A postmodern protest? Occupy Wall Street as effective social resistance

I’ve read criticisms of Occupy Wall Street regarding its lack of a “coherent” set of demands, central organization, or “credible” leadership. This is regarded as a detriment or a hindrance to the movement’s success because, apparently, if your movement doesn’t deploy these three attributes and it can’t gain traction in the media (kinda like the corporate-backed “Tea Party,” ya know), then you’re done for. Might as well pack it up and go home.

The intent of the protesters is clear, though, isn’t it? Geez- even a high school student with basic analytic skills should be able to deduce what the movement means through the name. I would argue that any media figure who says they don’t know what OWS’s goals are is being purposely obtuse, given what Wall Street represents.

Back to the criticisms regarding OWS’s lack of demands, organization, and leadership. Politics USA outlines Fox News’ sudden focus on the movement and their attempts to discredit the movement with their viewers. That got me thinking: maybe the mainstream is getting nervous as OWS gains momentum. More importantly, however, I think burgeoning new coverage, especially by Fox and News Corps, tells us more than news accounts are willing to admit about how OWS is fighting the establishment.

By discussing OWS, the news exposes audiences to a discussion about Wall Street’s practices and speculation about why anyone would be protesting at the epicenter of American economic activity. This discussion hasn’t been absent from the mainstream news. We often hear about the chasm between Wall Street vs. Main Street and whose needs are met when push comes to shove legislatively in Washington. But, coverage of OWS shifts the terms of the debate regarding our economic crisis away from those set by politicians in D.C., and by extension, the interests of those on Wall Street.

Why is this important? Look at the way the mainstream media discusses our economic crisis. What are the solutions put forth? Immediate deficit reduction by dismantling the social safety network. SLASH TAXES (for the top 2 percent). Neutering the American “nanny state” through “smaller government” (that would continue to nanny my uterus and everyone else’s bedroom). Avoid bankruptcy and IMPENDING DOOM! And for God’s sake, DON’T STRESS OUT THE JOB CREATORS!

In other words, every remedy to our economic crisis presented in the mainstream media is discussed in terms that benefit the groups symbolized by Wall Street and NOT the vast majority of the country. Note to the MSM: THIS is what OWS means when they say, “We are the 99 percent” (well, lookee there- you have a “message” or a “frame, despite what the critics may say).

Why is it important that we shift the debate away from these solutions? When you participate in an argument or discussion using the terms and the logic dictated by the other side (i.e., that austerity is the only solution to our economic situation)- they’ve already won. The austerity measures that are the sole proposition coming from the Right are rooted in neoliberalism and so-called “free market” theories of economics. The tenets of these theories are setting the parameters, or the assumptions, that guide the dominant debate on ways to solve our economic crisis. It’s a top-down, supply-side approach that does NOT benefit 99 percent (you know, the VAST MAJORITY) of the U.S. The longer these positions frame our debate on this issue, the harder it gets to wrest control away and steer this car back in a more constructive direction.

Occupy Wall Street counters the dominant narrative by refusing its logic in their actions and their nonviolent, communitarian philosophies. And, even though they defy common wisdom on the elements of a successful social movement when they don’t present “credible,” “eloquent,” and media-friendly personalities and platforms, they’re moving forward anyways. Groups associated with the labor movement increasingly announce their alliance with OWS and noted economists and scholars have joined the protests.

It strikes me, too, that the approach Occupy Wall Street is taking to social protest is markedly postmodern. This is what gives me the most hope about it’s potential to shake things up a bit. There’s a marvelous beauty about this: postmodernism is a departure from modernity and, compared to modernity, is characterized by fragmentation, decentralization, multiplicity, irony (or the lack of easy resolution). Much of postmodernism evolved as a response to the universalizing polarization of modernity that resulted in things like the category of “race,” the justification of slavery, and the colonization of what is now the developing world. Postmodernism, on the other hand, propelled much of the social unrest and the evolving civil rights movement in the second half of the 20th Century that upended the destructive social order established by modernism. I think we can clearly see modernity represented in the symbol of Wall Street (capitalism, hierarchy, universalization, dichotomies) and, more broadly, its intrinsic worldview on the relationships between the individual and society that prioritizes the needs of one over the other. In contrast, OWS embodies, I would argue, postmodernity in its decentralization (no clear leaders), its fragmentation (slow eruption of protests and occupations throughout the country), and its multiplicity (the acceptance of the multitude of differences between its members), but, contrarily, its focus on the community (community food stations at protest sites) and the whole rather than the selfishness of the individual (contradiction is also a key trait of postmodernism…).

Juxtaposing OWS against Wall Street is a binary as well and reducing two things to polar opposites is an analytic of which any critical scholar or activist should be wary. But it’s a meaningful binary that represents the struggle between different sides that, as my friend Robin pointed out (and his friend Karl Marx, I believe), is integral to the progression of history. This is how change occurs.

The value of postmodernism, for me, comes from its denaturalization of the assumptions of modernity which dictate that everyone has a predetermined place in society. That our identities are fixed and singular. That we can never be other than what we are. And, most problematically, that these identities are fixed by someone else. (side note: I literally started crying preparing a presentation on postmodernism for a class at Iowa, so yes, I find it quite powerful).

Postmodernity gave a name to what many already knew: that we can name ourselves, determine ourselves, that we are multiple, that we have agency, validity, subjectivity. Postmodernity did not empower anyone, instead providing a vocabulary for underrepresented groups (that is, NOT white males) to speak what they already knew about the world around them.

So if modernity is represented by the symbol  of Wall Street, than I would argue OWS is postmodern- and I’m hoping it proves to be as empowering. Because if Americans need anything right now, it’s a reminder that we all matter- that we don’t have to take care of the needs of the top 1 percent out of any sense of deference, especially when they sure as hell aren’t keeping an eye out for us. But it’s also a tap on the shoulder that we are our brother’s keeper and that we have a social contract with one another as the foundation to our society. It’s a position that says a rising tide floats all boats. It’s nonviolent. It’s democratic. It appeals to the very best about America. And it may just be the hope and change we’ve been waiting for.

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One thought on “A postmodern protest? Occupy Wall Street as effective social resistance

  1. 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”

    THE LEFT IS DEAD! LONG LIVE THE LEFT!

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