October 14, 2011
by Arun Gupta
PERHAPS THE most wondrous aspect of the growing Occupy Wall Street movement is that there are lessons for everyone. For the 99 percent, it’s that we still have agency, power and imagination. For the ruling 1 percent, you can’t throw people into despair and deprivation and not expect a social explosion. For the mainstream media, you can’t fit genuine democracy into five-second sound bites or look for anointed leaders. For the right, you can’t cheer revolts and uprisings one minute and condemn them the next.
Now, for the left, where I reside, one of the many lessons we need to embrace is dispensing with economism and material reductionism. These days, the left tends to treat politics as a matter of biological reproduction: housing, food, health care, transit, jobs and education. The implication is these are the amino acids from which the DNA of human society is constructed. We have created a politics largely bereft of spirit and hope, but pocked with sinkholes of impotence and bleakness.
Occupy Wall Street is a rejoinder to that in a way that has breathed life into the dialectic. It began with an idea–Occupy Wall Street!–that took form with the liberation of a physical space–Liberty Plaza–which brought into being the people–“We are the 99 percent”–that has allowed the transformation of public and political space through mass unpermitted marches and a permanent organizing space in the heart of global capitalism, and which in turn have interjected a simple idea in the national dialogue–that almost all of our society’s problems stem from the extreme concentration of wealth and power in the top 1 percent.
This is why base and superstructure are a dialectic (and intertwined), rather than a one-way movement between discrete forces where we treat consciousness as a mere outcome of material conditions. Of course, we have witnessed this many times in the last year. Tunisia and Egypt affirmed that agency, solidarity and persistence can overturn the dominant powers.
The strength of the Occupy Wall Street movement–its lack of organization–is also its weakness. While the plutocrats are shaking in their Guccis and politicians are less eager to play Sweeney Todd with social programs, this formless movement needs to create some sort of form to exercise real power beyond the symbolic and performative.
Because Zuccotti Park and other occupations popping up around the country are open social and political spaces, groups can go in and create poles to organize around. But building a movement with a vision and coherent politics means listening carefully to people there, speaking directly to their politics and grievances–and more important–passions and desires, while gently steering them to a radical analysis. The distrust of leaders and organizations means any attempt to impose an agenda will fail. But if radical politics grows organically out of the General Assembly, working groups and informal nodes of power, then it will gain wide legitimacy and force.
There is no one end goal, just as there is no one demand, because there is no one problem stemming from the crisis of global capitalism. One encouraging sign is how various occupations are already targeting banks, but many other targets could be chosen.
What must be avoided is the pursuit of reform, which is based on the notion that the system is fundamentally just and only needs to be tweaked with policy changes. This is the perspective of every compromised force within the Democratic Party from ossified labor unions to reformist NGOs to clientelist community groups, which are glomming on to Occupy Wall Street to push their agenda and return disgruntled Democratic voters back to the fold in 2012.
This movement will achieve victories by rejecting the ballot box, staying in the streets, constructing new narratives and keeping the heat on the oligarchy. Most of all, we must keep changing consciousness, people’s notion of themselves, society and possibility. That is what will push this movement forward in ways we can barely imagine.