I’ve merged the lines of thought here into my artistic research after realizing how to conceptualize their convergence. These reflections continue at barclayshields.tumblr.com.
This will not be updated anymore.
Only about 40 years ago the advanced, developed, democratic republic of France was very nearly overthrown by an egalitarian, non-Soviet, non-authoritarian, spontaneous, and mass-democratic political revolution. The most remarkable aspect of the events surrounding May of 1968 in France is how unfathomably distant its subjective experience seems from our own political consciousness today in a country such as the United States, considering how still extremely recent was 1968. Returning to these events, it is impossible to avoid the suspicion that between then and now there must have transpired some sort of deeply nefarious historiographical scandal.
On the one hand, many of the protesters as well as observers at the time were possessed of an authentic certainty that their movement marked the “beginning of the end” for modern capitalism and the modern state. Interestingly and perhaps most compellingly, it is well after the revolutionary insurrection fails that one finds some of the most confident testimony that nothing short of a new threshold of political history had been irrevocably crossed. From the International Situationniste #12 of 1969:
The movement was a rediscovery of collective and individual history, an awakening to the possibility of intervening in history, an awareness of participating in an irreversible event. (“Nothing will ever be the same again.”) People looked back in amusement at the strange existence they had led a week before, at their outlived survival. It was a passion for bringing everything and everyone together that included a holistic critique of all alienations, of all ideologies and of the entire old organization of real life.
…previously it was the subversion of the existing society that seemed unlikely; now it is its continuation.
The proof that it had established its own new legitimacy is that the regime reestablished in June has never, in its striving to restore internal state security, dared to prosecute those responsible for overtly illegal actions, those who had partially divested it of its authority and even of its buildings.
What is more, the activists of May ‘68 in France had very little doubt that their experiences were part of an unstoppable, international occupation movement. Almost unbelievably, this radical French journal of 1969 refers to an article from Agence France-Presse calling for nothing short of—it is almost unbelievable—the occupation of Wall Street:
This perspective is not limited to France, it is international. The total significance of the occupations movement must be understood everywhere. Already in 1968 its example touched off, or pushed to higher levels, severe disorders throughout Europe and in America and Japan. The most remarkable immediate consequences of May were the bloody revolt of the Mexican students, which was able to be crushed due to its relative isolation, and the Yugoslavian students’ movement against the bureaucracy and for proletarian self-management, which partially drew in the workers and put Tito’s regime in great danger…
It is easy to recognize throughout the world the new tone with which a radical critique is pronouncing its declaration of war on the old society — from the graffiti on the walls of England and Italy to the extremist Mexican group Caos, which during the summer of 1968 called for the sabotage of the Olympics and of “the society of spectacular consumption”; from the acts and publications of the Acratas in Madrid to the shout of a Wall Street demonstration (AFP, April 12), “Stop the Show,” in that American society whose “decline and fall” we already pointed out in 1965 and whose very officials now admit that it is “a sick society.”
On the other hand, the masses of the liberal democratic or “advanced-capitalist” world of only about 40 years later seem to have not the slightest knowledge that such an earth-shattering political development ever took place so recently, that revolution in the richest and most powerful countries of the world today is not only imaginable—a hard enough argument to even begin today—but that it had been arguably hours away from succeeding only a few years ago. Only 40 years later, almost everybody would affirm the proposition that today, in a country such as France or the United States, revolution is impossible. If asked to seriously think about it, even most educated Americans would probably think of Lenin at best, and even then only in the form of a little cartooned bald man running around a backwards country in another epoch, over where and back when people were just “kinda crazy” or something. One might try to account for ignorance of the French events of May ‘68 by noting the general and pervasive lack of historical knowledge among most people today, and in the United States, especially. But in the midst of the current unrest, the several direct, undeniable parallels between our own burgeoning movement and the movement of May ‘68 in France elevates its absence from public consciousness into something more. It demands a symptomatic reading of this current silence regarding what just a little bit of research reveals to be an ecstastically obvious historical continuity.
