A positive evaluation of Occupy as prefigurative practice

From an interview conducted by John Wisniewski:

R.C. Smith:

“Robert you believe that the Occupy Movement was a success. How did Occupy try to change our ideas about power?

Occupy_heartsRCS: This is a fantastic question. Let me first start with a few comments regarding the apparent ‘success’ of Occupy, as I think this will lead us toward a fruitful analysis of what really forms the basis of my overall argument about Occupy-style movements. From there it might also be easiest to probe the issue of power.

I would probably be hesitant if not resistant to describing Occupy-style movements as a ‘success’, because I fear that this would imply or be read in line with a sort of instrumental conception, which is actually a position I argue against. So many theorists and academics on the left, moreover, seem content to charge Occupy as being a complete ‘failure’ precisely according to instrumental standards of judgement or criticism. But I argue, along with Richard Gunn and Adrian Wilding (who, it should be said, have also made significant and notable contributions to Heathwood’s series on Occupy), that this is fundamentally misguided. What distinguishes Occupy-style movements from others is not only their refusal of the existing socioeconomic-political order. I think what a lot of people miss is that there are much broader, fundamental processes at play behind Occupy-style events and politics which, in many respects, cannot be judged accurately in terms of their instrumental effect. Gunn and Wilding put it nicely when they reflect that ‘Occupy-style movements are conscious experiments in alternative forms of social organization, interaction, and self-determination’. Occupy’s radical alternative politics, which is open, inclusive, tolerant, non-dominant, non-hierarchical and anti-authoritarian, not only challenges traditional ideas of power, politics, and social organisation; so too does it challenge our instrumental conception of revolutionary social change and the very foundations of modern society – or, I argue, that this is at least the revolutionary horizon in which these movements suggest.

To put it differently: what we witness when it comes to Occupy – what sets Occupy-style movements apart from other instrumental and at times dogmatic movements – is an attempt to advance a revolutionary, grassroots logic of systemic change on the level of praxis, which is fundamentally transformative (or can be) in ways that extend beyond mere instrumental effect. That is to say: the general misunderstanding of Occupy-style politics concerns the criteria by which Occupy-style movements are measured. We witness throughout politics today how political movements, whether opposed to or ultimately in affirmation of the status quo, are assessed by their strictly instrumental effect. Perhaps this is more largely a symptom of the modern epistemic paradigm – what we might otherwise describe in light of a critique of instrumental reason (Adorno and Horkheimer). I mean, it is no secret that a critique of epistemology is a constant focus of my research, and I think that the modern epistemic paradigm (broadly defined) pervades all walks of life, including politics (the left and right spare no exception in this regard).

That said: one might ask, for example, “What specific difference has the Occupy movement made?” My basic response to such criticism – and others at Heathwood tend to share the same position – is that Occupy is not to be assessed strictly in terms of specific policy differences – for example, its effect upon government policy. That is not to say that specific reforms – for example, changes to welfare provision or property-distribution, or the implementation of policy for the immediate relief from precarious conditions – are unimportant. Quite the contrary. The argument, however, is that the ultimate goal or rationale of this emancipatory activity – of Occupy-style events – is the mutual recognition which commonising entails in the field of participatory public engagement. For me, this is Occupy at its most fundamental, irreducible level.

One might reply that, because it wasn’t an instrumental protest, ‘Occupy Wall Street had no aims’ and therefore was unsustainable. But such a line of criticism against Occupy’s politics always strikes me as misread. While such criticisms as ‘there are no aims’, ‘there are no goals’, and ‘there is no hierarchically defined leader to promote and push policy (via traditional circuits of power)’ have been accepted (almost uncritically) by a large portion of leftist theorists, not only are these assertions fundamentally misguided, I think there’s almost an element of myth at work. Let’s be clear about two things: first, OWS didn’t fail; it was systematically destroyed by the state. OWS, like other Occupy-style events, couldn’t sustain itself not because of its remarkable courage to choose to exist outside the traditional ideological structures of power and hierarchy – or to not be an instrumental movement – but because the traditional ideological structures of power and hierarchy unceasingly attacked through its typical instruments of coercion this alternative social (public) space, disintegrating its energy as a positive movement.

One of my favourite things about Occupy in particular is that it can be so organic precisely because it is not instrumental – at least the better parts of it were or continue to be. By this I mean there was and continues to be something very ‘human’ to be observed: its open, inclusive and tolerant politics brought people together from all walks of life in solidarity against the injustices of capitalism, of ‘coercive society’. Perhaps what I appreciate most is that it wasn’t dogmatic, as we witness time and again in the history of politics. One of my favourite images for this reason is the one with the grandparents holding the hands of their grandchildren, walking in solidarity with the protests – I mean, how moving is that? OWS brought people together for all different backgrounds, and there is something so very special about that.

