In defense of Occupy’s politics By R.C. Smith



Since the earliest days of Occupy Wall Street, the social movement has organised around a central message: “We are the 99%”. Starting in Manhattan, New York by a small group of activists, the movement was inspired by a reasonable sense of outrage against the bank bailouts and growing inequality, as well as by such movements as the Arab Spring, the student protests in Britain, and the “indignado” movement in Greece and Spain.[1] Originally influenced academically by certain strands of anarchist study in the field of anthropology, the Occupy Wall Street movement first made camp in Zuccotti Park and managed to inspire massive marches throughout the city of New York, whilst horizontally organising its own medical centres and libraries, shutting down key bridges and ports, and inspiring countless of other movements in cities across North America and Europe.[2] All of this was achieved, primarily, around the idea of a directly democractic, non-dominant and non-hierarchical politics which has since been highly criticised by several notable leftist theorists and academics.

In this paper, I will address some of the criticisms frequently held against Occupy’s politics. In the process I will argue why it is fundamentally false to conflate Occupy’s alternative politics with liberalism, and will show why the very philosophy and foundational structures of Occupy’s non-dominant, horizontal and mutually recognitive politics is the mark of a truly radical, revolutionary horizon.

What follows carries forward arguments made in Gunn & Wilding, ‘Revolutionary or Less-than-Revolutionary Recognition?’ and ‘Occupy as Mutual Recognition’, as well as R.C.Smith, ‘In defence of Occupy’s emphasis on non-dominant, non-hierarchical organisation’, ‘Russell Brand, the question of revolution and why we need more than an abstract, grand narrative of social change’, and ‘A series of essays introducing an alternative philosophy of systemic change’

Occupy’s revolutionary politics as ‘mutual recognition’

As I have highlighted in a number of recent papers, much has been written critically on the ‘left’ about what may or may not be perceived as ‘the ultimate demise of Occupy’. A contentious observation in and of itself, considering that Occupy still lives and inspires – majority of criticism against, and debate around, the movement and its perceived ‘failure’ appears to emerge from out of more or less traditional frames of political analysis that express a clear difficulty in understanding the revolutionary horizon of Occupy’s politics. The arguments, while widely ranging, could be summarised as follows: that Occupy’s politics is a direct product of ‘liberal extremism’ or what is typically perceived as the ‘apolitical politics of Liberalism’, as though Occupy itself was guilty of extending the apolitical trends of “hope” and “change” once professed by Barack Obama.[3]

These criticisms are advanced furthermore around Occupy’s refusal to isolate others and make specific positive demands to those who hold power in an already coercive, alienated social world. Inasmuch as the likes of Slavoj Zizek and Naomi Klein agreed for example that at the beginning an open stance was vital[4], particularly because it allowed for dreams of change to germinate and refused to supply policy demands to the very political establishment in question, eventually the tide began to turn.  After a while, Occupy started to face an increasing amount of pressure from the existing political and academic establishment to close ranks and limit its inclusivity on behalf of positive demands.

Today, a lack of ultimate political demands is widely held to be one source of Occupy Wall Street’s perceived failure. But is this necessarily true – was Occupy’s perceived failure down to its lack of formulating ultimate demands to the dominant political class? On the contrary to what Jason Hickel concludes for example, in similar spirit to Deseriss, Marco, and Jodi Dean (2012)[5], I argue ‘no’. In fact, I claim that to blame a lack of ultimate demands in the midst of an already polluted political circumstance as the source of Occupy’s ‘failure’  is the result of a terrible misreading of the fundamental political situation in which Occupy found (and continues to find) itself.

Occupy was right to widely discredit the very structure of the present political order, and to argue that it is not up to the task of meeting truly progressive and radical demands in the first place. Does this necessarily mean that Occupy had no demands at all or was subject to a sort of apolitical ‘liberal’ position? On the contrary, as Yotam Marom made clear at the time of Occupy Wall Street:

We don’t have demands in the way that other people want to hear them. But of course we have demands, of course we want things. When we reclaim a foreclosed home for a foreclosed-on family, or organize students to do flash mobs at the banks keeping them in debt, or environmental activists to do die-ins at banks that invest in coal, these are ways of speaking our demands in a new language of resistance. Occupy Wall Street is a really big tent that doesn’t have one voice, but that doesn’t mean all of our other groupings disappear when we enter it. There are still housing rights groups demanding an end to foreclosure, or labor unions demanding good jobs, and so on. We are trying to build a movement where individuals and groups have the autonomy to do what they need to do and pick the battles they need to pick, while being in solidarity with something much broader and far-reaching, something radical and visionary. And that’s part of the reason vision is so important, since it connects all those struggles.[6]

Indeed, as Michael Hardt exclaims: “our ideas are too big for your ballot box”.  The point is that Occupy’s revolutionary grounds were rooted in its rejection of traditional forms of political engagement and the present ‘rotten’ political order, which wouldn’t be able to live up to Occupy’s demands. As I wrote in ‘On Adorno, the colonisation of the ego and an introduction to a critical theory of protest’ (2012): if Occupy is not foundational enough in its critique and in its construction of an alternative public movement and space, and if it limits itself solely to making concrete pragmatic demands without challenging the structural components of the existing social order, then the very manifestation of that protest and its demands will effectively be crafted to conform to the pre-existing course of ‘bad society’.[7]

