed economic inequality. They can bring the old ideas – the ones that remain vibrant – to bear on the present. They can challenge them, revise them, and produce ideas that are relevant, but that are still grounded within a coherent schema.

Activists concerned with confronting real problems and correcting them have never been well-served by attempting to rethink everything from the ground up. Such exercises are of little use when there is pressure to develop a position, attract support, and build an organization that can guide and militate on behalf of ends. These practical issues aside, current left-wing activism has been put into a more dire position because of the prevalence of post-modern and, now, post-Marxist strands of thought. Lyotard tells us that we live in an age without grounds. Foucault argues that all knowledge is permeated by power and is oppressive. Žižek fixates on a mythic “real,” while Badiou waits for the “event.” All of these thinkers convey a message that we have no bearings, we must distrust everything external as potentially oppressive, and that we must retreat inward to our own authenticity as the only origin of political action. The occupiers of Zuccotti Park may not be consciously invoking these thinkers, but we see the effects of such thinking on their form of activism. Calls for a position are met with replies that a position is not needed. The position is expressed through the mere spectacle of the occupation. Attempts to construct a position are met with suspicion. Every suggestion at a meeting is met with concerns of ideological cooptation. Increasingly, the activists have become less concerned with focusing their message than with attempting the wholesale reinvention of society. Positive arguments for why certain actions should be taken are grounded more in subjectivity than in objective conditions. The activists speak for a plurality without finding commonalities between the pluralities. No common interest can unite the disparate voices because a common interest is perceived as always exclusionary.

While the Occupy Wall Street action is the first anti-corporate and anti-capitalist response to wealth inequality of the neoliberal era that has the real potential to provoke a serious international dialogue and galvanize change, it is not yet a broad-based movement. Unfortunately, the kind of political discussions that are occurring on the ground are anathema to the imperatives of a movement. They threaten unity and the formation of a coherent stance. More importantly, these discussions are unable to address the material problems that affect the global victims of the financial crisis and the neoliberal economic policies that preceded it. Philosophical groundlessness has little to say about the real homelessness of people who have had their homes foreclosed. But these discussions can be shifted. The rich tradition of theory and action that opposes economic inequality and oligarchy remains ripe for reinvigoration. The activists are not lost in a groundless modernity where political legitimacy can only be couched in authenticity. Rather, they are the heirs of an ongoing confrontation with economic injustice. Their predecessors were able to mobilize mass movements that successfully appealed to capitalism’s victims and brought about concrete change. The Enlightenment’s opposition to authority, European Social Democracy’s opposition to capital, and the struggles of American radicals on behalf of workers and people of color, serve as venerable models. In embracing these traditions, the participants in the occupations throughout the world can pick up where these movements left off. They can reinvent these traditions for today and, potentially, launch the first major challenge to the neoliberal manifestation of economic injustice.

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