Secondly, it has been well-documented both by activists (such as Yotam Marom) and by critical theorists (such as those at Heathwood) that Occupy Wall Street did have aims and that, Occupy-style politics, as an on-going movement, continues to have clear aims. But the truly revolutionary horizon of Occupy style politics – of Occupy-style events in general – resides in its creation of an alternative ‘mutually recognising’ public space that is encapsulated by the notion of prefiguration. For me, then, Occupy is to be assessed firstly in terms of the alternative public space that it creates and the mutual recognition between individuals that (in however fragile a fashion) it brings into existence. So to say an Occupy-style event was a success – this would mean that it was successful in establishing a radical alternative public space, where mutual recognition obtains, and where individuals could collectively prefigure on the level of praxis a post-capitalist freedom (‘a home where we get to practice the alternative’, as Marom once observed). Gunn and Wilding coined a wonderful phrase in one of our collective articles that captures this last point brilliantly: that ‘for emancipation to be emancipation, it must start as it aims to go on’. I think this is one of the most revolutionary insights. Not only does it presuppose the dialectic between theory and practice, theory and experience, but the argument is that revolutionary social change must be lived. I take this as an affirmation for all of the grassroots movements that I have studied over recent years, from ‘guerrilla gardeners’ in the UK to alternative farms and education facilities – people that are working toward alternatives every single day. There is a real experiential dimension at play here, which I greatly appreciate especially in relation to what I often describe as a ‘phenomenological (‘lived’) ethics’. But I fear that I may be getting off course.

Regarding the question of power, I think the approach outlined above forms the basis for a truly radical understanding of at least one aspect of the overall criteria in which we might not only assess Occupy-style events, but contemporary political movements writ large. That is to say if Occupy-style movements agree to be measured by criteria, it is a criteria rooted in critical theory which, in the context of a fundamental critique of broader social-historical processes, recognises that these movements present themselves not as ventures which may or may not bring about specific reforms, but as grassroots attempts to prefigure a social world which is yet to be. To borrow the words of Helene Finidori, whose work in and around a theory of the commons is most fascinating: there is a ‘commons logic’ at play. In other words, the rationale of these movements for change is historically rooted, acting in part as a response to the tragedy of the commons. I would probably be inclined go a little further than this and ground Finidori’s notion of ‘commons logic’ in a deeper historical perhaps even anthropological study, arguing that this ‘commons logic’ is almost an attempt at working toward ‘emancipatory reason’ (in an Adornian sense). But there is still a lot to be assessed and debated in this respect. In any case, I think Finidori’s observation affirms my own position in the past that if the ultimate goal or rationale of Occupy-style events is mutual recognition, and if commoning entails participatory public engagement, then Occupy and commoning see emancipation in identical terms. The principle of mutual recognition — which we might consider as an egalitarian and emancipated form of interaction — consciously breaks with the hierarchical and undemocratic nature of the capitalist world. Following this line of thought, which builds off of Gunn and Wilding’s work on recognition, it is indeed remarkable how much ‘commoning’ processes are evident, whether explicit or implicit, in Occupy-style events all over the world.

The question of power is certainly present throughout this entire analysis, of which we’ve really only scratched the surface. But in my papers on Occupy to-date I mostly build off of Gunn, Wilding and the Frankfurt School. I really appreciate Gunn, Wilding’s analysis of the shift from contradictory recognition (i.e., one-way circuits of power) to mutual recognition – a shift that can be observed in Occupy-style events. There is something very foundational about this thesis. From the perspective of a critique of epistemology, we could also read this shift as one from dominant subject-object relations to intimate subject-subject relations, something I talk a lot about in my own research. Already one can sense here the emergence of a fundamental critique of power, which Gunn, Wilding discuss in their paper ‘Revolutionary or Less-Than-Revolutionary Recognition’ (Heathwood, 2014), but which I’ve been recently expanding on and will look to broaden further in a series of papers on the pathologies of power and domination. In sum, though, what Occupy-style events all over the world seem to accomplish is that they point toward the revolutionary horizon of a shift from coercive to non-coercive power (on the basis of a shift on the level of praxis to establish mutual recognition). In the process, Occupy-style movements have informed and continue to inform critical theory of a broad, multidimensional and interdisciplinary critique of power.

To close, one thing that is really important to note – and here I agree with colleague Elliot Sperber – is the need to distinguish between coercive power and non-coercive power. I will be addressing this question in detail in my already mentioned series of papers, but for the time being we can say that it is something that different Occupy-style camps haven’t always quite grasped. I mean, power is such an ambiguous thing and this ambiguity really needs to be addressed. But there were times during Occupy Wall Street demonstrations and discussions, as Sperber observes, where reactionary and wrongheaded notions of coercive power (notions that in many ways go back to Sorel) were evidenced. I think this is largely because we don’t have much of a concept of non-coercive power (which is very multidimensional) and even non-violence for that matter. But perhaps this is a point for another time.”

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