Tuesday we voiced some concern with the content of the ‘We Are the 99%’ line coming out of the new protests, today we offer tentative thoughts about the form. Anyone paying attention knows that there is a serious debate within and around OccupyWallStreet about whether its commitment to a “horizontal, autonomous, leaderless, modified-consensus-based system with roots in anarchist thought,” as one participant describes it, is an asset or a liability. Obviously it is something of both. But that is not saying much of anything.
In an attempt to ‘understand the theory behind Occupy Wall Street’s Approach‘ Mike Konczal, over at Rortybomb, has helpfully summarized the high-end debate, in which figures like David Graeber and Matt Stoller have extolled the virtues of the horizontal organization, consensus-orientation, and rejection of representation, while Jodi Dean and Doug Henwood have objected that the obsession with process makes “political will into an offense” (Dean’s phrase) especially by seeing representation as oppressive and by seeing the prioritization of demands as exclusionary and dogmatic. We are inclined in Dean and Henwood’s direction, though it is very likely the case that the initial power of OWS has been its openness, and ability to channel many many competing interests and voices.
Our worry is, in a way, less grand. If representation is rejected, then what to do if/when active support becomes very large? The Occupy movement could become a victim of its own success. That is a small worry. A deeper worry is that mastery quickly becomes drift. Reluctance to impose a common will on a situation very quickly means the events control you. This is a bit what seems to have happened with the police – not in the sense that a better organized protest would not have been tricked by the police. But rather in the sense that the protests have become about police brutality and dirty tricks because they are immediate and concrete – the one thing that everyone there can agree on without difficulty. While relations with the police are no doubt problematic, it would be a mistake to let them become a distraction for protests about Wall Street and the economy. To be clear, we are not defending the police. Rather we are pointing to the way that making the process the demand gives tremendous weight to the immediate environment of that process (relations with police, stores, protest culture) relative to the broader economic and social structures against which the protests are aimed. And a resistance both to representation and to giving priority to some claims over others gives that environment all the more power as a de facto source of claims and ‘demands.’ Those are tactical liabilities, whatever theories happen to be at play.
Again, these are tentative thoughts, based on participation in one of the marches and reflection on the impressions of many others. But after today (Wednesday’s) demonstration of major and growing support, these are issues that will only become more pressing.