9/17: A Year of Thinking Differently

The OWS encampment, October 2011.

The man with the megaphone was getting a response. Standing in front of the Wells Fargo Bank – a Wachovia branch until the subprime mortgage crisis wiped it out – at the corner of Broad and Bank in Newark, he was calling out to everyone in earshot. He exhorted passing motorists to honk their horns if they agreed with his oration and the slogans on the placards carried by his compatriots.

“I’m going to make a citizen’s arrest,” he announced defiantly, gesturing to Wells Fargo, the Prudential headquarters across the street and the Bank of America at the corner of Broad and Market a block away. “I’m going to walk in there and arrest the criminals.” Motorists honked. “It’s time we stopped giving our money to the people who have all the money,” he shouted. “It’s time to stop the foreclosures. It’s time to take our country back. It’s time for change!” Motorists honked.

“The only thing stopping us is complacency! We’re not going to be complacent anymore!” Motorists honked.

I stood with the protesters for a few minutes, raised a fist in solidarity, shook each of their hands and thanked them. It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon. I was walking up from the train station to my office at Rutgers University to catch up on work. As I strolled up Academy Street, I reflected on how protest has become common in Newark in the last year; how on any given weekend, there will be a crowd at that corner trying to change the world.

Rewind a little over a year to the summer of 2011: I was sitting in the Quad at Rutgers-Newark with my colleague Andy after teaching our Summer Session morning courses. Our mood was despondent. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker had managed to get his draconian budget passed, stripping public employees of their collective bargaining rights, despite protests and political and legal challenges. Congressional Republicans were played chicken with President Obama over the debt ceiling, literally threatening to destroy the country unless the President implemented their Austerity ideology as national policy. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed the state budget into law in July, after repeatedly using his veto to trim it Austerity-lean against the wishes of New Jersey’s legislature and against the interests of the vast majority of the state’s citizens.

“It looks like the bad guys have won,” I said, staring out into the distance in the direction of Bleeker Street. Andy took a drag on a hand-rolled cigarette and considered for a moment. “Yup,” he replied, uncharacteristically laconic. What else was there to say?

We turned out for a labour demonstration at City Hall Park in New York that summer to protest the escalating war on unions – particularly public teachers’ unions – but it felt like an exercise in nostalgia. The few hundred unionized workers and supporters who turned out that sunny afternoon sang “Solidarity Forever” and repeated what seemed like the tired catchphrases of a movement that had lost hope. It was a like hearing Chicago Cubs fans chanting “Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance,” conjuring a time in distant memory when The Loveable Losers actually stood a chance of winning a pennant.

“If we’re ever going to win,” Andy said, invoking the broad, progressive Left that had gone from defeat to defeat in the last few decades, “we’re going to have to come up with some better slogans.”

***

I heard the noise from Zuccotti Park in the third week of September last year. I was downtown with my partner, heading toward Century 21 to pick up a few items for her upcoming research year in Paris. I had read about Occupy Wall Street, seen some of the flyers and the Facebook memes. Part of me wanted to walk a block down and see what was happening, but a bigger part of me wanted simply to enjoy the last few days that Molly and I had together before she left for Europe. She flew out on 30 September.

I visited Zuccotti Park two days later. Everything changed in an instant.

Most of us who remember the early days of OWS recall the incredible sense of joy and hope. Only a month after it seemed like all was lost and people like Scott Walker and Chris Christy – his moist jowls flapping like a mastiff in a convertible – had won, change now seemed in the air. It was not possible for those of us on the Left to resist being swept along in the enthusiasm of the moment, realizing that we were not a tiny ragged band of political dejects chanting tired slogans that had lost their meaning. We were a community, a society… even a movement.

Convergence in Washington Square on the Global Day of Action.

And OWS gave us new slogans like “We are the 99%” and “This is What Democracy Looks Like” that evoked hope, rage and possibilities all at the same time.

