What Does Occupy Represent and to Whom?


On the first anniversary of Occupy, Kasama is revisiting some questions, which remain unsettled and controversial. In the hopes of sparking off discussion, we are posting some analyses from Jodi Dean (and co-authors) that came recommended by J. Ramsey, who also wrote this intro:

Jodi Dean has produced some of the most cogent and rigorous critical analyses of Occupy over the past year, as this movement was playing out before our eyes, and beneath our feet.  She writes from a position of both enthusiastic support for this outbreak as well as of of clear communist politics.  Her perspective keeps fidelity to prior communist experiences, while also attending to what is new in the present conjuncture, one that gives close attention to questions of political form, expression, and representation as issues of great significance.

In re-reading these essays, I often find myself wishing that they’d been much more widely spread and read by occupiers, while we were still in the camps.

That said, it is important though to grasp the essays below as critical interventions in a unfolding political sequence, not as theoretical generalizations addressing a timeless or monolithic thing called “the Occupy Movement.”  Readers are encouraged to keep in mind the specificities of the moment in which Dean is/was writing, from Sept. 2011, when OWS is first established, to Nov. 2011 when the camps are mostly destroyed, through the Spring and Summer of 2012.

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This was originally on chto delat.

Occupy Wall Street and the Politics of Representation

By Jodi Dean and Jason Jones

September 2011 shattered the ideology of an invincible Wall Street much as September 2001 shattered the illusion of an invulnerable United States. All of a sudden and seemingly out of the blue, people outraged by the fact that “banks got bailed out” and “we got sold out” installed themselves in the financial heart of New York City. Occupying the symbol of capitalist class power, they ruptured it. The ostensible controllers of the global capitalist system, still reeling from the crash of 2008, appeared to have lost control over their own cement neighborhood. Hippies with tents and cops with barricades had turned lower Manhattan into a chaotic mess. Those seeking to combine the people’s work, debts, hopes, and futures into speculative instruments for private profit confronted a visible and actual collective counterforce. There in the power of the people where investment banks and hedge funds had already identified an enormous social surplus, a cadre of the newly active located an inexhaustible political potential. It was like a giant hole had been opened up in the steel and glass citadel of the financial class. Through it, traders, brokers, and market-makers—as well as everybody else, even the whole world—could see the possibility of something new, something more, a world without capitalism, a world where people dance, talk, live, and create in common. Wall Street was occupied—and this occupation was producing a new form of political representation.

Debates over demands, tactics, and the ninety-nine percent have featured prominently in Occupy Wall Street since the movement’s inception. Movement participants argue over whether Occupy should make demands or whether occupation is its own demand. Activists debate whether the movement should pursue a diversity of tactics or explicitly disavow violence. People with varying degrees of involvement in and acceptance of the most significant political development on the left since the anti-globalization protests ask themselves if they are part of the 99% and what it means if they are. Underpinning these debates is the question of representation. What does the movement represent and to whom?

To present the disagreements simultaneously constituting and rupturing Occupy as fundamentally concerned with representation is already to politicize them, to direct them in one way rather than another, for the question of representation has been distorted to the point of becoming virtually impossible to ask. Strong tendencies in the movement reject a politics of representation. Rather than recognizing representation as an unavoidable feature of language, process for forming and aggregating preferences (always open to contestation and revision), or means of producing and expressing a common will, these tendencies construe representation as unavoidably hierarchical, distancing, and repressive (and they think of hierarchy, distance, and repression as negative rather than potentially generative attributes). For them, the strength of Occupy is in its break with representation and its creation of a new politics.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri contrast Occupy’s fight for “real democracy” (which they rightly link to the movement of the Spanish indignados) with widespread discontent with current systems of political representation. Occupy isn’t fighting to have previously excluded voices and concerns represented in the parliamentary process. It’s building an entirely different politics. Marina Sitrin emphasizes the horizontality of the movement, the involvement of people in non-hierarchical democratic associations through which they directly determine what they want to do and how they want to do it. The power of the movement comes from the capacities it unleashes for people to create new associations and territories, to change the shape and space of their common lives. David Graeber highlights Occupy’s rejection of political institutions and its prefiguration of a more egalitarian politics. To represent the movement in terms of old divisions would be to fail to recognize the becoming of a new politics. We agree, but argue that this new politics doesn’t eclipse representation. It reinvents representation as the active, self-authorizing assertion of division in relation to the appearance of antagonism. Occupy unleashes practices and incites actions, linking them together via the hole in Wall Street. In its new politics of representation, division isn’t effaced or overcome. It’s asserted and linked to capitalism’s fundamental antagonism, class struggle.

