Real resistence

One often hears leftists criticizing the “Occupy Wall St.” protests. For instance, Doug Henwood recently declared, “Occupiers: I love you, I’m glad you’re there, the people I talked to were inspiring—but you really have to move beyond this. Neoliberalism couldn’t ask for a less threatening kind of dissent.”

The protesters aren’t threatening neoliberalism! Okay. Let’s say that, as a first approximation, you can tell whether a given regime finds an activity threatening by whether it attempts to use force to suppress it.

On the one hand, we have Doug Henwood’s writings and radio program. I have nothing but respect for both of them and am glad they exist. Yet as far as I know, the police have never raided his office or studio, and his newsletter has never been suppressed. Nor indeed have I heard of anyone invading the classrooms of Jodi Dean to stop her from spreading her brave message of taking a stand in favor of taking a stand.

On the other hand, we have the Wall St. protests, which have resulted in police violence that will presumably continue and even escalate.

Now I’m certainly no expert in political activism! I normally sit on the sidelines, thinking my deep theoretical thoughts. Yet if I were forced to choose, I’d have to say that the Wall St. protesters are doing a better job of threatening the current regime than their critics in this case, judging by the fact that the regime is bothering to fight back against the protestors.

20 thoughts on “Real resistence

  1. the Wall St. protesters are doing a better job of threatening the current regime than their critics in this case

    Well, sure, but your comparing journalism and theoretical work, on the one hand, with activism on the other, and there’s no reason to apply the same criteria to the two. Nobody, including Doug Henwood and Jodi Dean, think that what they do is particularly threatening to capitalism; that’s not its purpose. I don’t see why that means they can’t criticize activism for not doing the job of activism as well as it might.

  2. “Let’s say that, as a first approximation, you can tell whether a given regime finds an activity threatening by whether it attempts to use force to suppress it. ”

    while, as a first approximation, this is obviously an over-simplification, one can see that this same argument can then by applied to the movement itself with regard to all those (african americans, immigrants, those subject to economic and military imperialism overseas, etc.) who have been suppressed by such force with much greater ferocity and for far longer.

    any movement that doesn’t forefront the plight and demand the liberation of america’s internal colonies and the end to its wars(in other words, the destruction of this nation once and for all) can never be anything other than another, at bottom, white supremacist vie for “reform.”

  3. One thing that the regime has devoted quite a lot of resources to is fighting substantive financial reform. Physical violence wasn’t the appropriate tool, obviously, but heavy lobbying and financial expenditure seem like a confirmation, in line with the metric given in this post, that Dodd-Frank and other related measures pose a real threat.

    My understanding is that the pepper spray incident was the action of a bully cop who is well-known on the NYC protest scene, and that in general the police have kept their distance. The SF Chronicle story today mentioned that police have been following at a distance whenever groups break away from the main square to march around. It hardly sounds like there’s a lot of violence going on as a response to the threatening existence of the group.

    My loosely held opinion is that nonviolent activism and heavy theory are both ineffectual in this environment. I think all the criticism of meta-solipsism and process-performative theorizing is fair, and if I hadn’t just moved from New York I would be at the occupation as well, because it’s better than nothing and I like to meet like-minded people. But politically radical professionals working within existing institutions seem to me like the best hope for substantive reform. I like this quote from Saul Alinsky:

  4. Okay, I’m probably being unfair to the critics, and I was apparently exaggerating the degree of police violence. I’m just tired of the petty sniping from the sidelines. I don’t think the Occupy Wall Street types are going to revolutionize society, but Jesus Christ — can’t we at the very least have multiple strategies going at once? Sure, we have the infiltrators, then we have the non-violent protestors, then maybe others as well. Why this desire to identify, ahead of time, the strategy that’s “best” and then insist everyone do it? If the solution was so fucking obvious, wouldn’t it already have occurred? Pissing on an experiment that’s only just getting off the ground seems idiotic.

