Theses on Occupy Wall Street (Part I)

Wherein our scribe hazards a few modest proposals

Thesis I: It’s a process, not a final state (and there are no final states)

One of antiquity’s deepest philosophical problems was: how do we discern stability in the natural world, whose most obvious characteristic is that of constant change?

Today our problem is the opposite: how can we learn to perceive change? Or, rather: can we learn how to perceive and comprehend processes as processes?

Since the Occupy movement in New York began in September, people have voiced frustration about its apparent incoherence and have rushed to stabilize it with demands for something like a policy platform. However in doing so, they’re at best only stabilizing their perceptions of it. But those perceptions are then inevitably misleading, because the Occupy movement is a process responding to other processes: economic, social, political, and definitely global.

For a time—but not all that long a time—we’ve had the luxury of forgetting that our world is nothing but processes. Sometimes we can comfort ourselves by pointing to “cycles” in “nature” and thereby giving ourselves a sense of permanence or even quasi-eternity, but growing knowledge of our cosmic predicament over the last several hundred years has limited even that impression. Process is much more radically and obviously anomalous in the domain we call history. It’s even more difficult to posit “cycles” in history, because in history we find unprecedented events that never quite resemble anything else. It’s tempting to define the Occupy movement by comparing it to prior events, but that will also distract us from the fact of the matter: the movement is symptomatic of another unprecedented historical event. It’s not stable, but everything is particularly unstable right now. We’re embroiled in a becoming.

“It is in the nature of beginning that something new is started which cannot be expected from whatever may have happened before … [t]he always new happens against the overwhelming odds of statistical laws and their probability, which for all practical, everyday purposes amounts to certainty; the new therefore always appears in the guise of a miracle.” – Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (1958), 177-78

Thesis II: The milieu is the message

This means at least two things. It means, first: attend to the fact that communications technology, the volume and velocity of which were unimaginable a century ago, create a milieu: a resonance chamber for events. In the articles I wrote about Marshall McLuhan’s thinking a few months ago, I discussed how global communications, particularly today with the Internet, make it possible to simultaneously observe, judge, and potentially act on a multiplicity of events happening all around the planet. With the Occupy movement, it’s important to remember that its chief participants, i.e. those in New York City, can observe us observing the movement and making judgment calls about it. In other words, there is an extent, probably immeasurable, to which observing it amounts to acting on it. Whatever responses arise from that will affect the overall milieu. From this perspective, Thesis II is linked to Thesis I: understanding the milieu means seeing how perception and action are intertwined in these transformative processes.

“The milieu is the message” also means: understand the specificity of your locale. The Internet can make us feel like we’re all right there in the thick of things, but it’s important to remember that every global effect is realized locally. If, for example, the Occupy marches in Toronto seem to lack the same kind of focused energy as the ones in New York City, it’s probably partly because we didn’t have a banking crisis in Canada: the barriers between commercial banks and investment banks weren’t taken down like they were in the USA. There are always other local effects that nonetheless symptomatize the same problem: in Canada, there’s the corporatization of post-secondary education, for example. To be even more local, in Newfoundland we have the Ragged Beach controversy. No two locales are quite the same, and no two local problems are quite the same, even if they all figure into a much broader set of trends. Be aware of the milieu, because it can suffocate what’s happening if it’s not navigated carefully.

Thesis III: Principles are your friends

I’ve noticed that a lot of interested people, particularly those who identify as “activist”, are very concerned that the Occupy movement will fizzle out if it isn’t properly maintained. I’ve heard people worry about the oncoming winter, the inscrutability of individual intentions, the increasingly ubiquitous police presence, the massive wall of corporate tactics, and so on. I’m not going to deny that strategic action is important, but I’d like to suggest that it’s also important to question the extent to which we’ve assimilated a logic of control, not to mention that of the profit motive.

In other words, I think there’s a way in which the anxiety which causes people to want to come up with a managerial response for every contingency actually reflects the same rationality that the movement proposes to overthrow. I agree with the journalist Chris Hedges: hang on to principles. It may seem counterintuitive, but sticking to principles produces more flexibility and adaptability than the most nuanced and complicated strategizing ever could. The danger of over-strategizing is paralysis. The Occupy movement is about human life, and you can’t make a foolproof plan for that. Principles are precisely what can’t be integrated into the logic of control: anything that gets in the way of expedient measures is just an obstacle. It’s therefore crucial to avoid totalizing control strategies and rediscover attitudes like resoluteness and even radical forms of faith.

“The need to assemble is as constant among humans as the necessity of making decisions is rare. Assembling corresponds to the joy of feeling a common power. Decisions are vital only in emergency situations, where the exercise of democracy is already compromised.” – The Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurrection (2007), 122

Thesis IV: Habits are made to be bent

For me, one of the most exciting things about the Occupy movement is that it stands to blow away a whole host of exhausted notions, many of which, despite their long standing emptiness, have been used to attack the objections the movement raises. Here’s an example: “Those hippies just need to get a job and work hard if they want a piece of the pie.” “Hard work” as a noble value has had a pretty prestigious history. Max Weber traced it to the Protestant Reformation in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905). In the wake of the Reformation, “hard work” was attached to a kind of spiritual rectification or clarification. In the twentieth century, particularly in post-WWII America, “hard work” signified the mechanism for obtaining a decent life: work hard and you’ll be rewarded in like measure.

We live in the shadow of those short-lived glory days, but if you push a little you’ll see that success (or even survival) is determined less and less by hard work and more and more by decisions made on the basis of profit margins. Who could honestly believe at this point that “hard work” performed the function it appeared to fifty or sixty years ago? For instance, when businesses close down to seek cheaper labour overseas, you’ll hear this response to complaints that it’s unfair: “It’s a business, not a charity”. Ironically, the claim itself indicates that the reverse is true! The employer-employee relationship today is less about a mutually beneficial arrangement and more about the employer’s “right” to make a profit. Your fate as an employee depends on the employer’s whims and good graces: generally speaking, for a growing number of people employment has never been more like a charity than it is today. The only other plausible interpretation is that it’s simply raw, nonreciprocal exploitation. Today, “hard work” connects neither to a spiritual nor to a practical value; thus, it doesn’t correspond to anything meaningful. So what good is it? Why should it command respect or obedience?

Thesis IV is therefore connected to Thesis II in the following way: understanding the milieu also means clarifying your own habits of thinking, speaking and acting, because individual and group habits shaped by the milieu also shape it. If there is a direct struggle against the rationality of greed as a) “human nature” (whatever that means) and b) a way of life, there’s equally an indirect struggle with the habits that shape the milieu in a way that favours that rationality. To put it another way: although “action” is a concept that governs political thinking today, certain modes of strategic inaction are just as necessary. Maybe they’re even preliminary. Don’t be blackmailed. Stop using their language. Then help invent a new one, and see what kind of world you can make.

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