It is clear that what is needed in our contemporary social circumstance is more than any mere instrumental protest. This encapsulates one problem with recent criticisms of the Occupy movement, wherein the reactionary media and certain self-defined ‘radical lefist’ organisations seem to struggle to understand the revolutionary horizon being pointed toward. As I noted in a recent paper on an alternative philosophy of ‘systemic change’, which was the result of collaborative discussions with a close colleague: with regards to how much of the contemporary left seems satisfied to criticise Occupy’s politics as a complete failure, the same sentiment could be extended to “our ideas are too big for your bookshelf.” In terms of the latter formation, the reason for the left academy’s bewilderment  as well as much of liberal media circuits comes into sharper focus – it was the result of Occupy’s ability to think outside of a pedagogy and a politics that had failed the oppressed time and again, and has come to be the mere reproduction of dead thought.[8]

Moreover, the ultimate demise of Occupy Wall Street, both as a movement and an opening of autonomous, self-determined space is in how it was systematically destroyed, in the first instance, via several notable institutional circuits of power.[9] As I wrote in ‘In defense of Occupy’s emphasis on non-dominant, non-hierarchical organisation’ (2013):

Let’s be clear about something. Occupy couldn’t sustain itself not because of its remarkable courage to choose to exist outside the traditional ideological structures of power and hierarchy, 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. Occupy fought against the existing structures of power in society, and it did so valiantly even when under physical attack and subject to police brutality. (Granted some member’s of Occupy did react violently themselves, but the majority did not and refused violence. This refusal of the recourse to violence is simultaneously a refusal to participate in dominant social situations, where power is the only act and language).

We should therefore not be criticising Occupy for its failure due to its refusal to replicate hierarchies and subscribe to new dominant leaders – that is, for its refusal to perpetuate the coercive legacy of systems of power. We should be criticising the very structures of society that make hierarchies and new dominant leaders seen as necessary – the structures and forces of society that waged such a fierce attack on the Occupy movement (as a public space, first and foremost). This is the mark of real, genuine critical engagement.[10]

In order to understand the potential revolutionary foundations of Occupy and one of its real concrete meanings in the history of Western political discourse, it is crucial that we don’t see Occupy as another protest movement driven toward making ultimate demands in the absolute present. One of Occupy’s most brilliant achievements can be found in its core politics, wherein it wasn’t organised around offering absolute demands to the dominant political class but quite rightly in manufacturing an alternative, self-determined and mutually recognitive public space. It is within this space and within the alternative forms of political engagement and dialogue that Occupy promoted and fiercely defended, wherein the most revolutionary and groundbreaking of contemporary demands resides: an alternative, self-determined and directly democratic public space of real caring and real fun and real community and real participatory engagement. [11]

One of Occupy’s lasting successes is that it highlighted how we might reshape what it means to be public in a period of history where all we know and remember is the legacy of private property.  Furthermore, Occupy’s mutually recognitive[12] and participatory form of public engagement not only reshaped the meaning of ‘public’, but was a practical testament to the confidence and egalitarian power of a truly public sphere in the midst of highly instrumental, ‘objectivistic’, commercialised and alienated social world. This was evidenced in so many different ways, ranging from Occupy’s public art networks and libraries to its medical facilities and even basic care centres (i.e., food and clothing outlets).

In conversation with Naomi Klein, Yotam Marom described this last point quite nicely when he observed (with reference to the Occupy Wall Street movement) that: ‘It feels like something has been opened up, a kind of space that nobody knew existed, and so all sorts of things that were impossible before are possible now’. [13] Indeed, and perhaps more sharply, Richard Gunn and Adrian Wilding write that in the Occupy movement we could see that:

…something different was happening: the occupations ‘enacted solidarity-based horizontal networks’.  They turned to ‘autonomous forms of self-organization’ which emphasised ‘direct democracy, horizontal self-management and mutual aid’.  At odds with capitalist imperatives, exchange within the movements took on a not-for-profit character.   In place of top-down vanguardism, struggle adopted a carnival atmosphere wherein considerations of ‘caring’ took pride of place.[14]

In their analysis of the radical, alternative space that Occupy managed to carve, Gunn and Wilding continue to observe that:

One of the most telling formulations comes from the Occupy Wall Street movement. According to Yotam Marom, ‘Occupation in general, as a tactic, is a really brilliant form of dual-power struggle because the occupation is both a home where we get to practice the alternative – by practicing a participatory democracy, by having our radical libraries, by having a medical tent where anybody can get treatment, that kind of thing on a small level – and it’s also a staging ground for struggle outwards’.  The notion of what Marom calls ‘a home where we get to practice the alternative’ is fundamental to post-2011 revolution. Occupied spaces – frequently the parks and squares of of major cities – have become what Roos and Oikonomakis (following Hakim Bey) refer to as ‘Temporary Autonomous Zones’.