That is, I would like to stake out the hypothesis, first of all, that May ‘68 in France, as the high water mark for the revolutionary project in the Western world, and precisely because of how high the water went, and how recently, has been historically repressed. Just as in the traditional Freudian schema, an event that was intolerably traumatic for modern capitalism was pushed out of popular consciousness through specifiable mechanisms of ideological and material repression, and the evidence of this repression can be adduced in the form of clinically predictable neurotic patterns following the trauma. For instance, I can show that in the contemporary media chatter on the U.S. occupation movement, we find demonstrable patterns of repetition compulsion, textbook neurosis. This first position transitions into a second position, which is that the achievements of May ‘68, combined with ample and straightforward lessons gleaned from its failure, provide the strongest blueprint for the revolutionary transcendence of capitalism that modern political philosophy can elucidate at the current juncture. Some of these lessons were even elucidated by some of the French radicals immediately after their own failure for the sake of what they were certain would be widespread and confident do-overs around the world, lessons elucidated as if the revolutionary tradition after May ‘68 was in the position of a golfer who just missed a put by an inch and, hardly needing to begin all over, could now just tap the ball in with only one hand on the club! Finally, I close on some considerations of the significant differences, material and ideological, that distinguish our situation from that of May ‘68 in France, demonstrating not only that the true historical destiny of the occupation movement is revolutionary, but that despite skepticism or in a certain dialectical sense because of it, the revolutionary project has never been more excitingly poised for world-historical success.
Using rather extraordinary data made available by the Google corporation, it is possible to initiate an empirical consideration of the hypothesis concerning a demonstrable historical repression of the revolutionary demiurge of the late 60s. The following graphs depict the frequency with which the word “revolution” occurs in books published over the past two centuries. Obviously, the figures do not refer to all books published in this period, but a sample of roughly four percent of all books, or more than five million. Books being an index of the terms with which a society understands itself, this data permits an extremely powerful if only preliminary analysis of the long-term dynamics of social consciousness.
In fact, the data offers interesting evidence for an extraordinary claim. At the end of the 1960s, the question of revolution was farther to the front of the global mind than it ever had been for the preceding two centuries. At the beginning of the 1970s, it begins a conspicuous plummeting until it is erased from the social text more thoroughly than at any previous moment in those two centuries. Hardly anywhere does it rise higher and fall more precipitously than in American English.
Of course, it could be argued that after ‘68, the prospect of revolution objectively receded (in other words, the events of May ‘68 stopped and the capitalist order was restored), and thus naturally our overall cultural concern with it decreased accordingly. But first, it is important to not limit our empirical reflections to the contemporary academic ideology that fetishizes linear causality between independent and dependent variables. Social scientists are typically undertrained in dialectical thinking. It is of course possible that the desire to remove something from the symbolic order is precisely what drives the political acitivity of repressing its conditions objectively, such that we don’t need to be Nietzsche to affirm that a long-term historical (symbolic) repression after the fact can, in a sense, cause the objective repression that precedes it—insofar as the long-term symbolic repression can be counted on in advance to insure the objective repression, an insurance structured precisely by the dominant academic ideology of linear relationships between things in the world and consciousness of those things. We should say that if there are good measures to gauge an objective receding of the revolutionary threat, and even if such objective developments preceded the cultural trends highlighted here, this would not mean we are looking at an innocent and natural shift of thinking in response to objective reality. For, since the capitalist order that was objectively restored after May ‘68 was motivated by a conscious political desire to literally repress the traumatic occurrence and its superficial material conditions, if at the same time the trauma recedes from the social text according to a pattern that is quicker and/or of a greater degree than the objective repression of the conditions for the emergence of the trauma, then it is perfectly fair and necessary to isolate and observe a distinct process that is the historical repression of the trauma. Even if differences in the relative dynamics and intensities do not provide standout evidence of a distinct historical repression that can be separated from the objective repression, we nonetheless would not need to shy away from explicating and defending the distinct reality of an historical repression, given that objective and historical forms of repression should be understood simply as two aspects of one socially systematic process of the repression of traumas.
Further evidence in favor of a systematically repressive process in historical symbolic consciousness is found in the patterns of dynamic variation across corpora. It seems highly significant that in the American English corpus the sudden disappearance of revolution is quickest and most extensive, followed by England, Germany, and then finally France itself. That is, the theory of historical repression very well predicts that the sort of immediate, nervous reflex to simply act as if nothing ever happened is most likely to occur precisely where its material reality is least present. In short, it’s easier to forget the primal scene if you didn’t actually see it, it’s most difficult if you witnessed it for yourself. This is indeed one possible story the data narrates.