I started visiting the park at every available opportunity. I didn’t camp out, and felt some guilt for that, but like so many of my friends and colleagues, I did what I could. I called friends and urged them to come down. I circulated a message among my colleagues in the academy: “Zuccotti Park is the site of a truly extraordinary, protean moment in American history. It is sometimes chaotic, a bit ragged around the edges, but you can’t come away from the park without feeling that there is something important happening there,” I wrote. “Whatever you can, or choose to do, you will be part of an event that we will be teaching our students about in the years ahead. Together, we can make it the moment when things started to get better.”

I helped arrange teach-ins at Rutgers University, and led one at Rutgers-Newark, with representatives from Occupy Newark, Occupy Rutgers and OWS. My friends Mark and Senia, who had been in it almost from the beginning, braving pepper spray and the elements, made brilliant, impassioned contributions.

By the middle of October, I had become involved with the OWS Education and Outreach Working Group. There were some impressive and exciting ideas, but it was as part of the working group that I began to see the occupation start to go off the rails. The great strength of OWS was, in some ways, its greatest weakness. It was a largely spontaneous expression of discontent that sought to mobilize a vast range of Americans in a non-authoritarian, decentralized and inclusive movement. Consequently it eschewed the politics-as-usual that might exclude some people and explicit goals that could be easily co-opted by the corrupt political establishment.

That was the source of its strength: It promoted ideas of social and economic justice without dictating their content. It made justice and equity themselves the issues. But that was also a weakness.

I’ve had enough experience with anti- and non-authoritarian movements to know that they are enormously difficult and slow-moving mechanisms. Consensus takes time, and even when achieved, there is always dissent. That’s not a bad thing, but it does often give the impression that nothing is happening. And invariably those activists with more time to devote to the movement emerge as a cadre, paradoxically directing the flow of consensus.

This is what happened in the working group. I can’t say that I disagreed with most of what came out of the meetings, but I realized that it would have been accomplished without my presence. Moreover, with classes to teach and a dissertation to write, I found my participation dwindling after the eviction from Zuccotti Park on 15 November, until I just wasn’t directly involved anymore.

I had also become somewhat disenchanted by what I saw as a battle for the OWS “brand,” for the want of a better term. My friend Kat had become involved with a progressive publisher in a project to produce a street-level history of the occupation. The result was a rather good book, Occupying Wall Street, but at the time, it excited enormous controversy in the Education Working Group.

Kat made significant efforts to solicit the working group’s participation; she was a member, an OWS participant from fairly early days, and she believed deeply in the message. To many of our comrades, however – particularly the emerging cadre – the project looked like a crass commercialization of the movement. That it might have been, though I doubt it. In any event, books were going to be written anyway and, as I tried to point out on the working group mailing list, at least this book would be produced along with the OWS activists.

I didn’t expect everyone to agree with me, but I was unprepared (as I suspect Kat was) for the vehemence with which the property of OWS, and the question of who had the authority to represent a movement that eschewed representatives, was met.

By winter, my direct involvement with OWS had tapered off. I didn’t have the time to commit, though I would continue to support the occupation, to defend it against critics, and to find a way to pursue its goals-without-goals in other ways.

***

Today marks the first anniversary of the occupation. There were demonstrations and the inevitable arrests over the weekend, and Zuccotti Park itself – where the blueshirts outnumbered real people by a significant margin – was under high security on Sunday. As I write this, I note that more than one hundred people have already been arrested on Wall Street.

There has been a considerable amount of crowing in the reactionary media and hand-wringing in the liberal media (the same report; different spin) over the perceived defeat of the Occupy movement to mark the occasion. By the standards of American politics-as-usual and particularly in this election season, OWS did indeed fail. The 1% are still sucking the life out of the 99%; American politics is still owned by billionaires; we seem no closer to social and economic justice now than we were a year ago. However, that misses the point of OWS – conveniently for the corporate and media elites – entirely. For, how can we criticize a movement that had no explicit goals and had no intention of assuming power for failing to accomplish its goals or assume power?