…/ what social space do the ‘Autonomous Zones’ (however ‘Temporary’) belong? In what social and conceptual context does an occupied space count as ‘home’? An answer to such questions is supplied by a further revolutionary affirmation: the direct democracy, the horizontalism, the not-for-profit exchange or mutual aid and the ‘caring’ which goes forward in the occupied zones has what theorists and practitioners refer to as a prefigurative status.  That is to say, it offers itself as an exemplar – to be sure, an experimental and tentative exemplar – of the world at which revolution aims. This affirmation suggests an answer to the questions we have raised. To the extent that occupied zones are prefigurative, they are (so to say) fragments of a social space which is not yet in existence. If they are anticipations, their homeland is a pattern of interaction which is alien to – and, hence, anomalous within – the present world.[15]

On this understanding, the message becomes clear: we are not only protesting with aim of making concrete pragmatic demands in the future – that our being-to-be is based on future demands – but also that these concrete pragmatic demands presuppose a change in the very structure beneath our political, economic and social realities.[16]

In other words, it is important to recognise that the success of Occupy’s politics was in its refusal to be yet another instrumental protest.[17] It’s truly revolutionary core was never going to be in its demands to corrupt politicians, because these will have always had to come after. Rather, its revolutionary core was embedded within its refusal to replicate traditional forms of political engagement, to take it upon itself as a collective movement to create a horizontal, self-determined and democratic public space where people of all ages and backgrounds could participate and engage.

It was this alternative space, this refusal to reproduce the same maps of power and coercive dialogue of ‘(bad) society’ that marked the real threat against the present system and which provoked the most brutal of responses by the present political establishment. Here was a public protest movement that refused to bow to the ideological pressures of the present political-economic system, not only in terms of policy demands but even epistemologically, anthropologically and cosmologically.

Who knows what could have been achieved if society didn’t fail Occupy, if the state didn’t outright attack and destroy this alternative public space.  The questioning and line of criticism today should therefore not so much be ‘how did Occupy fall?’ but ‘to what extent was it pushed?’ With Occupy what we witnessed were real people engaged in real struggle, who didn’t subscribe to the notion of traditional political engagement: the return of communism, an almighty revolution, or a new deified politic. It was far more grounded and concrete: formulating in a very human way viable, transitory networks of change like worker coops, participatory economic theories, alternative agriculture. The extreme reaction of state powers only highlight to what extent it feared Occupy’s politics.

In closing, the struggle to understand Occupy’s politics is precisely because it envisaged a new, alternative form of politics. This alternative political horizon is not just a political or economic one, but also an epistemological, anthropological and cosmological one. As Gunn and Wilding would say, it marked a fundamental transition from ‘contradictory recognition’ and systems of one-way power to ‘mutual recognition’ and systems of horizontality.[18] In the very practice of Occupy, the most revolutionary demand was always present: it existed within the very refusal to replicate hierarchies and subscribe to new dominant leaders – that is, a refusal to perpetuate the coercive legacy of systems of power and the authoritarianism of ‘(bad) society’.

Wrongly conflating Occupy and Liberalism

According to a relatively recent study on Liberalism and the politics of Occupy Wall Street by Jason Hickel (2012), it is argued that Occupy suffered from liberal tolerance and ineffectual politics wherein: “political conflict …/ is illusory rather than substantive, a result of misunderstanding rather than a product of incommensurable interests”.[19] In response to this and other criticisms of Occupy’s politics, I would like to now turn my attention toward why it is a fundamental misreading of the political situation to conflate Occupy’s politics with Liberalism.

To begin, it is worth noting practically that despite the increasing myths around Occupy’s utterly ‘ineffectual politics’, which I’ve addressed partly in the first section, recent criticisms of Occupy’s politics tend to overlook the fact that during its time in Zuccotti park the movement managed to organise massive protests across the U.S., including the development of entire national and international communication wings, the planning of strategic blockades and the clever formulation of several particular locus of critique.

Perhaps more crucially, I am flabbergasted by the manner in which certain groups critical of Occupy refuse to acknowledge the manner in which Occupy’s inclusive, self-determined and ‘mutually recognitive’ politics[20] of inspired millions of people from all different backgrounds to take a stand against a fundamentally unjust social reality.

This last point is especially important if we consider how Occupy cleverly defined a new social struggle that transcended old class-based distinctions, remaining largely inclusive and refusing to subscribe to the ideology of the ‘professional revolutionary’ on behalf of self-determined, open grass roots politics: namely the struggle between “the 99% and the top 1%”. This message was something that a very diverse group of people could resonate with – a message which inspired not only younger generations of all different backgrounds, but even grandparents and middle-age mothers and fathers, who famously can be seen walking among protesters with cardboard signs, holding hands and pushing their infants carriage.

How Occupy, at least in terms of its ability to mobilize such a diverse group of people, can be seen as ineffectual appears to me to be subject to a highly removed and abstract academic political analysis. It could perhaps be argued, in turn, that this open and inclusive politics was the cause of an aimless and incoherent politics.[21] But in considering this assertion, is it not fair to point out that the majority of the Occupy movement expressed itself coherently and according a progressive political discourse that not only called out the violent antagonisms of the capitalist system, but did so while including people from so many different backgrounds?

Indeed, there is some truth that Occupy as a whole could have gone deeper in its critique of capitalism, could have challenged the system of capital itself on behalf of demands for a concrete, viable alternative (which do exist and continue to be advanced and better defined). Likewise, we can acknowledge retrospectively that there are many things that the original Occupy Wall Street movement could have done better. But we can also acknowledge that there are many, many things that it did well and continue to do well.