    The very fact that we’re so comprehensively screwed that it’s difficult to come up with a single definitive demand is itself a powerful statement, I think. And I hate to be a naive democrat, but I don’t think the strategy of asking concerned people what they think before declaring a demand is so objectionable when we’ve been living in an authoritarian, managerialist society for decades at this point, where our political leaders openly brag about their “courage” in not giving a fuck what their constituents think.

    And Jesus Christ — open-ended non-violent protests have brought down multiple governments in the last six months! Sure, they didn’t introduce total utopia, but they clearly achieved something. Maybe those techniques can’t work in the US. We’ll have to see. But people have been complaining about how a mass movement has failed to emerge since the financial crisis, and now that something is getting started, they’re all, “you’re not doing it fast enough, you’re not decisive enough, etc., etc., etc.”

  5. There was… 80 arrests last Saturday? Mostly as far as I can tell for trivial reasons.

    I agree that some caution is merited, it’s just getting started. There’s some creativity there, and hopefully they’ll learn and grow as they go along. They’re publishing a newspaper outlining what they’re about on Saturday with 75k copies to distribute around New York, and are starting to have unions join them. Other smaller occupations are cropping up elsewhere too. So maybe it’ll snowball and may it won’t, but I don’t think there’s any reason to be totally defeatist just yet.

  6. The governments of Egypt and Tunisia were not complex, Spectacular, distraction-oriented beasts. They were easier to bring down, because their rule was direct and effective. It required compliance.

    The US can operate without compliance, because it is not a tinpot regime.

  7. Yeah, I’m not sure what practical advantage having specific demands is supposed to bring. “Fuck Wall Street” seems like a perfectly clear demand. Indeed, “Fuck Wall Street” is a properly Leninist demand in its generality, whereas more specific, detailed, demands, would be what Lenin calls “trade unionist politics.”

  8. I’m right there with you on this one, Adam. The response that various actions receive from the established authorities is very useful in determining how threatening they think those actions are to their interests (my experiences off the sidelines fit with your theory).

    As for Henwood’s remark, well, I guess it makes sense if he is advocating violent dissent and is actively involved in that.

    That said, the fact that organized labour is now getting more involved with the 99% seems like a pretty interesting development that might make Henwood eat his words and might make me reconsider my own thoughts that strictly non-violent actions are impotent in our context (enter tangent about diversity of tactics, the importance of the Black Panthers to the [limited] success of the American civil rights movement, etc., etc.).

  9. You forgot to mention how JP Morgan donated a surprise $4+ million dollars to the NYPD foundation just in time for this ineffective, non-threatening event.

  10. Adam, my favorite sign at the General Assembly Los Angeles last night?
    “Screw us and we multiply.”

    Thank you for standing up to the petty sniping from the sidelines! Either get out there and risk something for the cause, or leave the complaining to someone who’s been arrested fighting for it.

  11. I don’t think the use of force is a great way of measuring whether a protest is successful. State violence is a normal part of the functioning of American society, with various pretexts like the “war on drugs” used as opportunities to intimidate and harass the population. There’s no rational logic to the drug war, to turning city police into paramilitary organizations, or to defunding schools to pay for prisons. Or to violent crackdowns on protesters. It’s just another chance to intimidate.

    I would even go so far as to make the opposite point, that the application of police force actually normalizes the situation. It’s part of a media narrative that turns the protesters into irrelevant outsiders of no consequence — “hippies, burn-outs, anarchists, other fringe characters” — *because* they are victims of police violence, they are marked as outsiders.

    Also it should be noted that the post you’re linking to on Jodi Dean’s blog wasn’t directed at the occupy wallstreet protest, it was written almost a year ago. It seems like it’s been taken out of context to make it look like she’s attacking them, but in reality, her recent tweets and blog posts about the protest have been overwhelming supportive.

    Having said that, I think the criticism should be welcomed, because it’s a conversation that takes for granted the necessity of doing something. Better that than the typical liberal distancing reaction “Whether you agree with them or not, at least they should have the right to speak.”