As Jim Livingston, historian, gadfly, social critic and the author of Against Thrift pointed out last year, OWS was not about politics-as-usual. Of course it looks unintelligible to anyone who sees it through that lens. It was not – is not – a “war of manouevre” to seize power or effect specific policy changes, as Antonio Gramsci formulated it, but a “war of position.”

“This war of position begins and ends in a ‘pre-political’ space,” Livingston noted. “[Czech revolutionary leader Vaclav] Havel calls that space a ‘hidden sphere,’ an ‘independent life of society,’ a ‘parallel structure’—parallel, that is, to the state—or just ‘culture’ as such.  It isn’t a retreat from society available only to the bohemian, the diffident, or the affluent (‘an act of isolation’), it’s where the real social life of the future can be glimpsed, and maybe even experienced.”

Changing the World.

The politics of OWS were – and are – a cultural politics that puts electoral politics, the politics of policy and power, politics-as-usual, last on the agenda; which taps into a far more profound and basic impulse. It is a politics of change that seeks to change the cultural foundations of injustice, inequity and exploitation. Austerity capitalism is draped in the robes of “common-sense:” we need to cut back, tighten our belts (as Chris Christie once said, though he failed to demonstrate how he would tighten his own) to keep the machine moving and, not incidentally, the socio-economic practices and relations that created the need for Austerity intact. The cultural politics of OWS sought – and seeks – to subvert that common-sense and ask if these socio-economic practices and relations require Austerity, privation and exploitation in order to preserve themselves, then shouldn’t change the way we think and what we believe about them?

It’s one of those “Emperor’s New Clothes” questions.

Despite everything that OWS did not accomplish, this one thing that it did accomplish is extraordinarily important. By tearing away the veil of common-sense from Austerity, OWS unleashed a torrent of discontent, dissent and questions. The defenders of the economic status-quo (mostly, but not only the Republicans), who have maintained for so long that the uber-wealthy are “job creators,” that corporations are people, that the concentration and consolidation of capital by a tiny elite of these “people” is good for “growth,” and that it benefits us all, now seem ridiculous. Mitt Romney’s predatory career would have seemed distasteful before, his vast wealth would have seemed vulgar, his belief that $250,000 annual salary represents “middle income” in America would have seemed dotty.

After OWS, it is even more than that: ridiculous, incomprehensible, indefensible. Romney, Ryan, Citicorp, Christie, Wells Fargo and all the rest seem denizens of a strange alternate dimension where the laws of physics don’t apply, where greed is good, lies are truth and the sad spectacle of a senile old man berating an imaginary adversary in an empty chair is a legitimate contribution to political culture. Admittedly, not everyone in this country has twigged to the disconnect between the Bizarro America of the 1% and the America we actually live, but a surprising number of us have realized that their Interzone is a sick hallucination. And we’ve realized that we’re not crazy.

That’s the big thing. We can only fix something when we acknowledge that something has to be fixed. Change can only happen when we realize change is possible.

As a scholar of American history, I am well aware that change can come very slowly in this country. Three generations of activists fought for voting rights for women between the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 and the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. It took more than a century after the end of the Civil War for Americans to do away with the most egregious legal and economic instruments of white supremacy and, it is worth remembering, the task is far from complete.

OWS sought to reorient the social and economic life of the United States – indeed the world – toward principles of justice rather than gain and spreadsheet logic. Walking around Zuccotti Park reading placards last year I noticed that, yes, there were myriad specific causes and demands but the vast majority by far spoke about justice. The actions of the occupiers and activists, imperfect as they were, with the community kitchen, meetings built on consensus, and the efforts to embrace the disenfranchised and subaltern, attempted to put justice into practice in daily life.

It didn’t happen right away. The 1% still own the country, the political system and our lives. The foreclosures continue. All but the fattest among us have to tighten our belts for another year. But that’s because OWS, and all of the demonstrations and protests it inspired, was (and is) aiming at something grander than policies and initiatives. It is a revolution of culture and of thinking. “So the revolution requires patience and humility,” Livingston wrote last winter, “and skepticism of ‘politics’ as convened by any party.”