Voices in mainstream media debate whether the American occupation movement is or will become a bona fide national political movement. Predictably, many sympathizers on the left do not hesitate to call it such, while critics, mostly on the right and mostly those who have the most to lose from a serious resurgence of militant democracy, dismiss our present insurrection as child’s play. Is it the 99% not yet fully organized, or less than one percent pretending to speak for the masses? From the loosely ethnographic perspective of a reflective participant (in Occupy Philadelphia), I would like to relate a set of observations that speak powerfully in favor of the long-term and revolutionary potential of current developments. Additionally, I would argue these observations portend a radical coupure in American political culture the logic of which I will articulate from an informally game-theoretic perspective.
It has been a commonplace for decades: we live in a post-political age. Daniel Bell, 1960, The End of Ideology. Fukuyama via Hegel, 1992, The End of History. So on and so forth. No ideology has more effectively repressed revolutionary desire, especially in one of the cohorts from whom it often explodes in radical public protest—the youth and young adults—than this ideology of the end of ideology. For my whole young adult life—I am 25—politics has been more or less implicitly prohibited from the conversation of young, educated, urban, hipster milieus. Familiarity with current events and a vague leftism have always been a plus, of course, but the idea of, say, inviting a good-looking and fashionably-dressed young woman to a political event has never really been, let us say, socially feasible. Because everybody knows that politics is dead, because everybody knows protests don’t work, overly explicit and overly sincere identifications with serious political change in the United States, let alone with radicalism, for as long as I can remember have been perceived by the bulk of even privileged-but-disillusioned young adults as just corny anachronisms for political nerds. All of us coming of age after the fall of the Berlin Wall have been drinking that Kool-Aid since birth, especially the most socially-savvy, the most fashionable, the handsomest!
That is, the coolest, most fashionable, and sexually-prized individuals of the urban hipster milieus across our country have earned their positions at least in part by internalizing and restylizing the ideology of post-politics so successfully. And insofar as post-political position-takings have accrued cultural capital, there have prevailed strong incentives internal to youth culture that reinforce political apathy.
It is worth noting that the alignment of socio-sexual desirability and political apathy is not by any means normal: it’s an historical anomaly. It is not a coincidence that in the 1960s, Mark Rudd and Bernardine Dorhn in the U.S., Daniel Cohn-Bendit aka Dany Le Rouge in France, and Rudi Dutschke in Germany were all babes, sex symbols of modern student resistance in its prime. Clearly, no cultural context is more likely to keep young adults politically complacent and pacified than ours, that in which the hippest, most socially and sexually desirable young adults tend to be paragons of post-politics, a situation that has prevailed since I can remember.
However, using my own experiences as examples, and the logic of political science as a guide, I can demonstrate how one of the occupation movement’s most politically radical achievements in the U.S. might very well be to break the decades-old, silent complicity between the ultra-conservative ideology of post-politics on the one hand, and socio-sexual desire on the other. If correct, this will suggest that the occupation movement will not only become a true national political movement but that it may mark a watershed in the long-run political subjectivity of American youth and American political culture more generally.
From some basic principles of political science we can outline a simple model.
1. Before Occupy Wall Street, the ideology and norms of “post-politics” had a captive audience; if one wanted to sleep with hip people but also happened to be more politically motivated than hipster norms permitted, there was no viable strategy for “going it alone,” and trying to make politics hip through the old trick of starting a trend by stylishly violating an old one. There would have been a special conundrum about such a strategy in the case of post-politics, namely that to succeed in bucking this trend one would inherently need enough hipster-turned-comrades to avoid furnishing proof for the cynical trope that “protesting never works.” And of course, to organize such a critical mass by getting individual hipsters to defect from post-politics, one would need to already have the critical mass! (For it to be socially worthwhile for any individual to defect.) It was a very steady equilibrium.
2. The emergence of Occupy Wall Street was what we could call an exogenous shock: something outside the system capable of disrupting its equilibrium. All of a sudden there was a place where young adults could go at any time, for obvious reasons unmolested by cynical post-politics, and just hang out. At first, this would mean that maybe only the most privately, politically-motivated hipsters (those who are most oppressed by having to censor themselves in non-political social contexts but do so because there’s just no other way to meet and sleep with hip people) go and occupy or otherwise participate variably. But because a public occupation is a focal point that draws in people from any of the areas surrounding it, an occupation could draw as few as two hipsters from each major neighborhood in the city before all of a sudden there is a handful of fashionable good-looking kids being political in a high-visibility public square, now receiving media attention, no less!
