Nov 14th, 2011 by ravi
OWS: reporting and reality

Yesterday I wrote about the strange analysis of OWS from the Left by Jodi Dean. In my comment I expressed some doubt on the sincerity of her argument. The post by Dean that I was referring to is an old one. Shortly after that one, Dean repeated a bit of unsubstantiated news that was floating around claiming that OWS was coming to an end due to the inability to resolve the simple matter of keeping drumming to a minimum. On Oct 24th, Dean quoted alleged OWS insiders, without comment:

OWS is over after Tuesday:

Friends, mediation with the drummers has been called off. It has gone on for more than 2 weeks and it has reached a dead end. The drummers formed a working group called Pulse and agreed to 2 hrs/day at times during the mediation, and more recently that changed to 4 hrs/day. It’s my feeling that we may have a fighting chance with the community board if we could indeed limit drumming and loud instrumentation to 12-2pm and 4-6pm, however that isn’t what’s happening.

This would have been pretty big, if true. Except it wasn’t. Michael Pollak — the most fair, level-headed and rational person I know on the Left — has been visiting Zuccotti frequently and attending some of the General Assembly sessions. He had this say:

Okay, I just got back from the park and 60 Wall (which is the hive of the working groups) and this was clearly a non-issue.  Nobody mentioned it and everyone is still working with timelines extending into the indefinite future.  I was a little embarassed to ask, to be honest, it was so obviously an exaggerated rumor.  But when asked, the general answer was the same: the GA/drum circle conflict has been there since the beginning, and conflict and negotiation with the neighbors and city officials has been there since the beginning.  Nothing’s changed or come to crisis.  On the contrary, things have recently gotten substantially better on both fronts precisely because the drummers are drumming substantially less now. So the conflict will continue, and hopefully continue to improve.  No one was worried.  People getting mad or feeling agreements were reneged is just considered SOP when there’s a conflict.  It always leads to another meeting.

And speaking of conflicts — or lack thereof — the Demand working group met today with the Facilitation working group, the one that sets the agenda for the nightly general assembly.  They couldn’t have been nicer or more efficient.  We asked if we could propose it and they said sure.

So rumors that this would somehow get strangled in its cradle behind the scenes seem entirely ungrounded. To judge by this meeting, I don’t see how it would such smothering would be even possible, this committee seems so transparent and rational and non-judgmental.  It looks at this point as if the whole idea was either a misunderstanding or a bluff or both.

What a difference data makes!

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Nov 13th, 2011 by ravi
OWS and its detractors

In case you have been living in a cave, OWS is Occupy Wall Street: a protest movement that arose from an initial call by AdBusters, and is now a world-wide affair with “occupations” springing up in cities across the USA and the rest of the world.

The idea is simple and brilliant:

Occupy Wall Street Signage

1. Choose a method — occupation — that overcomes the customary weakness of other actions of the powerless such as rallies and marches: politicians, administrators, the police, simply wait them out; let the protestors have their day with marching and speeches, after which the powerful can return to business as usual. Even the term “occupy” upends that relationship.

2. Target the clearest representation (Wall Street) of the few who were the primary cause of the economic meltdown of 2008, while also the greatest beneficiaries of the government response to the crisis.

3. Make the identification clear: the most common slogan used by the group is “we are the 99%“. While their sentiments may not be shared by all of the 90+% that took the bulk of the pain and gained little benefit from the Bush-Obama bailouts and half-hearted programs, the material reality is well captured by the slogan. A long overdue challenge, in simple terms, to the Right’s effortless claim to the majority opinion or position.

Due to their resilience, and with the “help” of the inevitable police brutality, this movement has struck a chord and gained popularity and sympathy among the larger public. The response from right-wing organs such as Fox News has been predictable. More unexpectedly, some on the left have issues as well. Here is Jodi Dean:

[T]he language of occupying occupy wall street that I am using suggests that any attempt to hegemonize the space will be a problem for the ‘movement.’ That is, to remain the movement it is (18 days in), it has to resist any and all efforts to channel the message. But that then implies not that the priority is a contestation among people to forge a way ahead but instead that openness and indeterminacy are themselves the goal, that which is to be protected. If that’s the case, then there is something wrong, a kind of built in (self-deceiving?) confusion: the goal is just to keep the occupation going, not to use the occupation to overthrow capitalism or bring down the banks, or redistribute wealth at all. In fact, it’s probably wrong for me to call this confused or self-deceiving: it’s explicit in a number of different statements about democracy and discussion and raising questions. This language is a language of process rather than ends. Or, the process is the end. To the extent that this is the goal, rather than a means of overthrowing capitalism and working toward putting in place a communist solution, then that’s not my revolution.