Nevertheless, the significance of Occupy’s truly radical politics is evidenced in the backdrop of the criticisms it has received by certain leftist academics and theorists that remain clung onto rather archaic political frontiers. Generally speaking, the arguement by certain ‘leftist’ groups is simple and can be best summarised by the thesis put forth in Hickel’s aforementioned paper: namely that the fundamental assumptions and subjectivities of liberalism continued to operate in the Occupy movement. It is claimed that this is evidenced furthermore on the basis of one of Occupy’s Hallmark characteristics: its emphasis on non-hierarchical, non-dominant, consensus-based (and mutually recognitive) organisation.[22]

Hickel acknowledges, for example, that Occupy’s principle of organisation is “admirable” and represents a “refreshing alternative to the same forms of democracy that operate in most modern nation-states,” because it “allows for vigorous participatory debate, gives participants the sense that they have a direct stake in decisions, and prevents the movement from being easily managed and co-opt by the (already corrupt and coercive) state” apparatus.[23] Yet Hickel argues that Occupy’s model ultimately failed because it takes the liberal ethic to its extreme: it foreclosed “the possibility of hegemony” and vacated “the place of power”.[24] Moreover, Hickel writes (to quote in full):

Discussion about decisions carries on until everyone agrees, or at least until no one disagrees enough to block a given proposition.   This alienates people who don’t have reams of spare time, and often means that discussions founder on the mundane logistics of camp life without ever graduating to the question of how to coordinate a coherent international movement.  Also, the process of pursuing universal agreement means that important propositions often get diluted to the point of inefficacy.  More importantly, however, the liberal ethic of inclusiveness, openness, and tolerance that informs the consensus process has made Occupy vulnerable to infiltrators hired by corporations and the state who find it easy to sway the movement’s agenda or to set up “affinity groups” that operate under the Occupy banner.  Chris Hedges has pointed out that infiltrators masquerading as “Black Bloc” anarchists take advantage of Occupy’s inclusivity – their refusal to exclude and their tolerance toward all perspectives – to set up violent actions in order to discredit the movement in the media so that it loses popular support. Occupy can do nothing to stop them; since no one controls the signifier, it is open to anyone who claims it.[25]

But this critique proves inadequate for several important reasons. The first is that, while people under the present social conditions might not have reams of spare time to participate in discussions and help lay out logistics of camp life – let along contribute their particular skills and knowledge to help coordinate the movement or at least aspects of it – this does not preclude a general inadequacy with regards to the Occupy model. From what I gather, many on the grounds of praxis might have experienced certain difficulties within the camp itself, but I’ve also read a lot of people comment that these difficulties were to be expected given the radical and relatively alternative nature of the politics at hand.

In terms of mass Western movements, Occupy was one of the first to emphasis a non-dominant, non-hierarchical form of self-determined organisation (on such a large scale). Even sub-groups, such as particular Occupy communities, ranging from library organisers to artistic groups, followed this model as best they could in their particular sociohistorical-political circumstances and achieved fantastic results. Indeed, cracks appeared as any they would with any alternative model trying to develop itself in an already coercive, dominant and alienated social world, but this does not discount the fact that Occupy was largely successful in its attempt to practice alternatively while under attack from so many institutional forms of power and under such intense pressure from so many traditional political groups that still believe in the ideal of a dominant leader and hierarchical structure to force through ‘social change’.[26]

At least in the context of Western political history, Occupy had the courage to reject traditional forms of political engagement and take it upon itself to sail into radical, alternative waters. In my experience and from what I have gathered in my studies, alienation as a result of its model was also not so much the case (as Hickel suggests). Indeed, people may have missed meetings due to time constraints or lack of energy or for whatever other reasons, which is bound to happen when a group undertakes a consensus based approach; but usually we see in most any alternative organisation that operates on a horizontal plane, the freedom to participate or not depending on one’s needs and abilities at the time does not necessarily result in alienation or exclusion.

While looking at Occupy’s model from the context of dominant, coercive and hierarchical society it may appear chaotic and highly ineffectual, but such criticism must be made up against the history of Occupy’s success to coordinate a holistic programme across so many different spheres of social life and on an international scale of collaboration and co-operation. To claim outright that important political or communal proposals were diluted to the point of inefficacy is academically dishonest and not universally true.

I. Defending self-determination and horizontality

Through the Occupy Wall Street movement so many people seemed to have felt re-inspired about the ideas of freedom, democracy, and self-determination. Occupy’s philosophy marked the beginning of a progressive movement toward fundamental, sustainable and transitory ‘social change’.[27] But in much of the post-Occupy political analysis, the basic principle of horizontality, self-determination and a ‘mutually recognitive’ politics seems to have been replaced once again by outdated ideas of authority, hierarchy and dominant leaders. I argue that this reversion marks the frontline in the battle of developing a progressive, alternative philosophy of ‘systemic change’.[28]

For some, the result of Occupy’s politics was disappointing; but this view point should be weighed up against an understanding of sustainable social change not as the result of a ‘flash-in-the-pan revolution’ but as a transitory historical process. The old-fashioned forms of political engagement, where dominant leaders and authoritarian systems are applied in full strength, result only in the replication of the same coercive systems and practices that we ought to be fundamentally railing against.  To indicate that we had better revert to the old disciplines and forget about the freedom of ‘mutually recognitive’ practice and self-determination is to argue for that which has been a source of oppression for centuries.

Is the idea of self-determined, horizontal political movements wrong? Even if the idea itself is not wrong, how can we explain the inclination to revert back to ‘contradictorily recognitive’[29] systems of power?