3. So these first few hipsters are disalienated and nourished by the newfound release from what they only now see, in retrospective contrast, as the repressive post-political norms of the old, inert hipster groupings. All of a sudden they are thinking, developing, and speaking exciting ideas they maybe never even knew they were capable of having. But in addition, they are doing it with at least one or two actually attractive, actually hip people! The hitherto unknown combination of exercising political will alongside legitimate and exciting sexual prospects means that these hipsters have no reason to return to the old, larger post-political hipsterdom. The occupation offers nothing less than a viable strategy for a potentially permanent exit from post-political hipsterdom. (Of course, there have always been radical political projects such as Food Not Bombs where a hip kid could possibly meet another good-looking hip kid. But my impression—right or wrong and probably wrong—was always that these projects attracted mostly “crust-punk” or similar styles only on the fringes of what is already the fringe of mainstream culture. For this reason, these projects or movements have never been able to attract a mass exodus of defectors from the bulk of middle-of-the-road hipsters. And, furthermore, they could never offer a 24/7 hangout spot literally open to all.)
4. Meanwhile, the still currently dominant, currently post-political hipsterdom is itself in a state of crisis. Or, at least, it is at a point of stagnation that is highly dangerous for a system—not unlike modern capitalism itself—that requires perpetual innovation and novelty. The crisis has to do with the information environment.
When I was in college, it was sufficient for both guys and girls to don a pair of tight black pants to effectively signal to anyone in sight that they were of the same ilk, that they generally hated the same things, generally liked the same things, vaguely rejected mainstream culture and bourgeois expectations, were vaguely leftist, etc. My cohort of hipsters now have what in game theory is called a “signaling problem.” Wearing tight pants six years ago was not exactly radical, but was rare enough that the decision to do so was a commitment to incur opprobrium or derision at least from some bourgeois superiors. It didn’t take a Sid Vicious to wear tight-pants, but it was socially “costly” enough that those who adopted the style could be trusted to have honest counter-cultural commitments; they wouldn’t incur the costs if they were just disingenuously affecting a counter-cultural demeanor to get laid in hipster circles. Over the past few years, as happens to all things once the privilege of cool innovators, basically everyone and their mother have come to wear “skinny” pants and associated styles. Tattoos, similarly, are quickly becoming acceptable in more and more social contexts, and therefore losing their signaling power. My cohort’s counter-cultural fashion sense has not kept pace. Our eyes are still trained on skinny pants and associated styles even as they continue to lose all association with actual counter-cultural commitments held by those who wear them.
Thus, there is right now an exigency internal to the real, authentic, counter-cultural substratum of the larger, now falsely-inflated hipsterdom, that perhaps explains the timing of the occupation movement’s capacity for resexualizing radical politics. That is, I am effectively arguing that over the past few years there has been a speculative bubble in hipsterdom—more and more people buying stock in hipster lifestyle (e.g. clothes) not because of actual counter-cultural commitments (real value) but only hoping to sleep with cooler people (speculation). And as in most speculative bubbles, an exogenous shock was required to break the reinforcing circularity of confidence and (falsely) rising value. That is, we probably excused and permitted bourgeois folks sneaking into counter-cultural milieus because we were like the holders of mortgage derivatives early in the housing bubble: in our beds we might have known we were holding worthless pieces of clothing but we did it anyway because at the time we could all pretend we were just rich with counter-cultural babes. The occupations are for reasons outlined above (their physicality, perpetuity, and openness) the first viable counter-cultural egress from the hipster bubble.
The mortgage crisis and subsequent recession were one cause of Occupy Wall Street, of course, but that Occupy Wall Street should take off at the present juncture and not, say, at the beginning of the recession or at the time of the bailouts is explained by the fact that the speculative bubble in the hipster lifestyle sustained false confidence in the ideology of post-politics. Financial and emotional confidence in post-political hipsterdom was still perfectly stable in 2008. Financial and emotional confidence have been lessening steadily since then—the first because of the recession, the second because of the signaling problem befallen authentic counter-culturals within hipsterdom today.