Occupy is said to be post or anti-representation with respect to the individual subjects participating in the movement and with respect to the movement’s own relation to its setting in communicative capitalism. First, the consensus-based practices of Occupy are premised on a rejection of the idea that anyone can or should speak for another person. To speak for another, it is claimed, effects a kind of violence or exclusion, repressing individual autonomy. Delegated autonomy is not autonomy at all but rather subjection to the opinion, will, and decision of another. Occupy thus rejects the political representation of the subject by insisting that each person speak only for him or herself. Any act or decision taken has to be agreed to by each and every participant. Or, one participates only in those acts with which one agrees, recognizing that multiple heterogeneous processes comprise the movement.

Likewise, not only can no one speak for another but no one can speak for the movement. The movement is leaderless. Thus, the second way that Occupy Wall Street is said to be post-representational moves beyond the practices internal to the movement to emphasize the movement’s relation to the system it confronts and seeks to change. Because Occupy is the multiplicity of the ever-changing people and practices comprising it, any attempt to represent the movement would necessarily restrict, judge, and negate it, reducing its potential to the already given terms and expectations of the dominant system. No one set of demands, tactics, interests, or concerns can encompass and stand for the movement as a whole. To proceed otherwise elevates some voices and concerns over others, reinstating the hierarchies the movement works to dismantle.

The rejection of representation—of persons and of the movement—comes up against Occupy Wall Street’s powerful slogan, “We Are the 99 Percent.” The slogan represents the people and the political message of the movement by asserting division. It interjects the fact of economic inequality into political discussion. It announces that those who protest and occupy parks and other public spaces are acting in the name of the majority of the people. Emphasizing the antagonism between the people and the top one percent, the slogan names the wrong against which the movement mobilizes—inequality, exploitation, and theft. Indeed, that’s the difference between the statistic regarding the one percent’s degree of prosperity relative to the ninety-nine and the announcement of a political identification with the statistic. The former registers an empirical fact. The latter politicizes this fact, separating it out from the information stream as a fact that matters, that is more than simply one among many innumerable facts.

Excising the fact from the stream, insisting that inequality matters, cuts a hole out of the whole. Just as the occupation of Zuccotti Park visibly and materially changes the experience of Wall Street, so the slogan ruptures the fantasy of capitalism. Not all of the people are rich, nor can they be. The many have little. The very, very few have a lot and without the ninety-nine percent, they wouldn’t exist at all; they wouldn’t be the one percent. Wall Street’s financial exploits presuppose, require, the productive many. The slogan “We are the 99 Percent” thus represents the power of the collective people economically and politically. When the ninety-nine percent occupy the place of the ones who exploit them, power relations are completely transformed. Far from being post-representation, the movement divisively asserts, repeatedly and with determination, the fundamental economic antagonism at the heart of capitalism. The whole isn’t a whole at all and Occupy represents this gap.

Occupy Wall Street politicizes the division between the rich and the rest of us. A key element of occupation is urban camping—bodies sleeping out of doors. This practice by itself is not directly political. Homeless people inhabit the capitalist metropolis. Consumers sometimes sleep on sidewalks and sometimes in tents as they queue up for tickets, sales, and events. Occupy explicitly announces its irreducibility to practices of sleeping out of doors by representing them as political, as deliberate and collective tactics of struggle. The movement is not simply a fluid, inclusive, and variable assortment of people and practices. It is the re-presenting of people and practices as components of a political collectivity via the common name “Occupy.” The name marks the gap between practices and their politicization.

Holding open the gap, retaining the power of Occupy to represent actions in and as political struggle against capitalism, is hard. Consider the reactionary moves to evict occupiers. City governments and mainstream media condensed occupation to sleeping out of doors, making occupiers indistinguishable from the homeless (and hence crazy, dirty, and dangerous). Displacing the political message of occupation, they treated the movement as reducible to practices that they described as injurious to public health, as if Occupy didn’t represent at all, as if its practice of sleeping out of doors did not and could not confront the particular interests of the privileged with the real of a collective people amassed against them, as if the same old poverty was so sedimented into everyday life that it could not be forced loose and politicized. More concretely, by evicting occupiers from open and public spaces, by smashing their tents and destroying their common kitchens and libraries, city officials attempted to rebuild the barrier of invincibility around Wall Street—no hole, no alternative, nothing to see here folks, just move along.

