Last month there was a research report from Ruth Milkman, Stephanie Luce and Penny Lewis on the economic background of people who participated in some #OWS events in New York City. The New York Times and other press outlets picked up on one of the report’s findings — that
More than a third of the people who participated in Occupy Wall Street protests in New York lived in households with annual incomes of $100,000 or more … and more than two-thirds had professional jobs. Over on Facebook, Thaddeus Russell’s quick commentary on the story was:
New York Times: InOccupy,Well-Educated Professionals Far Outnumbered Jobless, Study Finds
Thaddeus Russell: There has never been a political movement in the United States in which this wasn’t the case.
Now as it happens, the authors of the study have complained about how corporate news media have reported on their findings. So I don’t want to lay much stress on what the study showed or did not show about participation in Occupy Wall Street in New York — let alone make any very definite claim about #Occupy in general or what it may illustrate about the whole history of political movements in the United States. Thaddeus has made some interesting points on this, but I think there are also important counter-points to be made (not least what terms like
movement, etc. are even supposed to mean in context). But whether Thad is right or wrong on this particular point — or on the more general point he is trying to drive home — I think the reactions to him making this kind of claim have invariably been illustrations of something that it is really important to keep an eye out for. From the Facebook thread:
Joe Lowndes (28 Jan 13, 10pm): So?
Thaddeus Russell (29 Jan 13, 6pm): Joe, the tendency of political activists (and academics) to speak on behalf of others isn’t important?
Joe Lowndes (29 Jan 13, 6pm): All political claims inherently involve speaking on behalf of others, unless you believe in some Rousseauian fantasy of authenticity through general will. Why does it bother you? In any case Occupy was many things in many places. In Eugene it directly involved hundreds of homeless people speaking and voting in GAs. But even if that weren’t the case, there is no reason why middle class folks should not engage in politics or make demands for fear of not representing everyone.
Thaddeus Russell (29 Jan 13, 9pm): Paul, I am not talking about all political activism. I am talking about the common practice of making claims about the needs, desires, and ideas of people whose thoughts are not recorded — like the great majority ofthe poor,the working class,etc.
Thaddeus Russell (29 Jan 13, 9pm): Joe, what I am describing is often called cultural imperialism. Do you reject that concept or do you think I am misapplying it?
Thaddeus Russell (29 Jan 13, 11pm): When Americans say the people of the world “need” or “want” capitalism it is cultural imperialism, right? But when Occupiers say Americans “need” or “want” New Deal liberalism or socialism it’s not?
Joe Lowndes (29 Jan 13, 11pm): By this overwrought logic, no one can assert or fight for any vision of collective life without it being imperialist.
You can read the whole thing to get a flavor of the whole discussion; there are some perfectly fair points (and also some cheap talking points both ways) about Occupy, the relationship between politics and shifts of identity or affiliation, representation, Gayatri Spivak, etc. But without wading too much into that (or the details, my own experience with several #Occupy projects, which I’m happy both to defend and also to criticize) the
overwrought logic is what I wanted to take a look at. Because this is in many ways a digression from the specific argument about Occupy, but a digression that I think has something important to teach — and especially ought to have something to teach for those of us who want to find something of value in #Occupy and the process that emerged out of it. If the practice of occupying public space, open-air General Assemblies, consensus decision-making, spokescouncil models and all the rest was really supposed to mean something, to illustrate and to build an alternative to the political status quo, then we have to remember that the very things that attract us to the GA also have to remind us not only of the value of what we’re doing but also its limitations. So as I wrote in the Facebook thread:
no one can assert or fight for any vision of collective life without it being imperialist.
Then maybe no one will assert or fight for any vision of collective life. Or, more accurately, shaping collective life will depend on actual explicit agreements among the people collected, rather than on one class of people’s
vision being taken as representative of everyone else’s needs and desires. I don’t see this as a problem with the view that Thad is gesturing towards; I see it as one of its most desirable features.
One of the things that has actually been most valuable about Occupy was the extent to which the process explicitly confronted and tried to develop alternatives to political representation, in favor of an ideal of direct participation and negotiated consensus. And if that’s going to be the lesson learned then you also have to be willing and able to take the critical distance to apply the lesson to your own self and to your own projects as a whole: that however open and freewheeling it may be, there are always going to be people who aren’t participating, aren’t necessarily interested at all, and that you as a social actor have a responsibility to acknowledge that and try to question and actively limit your attempts to represent, speak on behalf of, claim expertise about, or impose a vision-of-collective-life upon, those others who were not part of the process or the milieu.