5. A secondary effect of the stability and satisfaction the occupations provide to the first few hipsters is that it will permit them to draw lines between themselves in the occupations and their former friends in the old hipsterdom. All but the most politically radical have never been able to really draw political lines between themselves and others in American urban centers without choosing a life of isolation on the fringe. Now it is possible to do it with confidence in a political project that does not forgo a large, exciting, social life. This ability to draw lines and burn bridges if necessary will lead to an increasingly clear demarcation between the radical hipsters and the apolitical hipsters. As the occupations pull like magnets the true, authentic counter-culturals out of the hipster bubble, the brightness of the line they will now be capable of drawing between themselves and the post-political will further reinforce the next, final implication.
6. The final and most significant implication of an emergent political wing in contemporary hipsterdom exiting the speculative bubble of post-political hipsterdom is that radical politics will once again emerge as an attractive, fashionable lifestyle for young adults. The occupation movement will indeed continue to develop as a national political movement because all of the conditions are in place for a steady resexualization of radical politics in the United States. Two nights ago, the General Assembly of Occupy Philadelphia was deliberating on a high-salience proposal concerning whether to comply with city requests to move location or refuse and prepare to resist eviction. Without having paid too much attention to where in the mass of bodies I placed myself in the assembly, at one point I noticed that to my immediate left and right were all of the hippest-looking and (from my perspective) most attractive occupiers in Occupy Philadelphia. Some of them were groups of friends, but some of them were connected only by the political and essentially socio-sexual bonds of shared youthful exuberance, by the situation of a certain organic, sociological convergence of desires in which I had never before been personally implicated. We were all in favor of resisting eviction, and why wouldn’t we be? We’re young and attractive and fashionable and together: what is more revolutionary? Or consider the emergence of a popular blog entitled “Hot Chicks of Occupy Wall Street: The Sexy Side of Protesting Corruption,” simply photos of beautiful woman, many of whom appear young, hip, and radical.
Everyday moving forward, a few of the old hipsters will catch on and see that radical politics is simply on the rise across the whole horizon of their social lives; they will cease to associate their sexual desire with apolitical DJ culture and the false promises of “indie” and “alt” culture, just as we long ago ceased to associate our political desires with Congress and the false promises of Presidents. We hipsters have been lied to, and we’ve been lying to each other; there is nothing “indie,” “alt,” “counter,” “experimental,” or deserving of the term “hip” in our post-political hipster culture. More and more of us will continue to realize that in more ways than one our post-politics has become a “toxic asset.” Many may join the occupations for what some would call the “wrong reasons,” in other words, just to be cool. That might well be true, but it doesn’t matter.
Once we are all there, every condition that defines us—our level of education, the degree to which our country has betrayed us, our computers and iPhones, our energy, the promises we’ve been made combined with the futures we’ve been robbed of, the natural and honest solidarity we discover we share with the least privileged communities, and not least of all our good looks—suggests we will be the most dangerous political force our dead democracy has ever had to deal with. We won’t be nice like the hippies and we won’t go into hiding like the Weather Underground and and we won’t be killed off like the Black Panthers because not even a racist and classist society can tolerate jailing or killing off the whole lot of its defecting progeny.
In the industrial era, factories were physical sites of long-term and repeated interaction among laborers the exploitation and alienation of whom was visible for all to see. The camaraderie and sociality of workers in factories was therefore, as the traditional Marxian schema has it, inherently revolutionary. Today, the factories have been shipped off in favor of any and all currently profitable technologies for physically, socially-separated economic productivity. It is no wonder that union density has slowly and steadily declined and no wonder that a popular fight for true political and economic progress beyond capitalism has all but disappeared: literally, there has been nowhere for it to see itself in contrast to the daily subservience to corporate regiments, no relief in which it could be said to physically exist. In this sense, the exportation and disappearance of the factory was critical in the solidification of what Marcuse has diagnosed as our “one-dimensional” life of post-industrial capitalism.
The consequence of the exportation and disappearance of factories is that we have been forced to replace them with new factories; the consequence of having no capital, no resources, and no futures is that the new factories have no raw materials and no production plans, and thus will be terribly unprofitable. In fact, the new factories do not even have enough resources to produce unprofitable commodities. The new factories, having nothing to produce for non-profit, let alone profit, cannot help but begin dialectically to accumulate a sort of anti-profit. And in this accumulation, we trace our anti-profit backwards to find a sort of hidden reserve of anti-capital, a repressed anticapitalism.