Treatments of Occupy as post or anti-representational disavow division and thereby miss the new form of political representation Occupy is inventing. Those urging that each speak only for him or herself disavow division within persons. Assuming that an individual can clearly know and represent her own interests, they avoid confronting the ways subjects are internally divided, not fully conscious of the desires and drives that motivate them. Furthermore, to the extent that they position the individual as the primary site and ground of political decisions, those arguing against representation fail to acknowledge how subjects are configured under capitalism. Speaking a liberal language of autonomy and a capitalist language of choice, they neglect the biases, misconceptions, and attachments structuring individual subjects. It’s almost as if they fail to get their own critique, stopping it too soon—if representation excludes and hierarchizes, then these processes occur within persons as well as between them (an insight found not only in psychoanalysis but also in countless discussions of subject formation, discipline, and normativity).

Those who insist on the unrepresentability of Occupy also disavow division between persons. Failing to take division seriously enough, they embrace a nearly populist presumption of organic social totality. As fearful of exclusion and partiality as they are of hierarchy, they avoid confronting fundamental divisions within the movement, circumventing these divisions by focusing on the immediate tasks of occupation—and thereby falling back into the very immediacy on which reactionary forces rely when they evict. The consensus-based practices of Occupy Wall Street illustrate this point insofar as they prioritize the agreement of all over a collectivity capable of encompassing organized factions or a “loyal opposition.” The procedure of blocking is a more specific example. As explained in the NYC General Assembly Guide, a person’s use of the “block” means that she has serious moral or ethical objection to a proposal and will consider leaving the group if the proposal passes. On the one hand, the possibility of a block gives participants an incentive to search for outcomes that everyone can accept. On the other, it invests agency and responsibility in individuals. Purely an individual decision, the block has no necessary connection to collective plans and principles. It rests on the assumption that interests can converge, that the long term is nothing more than the sequence of short terms, and that a large, inclusive movement is better than one that takes a divisive stand. Compromise is better than exclusion, so whatever appeals to everybody wins (the political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau might describe the block as a procedure that confuses the will of all with the general will). At any rate, the fantasy at work in the insistence on the unrepresentability of Occupy is a fantasy of multiplicity without antagonism, of difference without division. The fantastic nature of this assumption of underlying unity came out early in the movement as Native Americans contested the language of occupation in the name of their experience of having already been occupied.

The Occupy movement brings together different political tendencies, varying degrees of radicality, and multiple interests and concerns. That the movement encompasses a wide field of tactics and demands, however, does not mean that it evades or moves beyond representation. On the contrary, this broadness points to the unavoidability of representation as well as to its constitutive openness and malleability. What actions fit with the movement, which ones to take, and how directly they link up are ongoing questions. Ever-changing plurality is the condition of representation, not its overcoming. Those who construe Occupy as post and anti-representation misread plurality as the negative limit to representation when they should instead recognize plurality as representation’s positive condition. Occupy Wall Street is not actually the movement of ninety-nine percent of the population of the United States (or the world) against the top one percent. It is a movement mobilizing itself in the name of the ninety-nine percent. Asserting a division in relation to the fundamental antagonism Occupy make appear, it represents the wrong of the gap between the rich and the rest of us.

Occupy doesn’t represent a constituency, position, or interest that could be said to be whole. It asserts division—the division between the ninety-nine and the one, within the ninety-nine, and between the practices of the movement and their place. Critics of representation miss the way Occupy reinvents the politics of representation because their image of representation remains deeply tied to parliamentarianism. It’s obviously true that Occupy eschews mainstream electoral politics. It is also true that Occupy rejects the nested hierarchies that conventionally organize political associations. But neither of these facts eliminates representation. Rather, they point to a rejection of the current political and economic system because of its failure adequately to represent the people’s will.
Occupy’s rejection of conventional politics incites political experimentation. In place of the established sites of politics—the caucus, party meeting, or congressional office—there are assemblies of people out of doors, assemblies open to anyone with the time, inclination, and ability to attend. Participation isn’t authorized by prior selection. Participants authorize themselves. What qualifies them to speak is their representation of their speech and action in relation to an occupied Wall Street. They position themselves in their speech and action with respect to the hole opened up by occupation, a hole that is less the emptiness of loss than the emptiness of possibility—our options, our futures, aren’t closed off; our practices and procedures aren’t already determined for us. We are making them and we don’t know what will happen. Differently put, in Occupy, political representation isn’t that of persons aggregated according to boundaries and procedures inscribed by the state. It is that of wills mobilized in terms of the antagonism between the people and those who would exploit and control them.