There is a lot going on in this single paragraph, almost all of which is troublesome. To begin with, Dean gives away the strawman quite explicitly in her very first sentence, with the  accurate qualifier that “the language of occupying occupy wall street” is one that she is using i.e., this is her take on it, and if her take or language leads to some “confusion” or “self-deception” it is not clear who else is to blame here!

And what exactly is a “language of process“, or a “language of ends“? I am pretty sure I don’t know. What is clear however is that Dean wants to lay down the terms on which she will consider Occupy Wall Street “her” revolution: the movement has to share her goal, without question, of a communist solution. Well, okay, that’s her call to make. Why we worry? The trouble I have with Dean’s post is the way she goes about making her point, using all sorts of bad faith hypotheticals, logical leaps, and by playing games with the meaning of words like “process” and “goal”.

One example is Dean’s worry about the presence of Ron Paulites:

To the extent that Occupy Wall Street remains open to and for multiple political persuasions, it is not a left movement at all.  […] As I understand it, Ron Paul supports an odd notion of free markets; he thinks that individuals make better decisions than groups and that a social safety net damages freedom. If there is space for this view in Occupy Wall Street, then that’s not my revolution. In fact, it seems like a version of the one that hijacked the country in the 70s.

What is “space for this view“, per Dean, and how do the protestors please Dean by purging the movement of such space? Should they chase away Paul leafletters hovering around the periphery? Should they not  listen to them should Paulites attempt to start a discussion? Dean’s own hypothetical extent to which OWS is “open” to alternate “persuasions” or provides “a space” for them, is evidence (“it seems“) that OWS is out to hijack the country. In this analysis, it’s a direct route from hypotheticals (“to the extent that“, “if there is space“) to conclusions.

Another example is the first section quoted above, where Dean condenses all the varied procedures, activities, slogans and positions of OWS to a matter of obsession with “process“. Out of the Brownian flurry of hypotheses bouncing around in her own mind, Dean builds a caricature of a movement — not a movement that is occupying a space to achieve goals (explicitly stated in their statements and placards); not a movement trying to avoid co-option by staying open (while also guarded) to ideas and arguments; but really rather a movement in love with its on machinations and minutiae.

What do we make of the  analysis that people have occupied a park for the fun of the process of being open to Ron Paulites and for the thrill of continuing such occupation into the balmy days of winter, rather than the more probable case that they are using the occupation as a base for protests whose goals are made explicit in their slogans? What could the author possibly mean?

I suspect that to get to the content, you have to work through Dean’s post in a different sequence than top down. It is the Lenin references up front and the political identifications towards the end (“those of us who think of ourselves as communists, Leninists, Trotskyists…“) that provide the necessary backdrop for Dean’s dismissals: “that’s not my revolution” and “Occupy Wall Street … is not a left movement at all“. The contrast to watch for is not the one Dean draws between libertarianism and leftism:

The easiest rough initial cut is between those who begin with an emphasis on equality and those who begin with an emphasis on freedom; another crude cut would distinguish between those who begin from an emphasis on individualism and those who begin from an emphasis on collectivity, solidarity, and a commons.

For surely those actually collected in solidarity in the commons hardly need lecturing (a la Ricard Dawkins: by all means let’s be open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brains drop out) on libertarianism! Dean is of course not lecturing OWS. She is writing to that “those of us“, her people, and the contrast she draws out is really between the ideological commitment of those like her, and the open-ended process of discovery through action employed by OWS. We cannot take seriously the speculation that OWS is some sort of ISO9001 circle jerk. So, when she raises the suspicion that OWS may not be about “overthrowing capitalism and replacing it with a communist solution“, the emphasis is likely on the latter part. The lack of a priori commitment to communism is Dean’s real issue. But there is good news. She is willing to wait for OWS to come around:

For those of us who think of ourselves as communists, Leninists, Trotskyists, Maoists, and socialists, our challenge is finding ways to work within and together with the movement, which can well mean not pushing too quickly for something for which the proper support has not yet been built.

Or of course there is the alternate possibility. As a fellow subscriber on a left mailing list summarised this kind of analysis (using a quote that seems to be widely attributed to Mahatma Gandhi):

There go my people. I must run and catch up with them because I am their leader.

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Nov 10th, 2011 by ravi
Return of the blah-blahg

I expect to start posting to this blog more regularly. I leave it to you (is there still a you out there? If so, post a comment for my gratification!) to decide whether that’s a good thing. Some of this material will be stuff migrated from my Posterous site, but will likely be new to you.


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