We shipped away the material factories in favor of distributed cyberfactories, and now in that great drama of unintended consequences once upon a time known as the dialectical materialism, the proletariat of the cyberfactories—we the educated and savvy technomads with no jobs, no future, and student debt we can’t even take seriously anymore—have occupied our virtual workplaces and through them produced some good old-fashioned physical factories open to all, factories that have nothing left to produce but revolution itself.
In One-Dimensional Man, Marcuse discusses how revolutionary desire always seems to be thwarted by the perception that modern society “delivers the goods,” that we do not find, as in the traditional Marxian eschatology, the immiseration of the masses that makes them rise up but rather provision of the minimal required satisfactions that prevent them from rising up. However, during times when the status quo does not deliver the goods, and precisely to the degree the goods don’t arrive, there is always an natural condition for the emergence of political protest. That much is obvious. What is less obvious is that rather than just resist “austerity” measures that cut funding for vital goods, as in traditional demonstrations or rallies, an occupation itself delivers vital goods. Food is an obvious example. Three meals a day, for free, out of nothing other than crumbs from the table of the most wildly productive organization of society ever evolved. In fact, the occupations are actively delivering other equally essential human goods that the status quo has failed to deliver for so long that most people don’t even know they have been longed starved of them: the need for social relations irreducible to profit. Someone who works with an occupation for even three days cannot help but realize the absolutely astounding and almost unbelievable fact that they are practicing something they literally have never done before, and that that practice is nothing short of and perhaps even nothing more than free, disalienated social interaction. At this point in time, friendships, families, the overwhelming bulk of almost all social relationships that exist in our world are thoroughly mediated and limited by at least arbitrary and at worst viciously unjust distributions of resources material and mental, resources that have been distributed through rather easily traceable historical processes completely alien to any choice or will of our own.
It seems almost obvious that a true and free social relationship can only be that which exists between two or more individuals who together choose and will to relate with one another. But it is equally obvious that most of us have no such relationships, most of our relationships being an accidental function of education, geography, the workplace, race, class, etc. Only within these already historically determined distributions of bodies do we pretend to choose our associates, and even this choice is increasingly determined by sometimes obviously and awkwardly strategic concerns of maximizing material well-being, again subordinate to imperatives outside our choosing.
For instance, two young professionals on their first date will not hestitate to warmly share with one another that they are looking for a partner with a good job, at least $40,000 annually perhaps, not much, modest, but no not ashamed to admit a desire for security, respectable security, can be a teacher or something like that, don’t need a lawyer you know, just educated though, and cleanliness, you know, not about money really, don’t really even care about the money per se, just a good, reasonable life, etcetera etcetera. These are not outrageous thoughts, living as we do in a truly frightful, insecure and otherwise disgusting world. What is outragous and truly frightening is that each of these two individuals, if they make more than $40,000 annually, are educated, are clean, and otherwise seem to fulfill the expectations that are usually associated with a $40,000 annual income, will tend to go home feeling warm and fuzzy, feeling lucky and hopeful for the possibility of having found a potential match for lifelong companionship. What claptrap! How have we come to the point at which the kind of absolutely shameless, naked self-interest required for reducing four billion possible companions to one individual by the basic criteria of a few sociological traits associated with income is enough to genuinely make someone love and feel loved, is enough to seriously pass as a true human relationship?
Just last week at Occupy Philadelphia, a couple married at the occupation site, a couple who had met only two weeks prior while working in the occupation. This was the object of not a few jokes I heard outside of the occupation, but what cannot be realized by those who are not yet occupying is that a sudden taste of personal communion based on truly elective affinities and not predetermined by the normal division of labor and historical distributions of capital is, in fact, exactly what most people have in mind when they speak of “true love.” And we should make no mistake about the stunning predicament we are in today, which is that commodification has so thoroughly permeated social relations that the only space left for truly unalienated communion would have to be one dedicated by design to suspending and reconsidering the whole system of current social relations—that is, a durable, liveable, popular anticapitalism.
This is exactly what the occupations are, still hiding under a sort of bourgeois cloak fitted for decent Americans. Fellow Philadelphia occupier Cindy Milstein speaks of how most of the occupation movement’s attitudes, procedures, and protocols are drawn directly from the anarchist organizing tradition—everything from the chants, protest medics, communal kitchens, mutual aid, rejection of external policing, all the way to our now well-known commitment to direct democracy—while nonetheless every now and then a moderate occupier fears aloud that the movement is being hijacked by radical anarchists!