To paraphrase Erich Fromm, I believe the idea of freedom for the individual subject and collective horizontality was not wrong. For those that claim that freedom can exist within dominant, hierarchical movements I reply by saying that, in this case, the problem with freedom is that the idea itself has almost always been perverted.[30] Even in the different ‘progressive’ movements on the left that operate by way of hierarchy and under the presence of leadership – movements which make claim to the idea of ‘freedom’ and the ‘free flourishing subject’ whilst under a system of authority – I argue that they are merely practicing more of an anonymous brand, which, in the end, will not even glimpse an emancipatory political horizon. As Erich Fromm writes (to quote in full):

To discuss this matter clearly we must first understand the nature of freedom; and to do this we must differentiate between overt authority and anonymous authority. (A more detailed analysis of the problem of authority can be found in E. Fromm, Escape from Freedom, Rinehart and Co. Inc., New York, 1941.) Overt authority is exercised directly and explicitly. The person in authority frankly tells the one who is subject to him, “You must do this. If you do not, certain sanctions will be applied against you.” Anonymous authority tends to hide that force is being used. Anonymous authority pretends that there is no authority, that all is done with the consent of the individual. While the teacher of the past said to Johnny, “You must do this. If you don’t, I’ll punish you”; today’s teacher says, “I’m sure you’ll like to do this.” Here, the sanction for disobedience is not corporal punishment, but the suffering face of the parent, or what is worse, conveying the feeling of not being “adjusted,” of not acting as the crowd acts. Overt authority used physical force; anonymous authority employs psychic manipulation.

…/ It is not that authority has disappeared, nor even that it has lost in strength, but that it has been transformed from the overt authority of force to the anonymous authority of persuasion and suggestion. In other words, in order to be adaptable, modern man is obliged to nourish the illusion that everything is done with his consent, even though such consent be extracted from him by subtle manipulation. His consent is obtained, as it were, behind his back, or behind his consciousness. [31]

Like any coercive and dominating social system to have emerged in history, whether Soviet Communism or American Capitalism, these systems must:

…create men who fit its needs; men who cooperate smoothly …/ [they] must create men whose tastes are standardized, men who can be easily influenced, men whose needs can be anticipated. [These systems need] men who feel free and independent but who are nevertheless willing to do what is expected of them, men who will fit into the social machine without friction, who can be guided without force, who can be led …/ and who can be directed without any aim except the one to “make good.”[32]

Held up in this light, we should consider Occupy’s drive toward ‘mutually recognitive politics’[33] a positive historical event in an otherwise historically bad social circumstance. With that said, simply because tolerance and inclusivity is present in Occupy’s ethos does not mean that Occupy represents a brand of ‘liberal extremism’. To conflate the two is absurd. This leads me back to Hickel’s argument that Occupy’s refusal to alienate others and discourage a diversity of options is “the liberal ethic in full force – the same anti-politics attitude that underpins consumerist activism and Komen-style feminism”.[34]

My objection to this misguided critique begins by acknowledging Occupy’s political construct under the banner of the “99%”, which was not so much imagined as a coherent social whole but as a symbol of the utter severity of social inequality in contemporary capitalist society. Within this construct of the “99%”, high street bankers, millionaire exploiters and corrupt politicians were excluded as instrumental to the ideological machine of late-capitalism.

Contrary to Hickel’s claims in light of Dan Segal, there was not an obscurity of the sheer fact of social difference within the “99%”. Difference of opinion, difference in theory and tact, was all too common among so many of the Occupy camps. This statement contradicts the very ethos of Occupy’s politics, and exemplifies my point about the impoverished and highly misguided conflation of Occupy’s politics and a critique of liberalism.

Take, for instance, Hickel’s reference to Jodi Dean’s critique of the ‘liberal ethic’ in light of her readings of Zizek: “to say that in our difference we are really alike,” writes Dean, “prevents us from calling into question and emphasising specific differences as elements in larger, systemic patterns of violence.”[35] Yet Occupy’s politics of ‘mutual recognition’ was never guilty of seeking “to respect and to understand the particular identity and experience of the other” in the same positivistic and instrumental fashion that liberalism requires, wherein systemic violence is reduced to the level of a personal problem. On the contrary, I argue that embedded within Occupy’s revolutionary politics (as noted in the first part of this paper) was a critique of epistemology that directly challenged the ‘liberal ethic’ by at once undertaking a consensus-based approach to social-collective organisation, underpinned by what I call a ‘phenomenological ethics’ of ‘mutually recognitive practice’ whilst simultaneously acknowledging the systemic basis of racism, inequality, and violence. This awareness, this critique is part of the essence of the radical and revolutionary horizon of Occupy’s politics which Hickel, Dean, Zizek and others fail to grasp.

In turn, I am inclined to argue that Hickel’s analysis in light of Dean is nigh to ideological insofar that it conflates Occupy’s politics with liberalism’s relativism, arguing that Occupy’s refusal to make demands within the context of the instrumental modern political world equates a universal erosion to politicise.

In truth, politics does not necessarily involve exclusion as Dean suggests. Politics only involves exclusion in its current perverted, ‘contradictorily recognitive’ form.[36] The ideological aspect of Dean’s (and therefore Hickel’s) analysis is the suggestion that politics must be exclusive because “to say this is to accept the politic necessity of division, of the division that orients and anchors struggle”, when, really, all Dean is doing here is ontologising a fundamentally ‘bad’ social circumstance and limiting the horizon of an emancipatory politics. The struggle is not so much a result of division as it is a result of the struggle for recognition (Hegel; see Gunn and Wilding, Revolutionary or Less-Than-Revolutionary Recognition for a more detailed account), which, in turn, is itself rooted in the systemic violence and inequality perpetuated by hierarchical, dominant and authoritarian (i.e., contradictorily recognitive) social systems.