The politics of representation Occupy is inventing installs new institutions in the sites vacated through capitalist dispossession. Institutions represent collective will. The will may be past or present; but as long as an institution functions, it is active. Many working groups mirror crumbling state institutions, groups such as library, town planning, sanitation, security, and medical. Other working groups embody the orientation to equality and collectivity that people will but that capitalism represses or diverts, groups such as the people’s kitchen, nonviolent communication, tech-ops, and sustainability. They represent their will for more just and equitable associations by coming up with new practices for distributing work and sharing responsibilities. As with traditional parliamentary representation, not every person directly takes and executes every decision. Labor is divided on the basis of skill, interest, and opportunity. People self-delegate.

Representing themselves and their actions in relation to the hole of an occupied Wall Street, working groups collectively take on previously public functions that have been monetized, privatized, and neglected. A striking instance was in October 2011 when New York’s Mayor Bloomberg threatened to evict Zuccotti Park because it was filthy and needed to be cleaned; thousands took up brooms and dust pans to perform the work. After the eviction in November, Bloomberg brought in an official cleaning crew, providing retroactively the setting for Occupy’s representational politics. Similarly, in December, occupiers wearing construction helmets took over a building in East New York. Tools in hand they went into the home, ready to fix it up and make it livable again. They looked like “real” construction workers; they were real doing construction work. The only difference, the difference that matters, is the source of their authorization. Rather than coming from official channels, it was a self-authorization legitimized by its relation to Occupy Wall Street. The active political will of the occupiers represents the gap between a state occupied by capital and one occupied by the people.

The relation to the hole that enables Occupy to represent politically, that is to say, to assert a division that signifies as something beyond what it immediately is, links up the multiple actions the movement undertakes. Endeavors such as Occupy Education and Occupy Colleges and Universities seize and politicize the division between an educational system designed for the public good and one distorted by private interests.

Representation is necessary because the movement isn’t a unity or a whole; it’s a combination of disparate, sometimes contradictory elements that vary in their relation to the movement’s setting. In traditional theories of representation, the combination of disparate interests happens through voting, whether for delegates and legislators or on laws and propositions. In Occupy, combining happens through active willing in relation to the hole opened up in Wall Street. The duration of combination—as in any model of representation—is temporary and variable.

That combining occurs in the course of active willing in relation to the hole in Wall Street, to the politics that is the specificity of this gap, is overlooked by those who see the movement as a swarm or meme. These interpretations are one-sided. They highlight aggregation and circulation but omit the very relation that makes Occupy political, that enables its practices not just to present but to re-present. To say that anything can be occupied, that the originality of Occupy is in the creation of an open source political brand that anyone can access, misses the actual politics of the movement, the fact that it happens in the space of a relation to hole in Wall Street. The more distant and dispersed an action is from that relation, the less representative it is. It’s just an activity like any other. Similarly, enthusiasm for Occupy’s political opening fetishizes openness itself, disavowing the active will to occupy and repeating, in a way, the very displacement of political will for which traditional accounts of representation are rightly criticized. For all their much celebrated inclusivity, the movement’s General Assemblies, like parliamentary bodies more broadly, distance themselves from active political willing. Whereas parliamentary bodies do so by transferring will from author to authorized, from the represented to the representative, in a process that progressively concentrates the will in some will diminishing it in most, GAs either progressively dilute the will to what can be shared by many or deflect it—with the result that it will be concentrated in some and rejected by most (any group can undertake an action in the name of Occupy).

Rapacious capitalism has eaten us up and spit us out. It has ravaged communities, the environment, the food supply, the very lives and futures of the majority of the people on the planet. It has made the people not a part of their own lives. Occupy Wall Street is a politics that represents the “not-a-part-ness” of the people through the practice of occupation in relation to the hole in Wall Street. It thus offers a new form of political representation. In the place of a relation between the people and those who would take their place, willing in their stead, the practices and actions of Occupy Wall assert division in relation to the fundamental antagonism between rich and power, few and many. This new mode of representation doesn’t attempt to reconcile. It doesn’t aggregate interest, extract division, and assert a forced false unity in a different place. Rather, it is the repetition of division, the creation of new practices, institutions, and will that remain divisive as they are held open and together via their relation to the fundamental antagonism between rich and poor, few and many, ninety-nine and one percent. Occupy makes this antagonism appear. Asserting division, it represents possibility.

Jodi Dean is a political theorist teaching and writing in upstate New York. Her new book, The Communist Horizon, will be published by Verso in October.

Jason Jones is a Brooklyn-based artist and activist. He is co-founder and co-director of Not an Alternative Art Collective.

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