But the ability to even formulate questions about the difference between true and alienated relationships requires one to abstract from daily investments enough to suspend them in such a decontextualized critical consideration as the one above, and this is overwhelmingly a privilege of considerable education and leisure time. However, a largely unrecognized function of the occupation movement is that those who have been deprived of the educational resources to engage in the “critical theory” of daily life and those who know of no other practical possibility for comparison are all learning it together, now. A homeless woman, member of a class that has learned more stoically than any other how to bear and cope with neglect and abondment, comes to our General Assembly crying in fear that the homeless will be left behind if the occupation gets evicted. What was astounding about this is not that someone was in emotional despair for fear of being left behind; there shouldn’t be anything surprising about that. Rather, this moment, precisely in its naturalness, makes incredible the otherwise everyday fact that typically homeless people don’t cry. To be homeless, on the street, to have nobody, and to not cry—to truly comprehend that a whole class of humans have become capable of the most terrible deprivations without crying—that is a realization sufficient to shake the planet. But it is only possible in a dialectical relationship to the perfectly understandable observation that suddenly a homeless woman is crying for fear of being left behind. The occupations, in providing physical public spaces for the emergence of perfectly natural emotions, exchanges, practices, norms, and habits, functions as a revolutionary relief—in both senses—for comprehending the lack of of these emotions, outside of the occupation sites, as simply absurd and intolerable.
This is why the occupation movement is inherently revolutionary, and completely unlike the traditional mass rally or demonstration. The bourgeois rally or demonstration as the exercise of a temporary, spatially constrained, exercise of self-righteous delight on some specific moral high-ground of one’s choosing, a nominal protest which sometimes serves specifically to render excusable and endurable the countless acts of mundane exploitation we engage in for the rest of the month. An occupation reverses this bourgeois formula: it is a temporally indefinite and spatially expandable attempt to suspend the countless practices of mundane exploitation that define the everyday life of the city, a suspension which permits sporadic glimpses at what disalienated social freedom might look like. What is crucial, what makes this function legitimately revolutionary, is that these glimpses, when they truly occur, are positively traumatic—in their true form they are sufficient for overturning years of normalized oppression. From these glimpses there is no return. The police could successfully repress every one of the thousand occupations, but today, for the true occupier of the contemporary American city, there will not be any buses going home.
What I have here elaborated as a sort of traumatic glimpse is, in some sense, akin to what in the Marxian register is known as “class consciousness.” A certain critical moment and necessary condition for revolution at least in the industrial period, class consciousness is typically understood as the realization of workers that they together are the true producers of value and that if the workers stand together they will be strong enough to overthrow those who exploit them. This moment of consciousness is understood as a sort of trigger which, when pulled, is an irreversible and unignorable motive force propelling the workers to seize power. Generations of very smart people have debated the meaning of this term, and I have no interest in situating my remarks in that context. As Marx himself says, “let the dead bury the dead.” The connection is only worth mentioning insofar as it suggests how the present insurrection effectively performs functions, at least in the context of post-industrial, postmodern American urban centers, that have loomed quite large in the revolutionary tradition.
A major problem in the Marxian conception of class consciousness is that even when workers attain “class consciousness,” the good old dues ex machina that is the historical dialectic sometimes sputters out. Turns out, it’s not an automatic trigger. Only theorists can believe that one powerful realization over coffee in the morning can be enough to overturn capitalism. However, building from the Marxian insight, what the occupation movement contributes to the revolutionary tradition is the wager that class consciousness is not a dialectical moment in a historical process, but is itself a dialectical process in the very production of a history. Interestingly, it is the famed French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu who has most significantly departed from Marx mainly in his emphasis on the durability of ideology in practical embodiment, in the dominance of relatively stable, inert sets of habits or habitus. His work has demonstrated how naive was Marx’s personal eschatology of imminent revolution, and in a certain sense the occupation movement can be understood as having understood this lesson. If the occupations are, inter alia, sites for the repeated production of traumatic glimpses indefinitely over time, then in a certain sense they can very reasonably be conceptualized as revolution factories, both in the sense that they replace the industrial factory as focal point for revolutionary organizing, and in the sense that they are long-term apparatuses for the production and distribution of revolutionaries.