The occupiers were evicted and the protests lost steam over the winter. But that didn’t matter. Everywhere I went in the last year, people were talking about it. I marched with demonstrators in Paris last March, and everyone I met as we moved down the Rivoli wanted to know about OWS. Although I protested that I was just one of so many people at Zuccotti Park, and an insignificant one at that, they shook my hand, patted me on the back and said “we’re all together. This is how we build a movement.”

Later last spring, when I marched with Quebec students protesting their provincial government’s own Austerity policies, the activists I met – students, teachers, workers – wanted to send a message back to New York that they were also marching in solidarity with OWS. On my return, I stood with activists demonstrating in solidarity with the students outside the Quebec government’s trade office in New York.

So it goes on and, in some instances, as when the Quebec students brought down the government and killed the proposed tuition increases, it even has short-term, policy successes.

But it’s not about the short term, or about policy. It’s about how the vapid declarations of the 1% and their political stooges in both parties appear to so many Americans to be the lies that they really are. It’s about how, after so many years of watching the fat get fatter, those of us who are angry now know that we are not angry alone. It’s about standing up and shouting when our “betters” want us to sit down and shut up. It’s about the man with the megaphone in front of the Wells Fargo Bank in Newark who would not have been there two years ago, but who is there now.

“It’s time to take our country back. It’s time for change!” he shouted. “The only thing stopping us is complacency! We’re not going to be complacent anymore!” And motorists honked in agreement.

Pressing Flowers

[I wrote this several months ago, as I was preparing to leave Paris. I had only accomplished a fraction of what I had planned to do during my year abroad, but the imminent digitization of many of my archives promised to make my academic life easier once I returned to the United States. It will be a convenient way to conduct research, but the prospect of working that way makes me unspeakably sad. I love my field in part because I get to interact with old things. Digital collections, for all their accessibility, just aren’t the same.]

I’m sitting in an archive. Today is one of those rare days when everything works – I arrived on time, the building was open, my documents were available. I have not had many of those days, here in France.

My documents are spread out in front of me, on a too-small table, threatening to crowd out the elderly researcher to my left. He’ll do the same to me as soon as I move.

With these pages, bits of information, figures, photos, and other flat things, I am trying to create a three-dimensional, living world. Some of the information jumps off the page – things related to China. Porcelain. Lacquer. Sometimes I go back to look over what I’ve read before, and the characters are dead again. I don’t always know how to revive them. Sometimes they haunt me. Maybe I haunt them.

Someone’s short brown hair is in the fold, almost one with the binding. I wonder how long it has been there, whether it is a relic or just the body-print of another researcher.

I suppose that’s a relic, too.

The document is a palimpsest of bodily leavings.

When they digitize it, I won’t see the hair.

The old-man smell, too, will disappear. I’ll forget that real people touched the paper. The dust won’t invade my nostrils.

Someone – a student, an overworked librarian – will scan it, too quickly, and fail to notice the black blotches and white patches that even technology can’t rectify. I will see it and skip over those parts. I’ll mourn their loss, but nobody will re-scan the original, because it will be “incommunicable,” locked in a temperature-controlled vault so that it can’t decompose too quickly.

The democratic, easily-accessible version won’t be legible.

Much of what I work with is illegible anyway. There are days when I can decipher one out of every hundred words, and when I come to the moment when the secretary changes, when suddenly the letters are shaped carefully and lovingly, as if to call my attention, I want to hug this being with the lovely handwriting.

Monsieur De La Tour had good penmanship. Monsieur Edan did not. Guess whose work I’ll be using more frequently.

I’m collecting pressed flowers. There is nothing essential here. Gather the dust, add water, shape it as I like, knowing it might fall apart, disintegrate, blow away.  Sometimes the documents themselves do. The archivist looks at me suspiciously when I return the book with its cover half gone and the pages crumbling. This is partly why they’re digitizing everything, to keep my American hands from destroying French patrimony.

It’s a strange irony – I’m trying to preserve this, or at least tell a story with it, and I’m killing it in the process.