The utmost radical horizon of today’s progressive imagination is not found in the political analysis of Dean, Hickel or even Zizek, but in the real people engaged in the real struggle for recognition and a more just social reality, which I take to be the mark of the very spirit of Occupy. In its inclusive calls for a better world, Occupy helped support and produce many alternative networks of change. It engaged with alternative economic models, alternative forms of practice and even an alternative anthropology, epistemology and cosmology. It was an egalitarian effort not in ignorance of systemic violence and the inconsummerable interests of capitalism, as the misguided critics like to claim. No, it was an egalitarian effort in the face of the awareness of systemic violence and the inconsummerable interests of capitalism, as well as the dominant and exploitative nature exemplified in the history of Western politics.

To appeal to the common humanity of the other is not necessarily a case of liberal extremism. It is not necessarily a flaw. It is a practice rooted in a phenomenological ethics and is what can drive us toward creating a better world. It only becomes distorted when generalised to such an extent that recognition of the common humanity of another is no longer able to recognise the particular. In this case, what it is needed is a critical account of the severance of the universal-particular relation common with the epistemological foundations of contemporary capitalism.

In the end, we are all human and we are each caught up in the struggle against an alienated social world. Against this backdrop, the Occupy movement emerged as something different and continues to be something different. It is an oasis in the middle a fundamentally distorted and corrupt political circumstance. Where ideology still overhangs criticism by certain groups on the ‘left’, the best thing Occupy can do moving forward is maintain its resistance to the very systemic components of both social and natural domination (Adorno; for more on this see my concluding paper on Adorno’s negative dialectics and a radical, alternative politics in my recent series of essays introducing an alternative philosophy of ‘systemic change’).

II. Exposing the paradox of capitalism’s relation with democracy

The biggest thing to understand when reflecting on the Occupy movement is that Occupy itself was the product of a revolutionary struggle which emerged directly from out of the inherent tension between capitalism (i.e., fundamentalism of private property) and democracy (i.e., sovereignty of the people). This point is all more true when we consider, as Gunn and Wilding point out, that private property and power are rooted in ‘contradictory recognition’ (i.e., one-way circuit of power relations “where an individual is treated as an object rather than a full subject; it involves unequal recognition because an asymmetry exists between a subject wielding power and the object of that power”).[37]

In addition, one of Occupy’s most fundamental successes is the manner in which it exposed the paradox of contemporary capitalist society, which likes to promote the idea of ‘democracy’- often using the concept as an illusory or self-deceiving veil of (false) reality that satisfies the thirst for ‘liberty’ and ‘justice’ of the demos – all the while institutionally enforcing circuits of power and deeply administering the ideology of ‘private property’. As Aaron Bastani recently commented in his programme on Novara FM, “what if the people (i.e., demos) – who are sovereign – want to change existing relations of property?” The answer is fierce resistance by the state, as evidenced in how “Occupy was systematically destroyed by a highly coordinated attack that spanned several prominent institutional structures and channels of power …/ which includes the use of tactical violence and police brutality”[38].

Exposing the illusion of a democratic capitalist society, in the first instance, and revealing the deeply engrained ideology of domination, in the second instance, with its emphasis on dominant leadership, hierarchy and direct and anonymous forms of authority, these are but two more fundamental legacies that Occupy has left us.

III. Occupy, violence and the “Black Bloc”

With regards to the “Black Bloc” anarchists that took advantage of Occupy’s inclusivity, as Chris Hedges argues – what Hedges fails to mention and even Hickel for that matter, is that there were a lot of people associated in and around the original Occupy movement that did speak out against the violence. Rather than a critique of Occupy’s inclusivity as another example of ‘liberal extremism’, which leads ultimately to the formulation of untenable and dominant organisational structures, we should be asking more about the existence of the violent impulse itself.

Even in the history of relatively socially exclusive movements, with dominant leadership structures and hierarchical agendas, there is evidence of violence on the same scale and in similar fashion as that which was perpetrated by the “Black Bloc” (contradicting, therefore, arguments that the violence perpetrated by the “Black Bloc” was somehow related to Occupy’s inclusivity). In other words, inclusivity was not the source of the “Black Bloc’s” exploitation of Occupy’s apparent ‘extremist liberal values’: social alienation on the scale of modern society as a whole, which is recognised by any theory of violence worth its salt as a central component of ‘systemic violence’, was more to blame.

In general, I agree with Chris Hedges analysis and anti-violence position. As David Graeber so wonderfully illustrates in his argument toward an intensive, egalitarian model: “One of the things that revolutionaries have learned over the course of the 20th century is that the idea of the ends justifying the means is deeply problematic …/ You can’t create a just society through violence, or freedom through a tight revolutionary cadre.”[39]With that said, I fundamentally disagree with Hedges claim that Occupy’s refusal to exclude others and its tolerance toward all perspectives was what ultimately allowed for violent actions. Even if Occupy as a whole condemned the violence, the “Black Bloc” would have still engaged with the Occupy protests according to its own agenda.