Thus, the occupation sights are nothing short of revolution factories. The inputs are living beings long reduced to subhuman working conditions, beings the political voice of whom has been slowly and surely reduced to nearly nothing, beings who are culturally and physically malnourished. The occupations provide vital goods of which the modern economy has starved us, and the only price the occupations exact is participation according to the rules and protocols which have evolved as the most radically and sustainably democratic. In other words, one learns to be radical just by occupying, one becomes an anticapitalist, an anarchist, a communist, just by occupying, all while fearing that radicals might hijack the movement!
It is difficult to write of a present insurrection. Journalize, polemicize, moralize, historicize, predict? Considered individually, all traditional modes of reflecting on politics seem insufficient or inappropriate. Someone once said that humans make their own history but not any history they please, so rigorous attention must be paid to the empirically knowable horizons of material, intellectual, and technological possibility. But if we insist on a different future, a future that is truly a future, a future not reducible to current perceptions of the possible, then writing of the present must dare to speculate, hope, or even predict, if only as rhetorical actions that are sometimes capable of producing possibilities that really never even existed to justify such projections in the first place! I have no problem with prophecies if they are of the self-fulfilling variety. Narratives of current substantive and tactical cleavages within the occupation movement are sometimes worth considering, but run the risk of fetishizing very narrow issues in a drama of personalities and factions. For instance, although they are important and were fascinating for a while, who today can read without yawning the endless internal polemics of something like the First International? Needless to say, all current mainstream journalism has been a laughable failure in transmitting to the general public even a hint of the revolutionary beginnings that are perfectly palpable to many of us. Even much journalism contesting the mainstream media outlets still conforms to their conventions and expectations, if only to effectively circulate in the channels of perception already thoroughly deformed by dominant media. Finally, it is perfectly obvious that universities will not permit anyone within the academy to attempt any truly honest and creative intellectual contribution to our present situation, at least not with the university’s powers of consecration and dissemination.
Therefore, in the spirit of our present insurrection, I, for one, will take the liberty of working within any and all of these modes whenever I please and as the situation requires. I am proud to do so while active with Occupy Philly and the contingent of occupiers active on the campus of Temple University, and unfortunately, at no small cost to the dissertation I should be writing at this very moment. I encourage everyone else to take similar liberties wherever and whenever they find them: perhaps the most radical significance of the present insurrection already is that we suddenly have in the public consciousness a certain pretext, a basis of real, honest, radical energy that the general public not only knows about but vaguely supports, however inchoate it might be, which can justify an infinity of exercises in radical self-emancipation. As a thinker, it suddenly feels possible to raise the question of revolution, in the context of post-industrial American politics, without sounding arbitrary, naive, or even stupid—even if one still sounds a little crazy. And to develop my powers and interests in a freely self-determined fashion. If nothing else, the occupation movement now provides a public political context for any number of such self-emancipating liberties, behaviors which themselves spread and augment the intensity of the movement itself. In short, under the banner of our occupation movement it is possible to speak and act in ways one might have always desired but have always felt unable to execute (on account of that little feeling that always tells us, “No, it just wouldn’t come off correctly…).” Today, we are in the midst of an insurrection that is known by the general public well enough—while understood poorly enough—that an infinite range of the writing, speaking, and action we’ve always thought about exploring is not only feasible, but is itself an active contribution to building and intensifying the present insurrection.
For instance, a shout from the rooftop no longer needs to be metaphorical. This evening at 2 a.m. I will literally shout from my rooftop “A better world is possible,” for no other reasons than the fact that a better world is possible, that others should know it, and that the old expression always struck me as rather beautiful. But it’s always been a beautiful idea that was outlawed by a certain prohibition of optimism. Three months ago, a neighbor hearing me might have awoken, cursed the crazy youth, and gone right back to sleep. So I never would have done it. Tonight, they might do the same thing, but the difference is they’ll have to chalk it up to the occupation movement, what everybody knows is in the air and why they never would have heard such a message from my roof three months ago, and why it will take them a few extra minutes to fall back asleep. By seizing on the infinite range of micropolitical activity opened up by the symbolic omnipresence of the occupation movement, we not only have sensible grounds for literally and irreversibly emancipating ourselves, we literally build, extend, and intensify the movement in doing so.
This is why I will write of the present insurrection, and I will write about it any way I please. Frantz Fanon says somewhere that at a certain point “methods devour themselves.” That sounds very pleasant to me; I will let them devour themselves. And so with respect to my methodology for reflecting on the movement now well underway, I have nothing further to say.