Is Occupy Just an Event?
and not a movement? This is the question that Matthew Noah Smith makes in an essay titled "Living Politically" on the site to which Lambert recently directed us that had the essay "Occupy Philosophy".
He believes that Occupy was an important "event" in that it captured our imaginations more than other important protests such as the one that shut down the state government in Wisconsin. And the "why" of how it did that is important.
Occupy gave individuals a taste of real democracy.
Democratic movements cannot succeed only through winning certain determinate policy goals; democratic movements aim to transform more than just certain political institutions or leaders. Rather, movements for democracy aim to change people’s conceptions of their own political agency. This personal process involves the alteration of one’s self-understanding. One learns not just to stand up and fight—that is easily and disastrously taught. Rather, one learns to see oneself as having a unique power in concert with others—namely, the power to collectively shape the world in the image of a political ideal. One no longer thinks of oneself as a patient or a lone figure in struggle against injustice. Rather, one begins to think of oneself plurally and democratically. That is, one understands oneself as part of a democratic ‘we.’
Occupy gave individuals a voice that often they didn't know they had because they found strength as members of a group. No longer victims, they felt the power of being part of the "we". Through the "we" they rediscovered their own personal power through the carrying out of actions that had been democratically decided. Exhilarating stuff. It was the power of the "mic check" of the UC Davis thuggish cops. It was the power to change directions and imaginatively lead police on wild goose chases. It was the power of open and transparent debates on how to face an eviction.
I have no trouble agreeing with him so far. But he argues that Occupy was an event and that event is over. He feels it is time for it to become a real movement and to work to create an alternative political order by engaging in the existing order.
Events like an OWS encampment cease to be ends in themselves, and instead become tactics used to build this collective. Alternatively, instead of building a new organization, OWS partisans can occupy established progressive organizations like labor unions, think tanks, and so on, and bring the practice of participatory democracy into those organizations. Regardless of method, this sort of organizational engagement with the political order, with an aim towards bringing a radical vision of the political self into existing sites of institutional political significance, would mark a transition from performance to power. Of course, whatever course of action is taken is for the OWS community to decide together, autonomously, and rhizomatically.
This is where I must part ways. To me it sounds like the old "you must change the party from within" directives of progressives like Thom Hartmann and most of "The Nation" crowd. But I did all that and nothing changed. In fact it has gotten worse. There was a window in 2003 when people joined the alternative campaigns of Dean, Kucinich, and Edwards to wrest control away from the Democratic Leadership Council or New Way/Third Way Democrats. This was the time when Progressive Democrats of America emerged. I threw myself into all of this, but came up against party loyalists that wanted things to stay exactly the same. You became a party member to get favors and give favors. Most full time Democrats just wanted to stay in their job as long as possible until they could parlay it into yet another government or lobbying job.
It sounds great theoretically to co-opt a union or a central committee or a think tank and change it. But in reality it doesn't happen. Perhaps it's that iron law of oligarchy deal where bureaucracy is inevitable. And with it comes cronyism and corruption.
So for now, I may be wearing rose colored glasses, but I see Occupy as a movement that doesn't seek an alternative political reality, but IS an alternative political reality.
What do you think?