In retrospect, could a louder collective voice have been raised against the violence perpetrated by the “Black Bloc”? Yes, a more coherent voice should have been raised. But with that said, what this critique of Occupy’s inclusivity and apparent extremist liberal tolerance fails to recognise is all of the publications and public announcements by a range of different Occupy groups, including the more general protestors themselves which made up the body of Occupy’s massive street protests, explicitly arguing against the violence and the tactics employed by the “Black Bloc”.

To therefore claim that Occupy’s apparent ‘extreme liberal core’ allowed for anyone to claim its signifier is obscene when held up against the fact that Occupy did not universally embrace violence.  If anything, Occupy at its most pure represented a truly public space and as a truly public space, which was participatory in dynamic, anyone has the ability to undermine that openness and freedom. Such is the vulnerability of a participatory and inclusive social collective. If there is ever to be a problem with the 21st Century ‘commons’, at least when we consider a critique of the neo-liberal subject, it is this exploitation of public space to better one’s own agenda. Instrumental reason (Adorno) knows no boundaries and centuries of ‘(bad) society’, which witnessed the deep ‘(de)formation of the subject’ (Ibid.) and the genesis of the authoritarian personality, produces subjectivities that cannot handle at first the freedom and responsibility that comes with truly public space (as opposed to private property and its intrinsic circuits of power).

It’s like when a young child, who comes from a highly repressive, controlling and authoritarian family, first enters into an alternative education environment that operates according to a non-dominant, non-hierarchical structure. As I’ve witnessed in my studies, teachers often joke about an ‘initial crazy phase’, wherein the young child acts aggressively toward others, evidences sporadic behaviour and, for lack of a better term, simply loses the plot.

This reaction is usually because the child is not used to that sort of freedom and self-determined dynamic – emotionally it is overwhelming insofar as the situation is structured in the same way they’re used to and their phenomenological freedom, which is no longer barred by oppressive control, becomes open to flourish. After a while, the child becomes accustomed to this new found freedom, this new and alternative dynamic, and a more genuine collectivity begins to evidence itself on behalf of that individual.[40] There were many examples of this general experience in the Occupy camps, whether of the sexual, emotional or bodily variation.

Of course the “Black Bloc” does not necessarily fit into this scope of analysis, because, on my reading of the situation, they existed more or less outside the Occupy space and in the midst of private property. The “Black Bloc” did not evidence any of the progressive structural components of the alternative social space that symbolically represented Occupy. To therefore argue against the alternative organisational structure of ‘Occupy’s public space’, to argue that there needs to be more control over its signifier, is to argue in a similar view of those in power today: that we should be enforcing a strong police presence over the commons, because ‘the people cannot be trusted to govern themselves and therefore need governance over all public space that will never be truly free’. On the contrary, what we need when coming to grips with a truly fundamental political analysis of the Occupy movement is a far more foundational perspective.

Concluding remarks on politics and ethics

I noted in a previous paper that, in similar vein to Adorno’s political analysis of the German student uprisings in the 1960’s, we should remain forever suspicious of any ‘alternative political movement’ on ‘the left’ that continues to promote traditional forms of hierarchical, authoritarian and dominant politics. Within this ideology resides an impulse toward power and domination – a silent or, in the words of Fromm, anonymous totalitarian tendency.

To his credit, Adorno was keenly aware 50 years ago of the implicit inclination of many self-acclaimed ‘revolutionary movements’ to be anything but revolutionary, instead reproducing the same fundamentally coercive circumstances, systemic violence and maps of power it thinks it is originally out to change.  This thesis, this essential political analysis is not only theoretical but also historical.

In turn, while a change in the present systemically violent order is a clear need, to ensure that the change itself does not see an increase  in either direct violence or ‘law-preserving violence’[41]  is an ethical imperative. Almost every political alternative, almost every political movement in the 20th Century was a failure because 1) it unwittingly perpetuated systemic violence (what I often consider as the essential foundations of ‘dominating social systems’ in my critique of epistemology, anthropology and cosmology’) and 2), in its attempts to replace capitalist exchange (which takes on in-direct forms of domination) it resorted to systems of direct domination (i.e., direct domination historically re-emerged).

For this reason, if there is a most pressing philosophical problem, it has to do with how we might replace contemporary capitalism, which exists as in-direct domination, with a non-dominant social system, insisting upon foundational, holistic normative critique so that systems of direct domination do not historically re-emerge. This is the contemporary challenge, the most fundamental philosophical problem of the 21st Century. It demands of us that in order to see ‘social progress’ and ‘systemic change’ beyond ‘law-preserving violence’ and historical systems of direct domination, we recognise the necessity of a foundational alternative politics and an equally foundational, transitory, holistic/multidimensional theory of ‘change’.

While Occupy was in no way perfect and clearly had its faults as it struggled to constantly work and rework an alternative in the midst of an alienated social world, it was at least one of the most notable attempts in history to fundamentally break traditional forms of political engagement, refusing to reproduce the structurally-determined ‘bad’ social circumstance that so many false ‘revolutionary movements’ were guilty of perpetuating.