  12. It looks like I was unfair to Jodi. If you’re out there, I apologize!

    You make good points, particularly about the value of criticism that starts from the assumption that action is necessary. As for your point about the normality of state violence, I would say that a more charitable reading of my post would generalize the point about detecting threats to the order through violence — apparently the current order is scared to death of poor minorities, for example.

    What they’re not afraid of, generally speaking, is white middle class people, who normally don’t have very many encounters with overt violence. I’d expect that when the average white middle class person sees a surveillance camera, he or she thinks of it as a tool to protect them from others who need to be controlled, rather than a mechanism of control over herself or himself — similarly with police, who most white middle class people assume are on their side.

    For white middle class people to be abjected by police violence is definitely out of the ordinary — hence the need to reduce the protestors (many of whom belong to that “safe” category) to preexisting abject categories (like hippy burnouts), lest the general white middle class public see it as “that could happen to me.” In one respect, that use of violence to abject people is totally “normal,” but normally doesn’t manifest itself so clearly — and isn’t one goal of non-violent resistence simply to expose the normal workings of injustice in an unusually clear way?

  13. Making state violence more visible is a sensible strategy, where it is *repressed*. But not when it is disavowed – we know very well that state violence is everywhere; the media constantly emphasizes the threat of drugs, gangs, terrorism and the necessity of state violence, and even toys with breaking the law to “go after the bad guys.” In the 2008 election, the right attacked Obama for his supposed unwillingness to “do what it takes” to get the terrorists, a thinly-veiled euphemism for being willing to violate the constitution and international law. You have conservative legal scholars and talk show hosts calling for a return to public executions.

    In my mind, this does not add up to a situation where the truth of state violence is safely hidden from view, and it’s a shocking revelation when it’s exposed.

  14. The shocking revelation is that it can happen to me (the “normative” white middle class good citizen). All that violence is supposedly for me, to keep me safe. It is, to use the well-worn phrase, directed against the “other.” Revealing that it can be used just as easily against me is pretty disturbing.

  15. One of the most glaring problems with the supporters of Occupy Wall Street and its copycat successors is that they suffer from a woefully inadequate understanding of the capitalist social formation — its dynamics, its (spatial) globality, its (temporal) modernity. They equate anti-capitalism with simple anti-Americanism, and ignore the international basis of the capitalist world economy. To some extent, they have even reified its spatial metonym in the NYSE on Wall Street. Capitalism is an inherently global phenomenon; it does not admit of localization to any single nation, city, or financial district.

    Moreover, many of the more moderate protestors hold on to the erroneous belief that capitalism can be “controlled” or “corrected” through Keynesian-administrative measures: steeper taxes on the rich, more bureaucratic regulation and oversight of business practices, broader government social programs (welfare, Social Security), and projects of rebuilding infrastructure to create jobs. Moderate “progressives” dream of a return to the Clinton boom years, or better yet, a Rooseveltian new “New Deal.” All this amounts to petty reformism, which only serves to perpetuate the global capitalist order rather than to overcome it. They fail to see the same thing that the libertarians in the Tea Party are blind to: laissez-faire economics is not essential to capitalism. State-interventionist capitalism is just as capitalist as free-market capitalism.

    Nevertheless, though Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy [insert location here] in general still contains many problematic aspects, it nevertheless presents an opportunity for the Left to engage with some of the nascent anti-capitalist sentiment taking shape there. So far it has been successful in enlisting the support of a number of leftish celebrities, prominent unions, and young activists, and has received a lot of media coverage. Hopefully, the demonstrations will lead to a general radicalization of the participants’ politics, and a commitment to the longer-term project of social emancipation.

    To this end, I have written up a rather pointed Marxist analysis of the OWS movement so far that you might find interesting:

    “Reflections on Occupy Wall Street: What It Represents, Its Prospects, and Its Deficiencies”


  16. “they have even reified its spatial metonym in the NYSE on Wall Street”

    Dammit you guys, we reified the spatial metonym of the capitalist world economy again.

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