In closing, the point I would like to emphasise here is that as we move forward and as the 21st Century begins to mature, it is the demand of our generation to improve upon Occupy’s politics of ‘mutual recognition’.[42] It is likewise the demand of our generation to constantly work toward and rework alternative theories of horizontality (including an alternative anthropology, epistemology and cosmology and a phenomenological (i.e. ‘lived’) ethics) and bridge these theories with praxis on a grassroots experiential level.  There will be no final ever-lasting utopia. There will be no final or ‘ultimate’ image of heaven. The transitory process of sustainable change will take endless work from now until the end of history, but in this work there is no doubt that we can improve society and make the world a healthier and better place for all. If anything, this open, unfolding, transitory and normatively developed and redeveloped image of change and the process of creating a better society represents the limits of any honest (21st Century) utopian vision.  It begins in the direction of Occupy’s political horizon.

Notes and References

[1] Hickel, Jason. Liberalism and the politics of Occupy Wall Street. London: Anthropology of this Century: (2012)

[2] Ibid.

[3] I consider Jason Hickel’s paper ‘Liberalism and the politics of Occupy Wall Street’ (2012) as a perfect example of the type of criticism presently emanating from out of a range of leftist academic groups.

[4] Zizek, Slavoj. Occupy First. Demands come later. The Guardian.; Klein, Naomi, and Yotam Marom. Why Now? What’s Next? Naomi Klein and Yotam Marom in Conversation about Occupy Wall Street.

[5] Deseriss, Marco, and Jodi Dean. A movement without demands? Possible future:

[7] Smith, R.C. On Adorno, the colonisation of the ego and an introduction to a critical theory of protest. Heathwood Press, 2012

[8] Smith, R.C. A series of essays on an alternative philosophy of ‘systemic change’. Heathwood Press, 2013. Quotes taken from collaborative discussion with colleague Automnia:

[9] Smith, R.C. In defense of Occupy’s emphasis on non-dominant, non-hierarchical organisation. Heathwood Press, 2013.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Gunn, Richard and Adrian Wilding. OCCUPY AS MUTUAL RECOGNITION. Heathwood Press, 2013.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Klein, Naomi, and Yotam Marom. Why Now? What’s Next? Naomi Klein and Yotam Marom in Conversation about Occupy Wall Street.

[14] Gunn, Richard and Adrian Wilding. OCCUPY AS MUTUAL RECOGNITION. Heathwood Press, 2013.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Smith, R.C. On Adorno, the colonisation of the ego and an introduction to a critical theory of protest. Heathwood Press, 2012

[17] Ibid.

[18] Gunn, Richard and Adrian Wilding. Revolutionary or Less-Than-Revolutionary Recognition? Heathwood Press, 2013.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Gunn, Richard and Adrian Wilding. Occupy as Mutual Recognition. Heathwood Press, 2013.

[21] Hickel, Jason. Liberalism and the politics of Occupy Wall Street. London: Anthropology of this Century: (2012)

[22] For more on this, see my essay ‘In defense of Occupy’s emphasis on non-dominant, non-hierarchical organisation’: (Heathwood, 2013).

[23] Hickel, Jason. Liberalism and the politics of Occupy Wall Street. London: Anthropology of this Century: (2012)

[24] Hickel, Jason. Liberalism and the politics of Occupy Wall Street. London: Anthropology of this Century: (2012)

[25] Ibid, also quoting: Hedges, Chris. Dusty Hinz and Ron Whyte Interview Chris Hedges on Violence, and Environment, the Sustainable Future, and Occupy:

[26] Speech marks to emphasise the irony of the latter approach, which does not so much help enforce truly radical social change but fundamentally reproduce the existing structures of ‘(bad) society’.

[27] Smith, R.C. A series of essays introducing an alternative philosophy of systemic change. Heathwood Press, 2013.

[28] Smith, R.C.  In defense of Occupy’s emphasis on non-dominant, non-hierarchical organisation. Heathwood Press, 2013.

[29] Gunn, Richard and Adrian Wilding. Revolutionary or Less-Than-Revolutionary Recognition?. Heathwood Press, 2013.

[30] Fromm, Erich. Foreword by Erich Fromm to A.S. Neill’s ‘Summerhill – A Radical Approach to Child Rearing’ (1960).

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Gunn, Richard and Adrian Wilding. Occupy as Mutual Recognition. Heathwood Press, 2013

[34] Hickel, Jason. Liberalism and the politics of Occupy Wall Street. London: Anthropology of this Century: (2012)

[35] Ibid; quoting also: Dean, Jodi: Zizek against Democracy. Law, culture and the Humanities 1, 2005

[36] Gunn, Richard and Adrian Wilding. Revolutionary or Less-Than-Revolutionary Recognition?. Heathwood Press, 2013.

[37] Gunn, Richard and Adrian Wilding. Revolutionary or Less-Than-Revolutionary-Recognition? Heathwood Press, 2013

[38] Smith, R.C. A series of essay on an alternative philosophy of systemic change. Heathwood Press, 2013

[39] See: Graeber, David. Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press (distributed by University of Chicago Press); Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire. Oakland, CA: AK Press (2007); Direct Action: An Ethnography. Edinburgh Oakland: AK Press (2009); Revolutions in Reverse: Essays on Politics, Violence, Art, and Imagination. London New York: Minor Compositions (2011).

[40] Notes from my forthcoming book on systemic violence, alternative education and a foundational theory of the liberated subject.

[41] Benjamin, Walter. A critique of Violence. (Selected writings: Vol. 1, 1913-1926)

[42] Gunn, Richard and Adrian Wilding. Occupy’s politics as Mutual Recognition. Heathwood Press, 2013.

1 thought on “In defense of Occupy’s politics By R.C. Smith

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