The link above is to an article in Jacobin Magazine titled ‘Occupy’s Anti-Politics.’ In it, author Shawn Gude attempts to connect that apparent ‘failure’ of the Occupy movement with Occupy activists’ aversion to what he calls “acting politically,” arguing:
[C]ommunity is important. Occupiers were wrong, however, when they viewed it as a resounding step towards a more egalitarian, just society.
Politically, Occupy accomplished little because we were often too wary of acting politically, of making demands on the political system, of acknowledging conflict and structuring our movement accordingly. Many in the movement thought structure carried the patina of the establishment, that demand making would simply serve to legitimize the malevolent state. So we got an amorphous, highly decentralized movement that, after a miraculous flourish in its embryonic stages, tapered off.
…Even for those who find the state of American politics repulsive (and I, emphatically, do) the principle, the idea, of politics and the democratic process must be defended. Jaundiced resignation redounds to the benefit of the Right. They relish anti-political cynicism. They oppose concerted collective action, so they harness the sentiment to subvert politics itself. They adopt a sort of aloof, cooler-than-thou detachment from the political arena, a pernicious posture that ineluctably elevates apathy and inaction to the status of beau ideal.
…Acting politically means confronting power, not side-stepping it. It means reshaping existing institutions, not just building alternative ones. It means directly and indirectly engaging the state, not cocooning oneself from it.
First, there is the irony of an article supporting engagement with established political institutions being published in an magazine called Jacobin, which prides itself on being “hostile to liberal accomodationalism.” But let’s not get into petty shit.
There is something larger that this article helps to highlight. Gude is responding, and largely mimicking an Thomas Frank article that similarly bemoans Occupy’s supposed lack of ‘acting politically;’ he argues that where most (especially academic) coverage asks what made Occupy so successful we should instead ask:
Why did this effort fail? How did OWS blow all the promise of its early days? Why do even the most popular efforts of the Left come to be mired in a gluey swamp of academic talk and pointless antihierarchical posturing?
What I find interesting about this position, which is equally common as the celebratory accounts, is that it elevates and reifies ‘acting politically’ in the same way that they claim Occupiers have ‘fetishized feelings.’ This argument criticizes Occupy’s (and other/previous movements’) rhetorical/ideological celebration of prefigurative politics, of community building through mutual aid, of ‘being the change you want to see.’ In doing so, authors who follow this line of argument often just come off sounding grumpy.
It’s important to make clear that the defense of ‘acting politically is often pretty vague It focuses on Occupy’s appranat lack of impact as evidence that it ‘needed to do more.’ What ‘doing more’ by ‘acting politically means is rarely specified; usually it signifies a collection of ideas and practices that say more about the author than any essential qualities of ‘democracy’ or ideal tactical choices. ,’
In fact it usually just seems to mean voting, or supporting people to vote for. It signifies a resigned politics of the old Left..literally old. The tendency to view the world in a way that valorizes ones historical experience: ‘the greatest generation ’the radical 60s and 70s.’ But the source of Occupy’s ‘antipolitics’ is born out in the history of movement of the 60s/70s: a path of institutionalization that raises important questions about ‘acting politically,’ questions that cannot be addressed with general talk like:
Even for those who find the state of American politics repulsive (and I, emphatically, do) the principle, the idea, of politics and the democratic process must be defended.
What does this mean? What is detestable and what must be defended? I might even argue that part of Occupy’s story is a frustration with this conundrum: deadlock and powerlessness.
Instead he says that what prefiguration and ‘community’ avoid is the brave recognition of conflict and compromise that ‘acting politically entails.’ Yet, in my experience, those Occupiers who most avoided conflict were those pushing for engagement with institutional politics, and they started leaving early. As soon as things ot messy, out came the calls to “get back to work” and move on to a campaign.
But is this not politics? What is political? this is not philosophical bullshit im asking. what do you mean?
And here is a crucial issue. And it pivots.
We can also ask of community/prefiguration: aren’t communities embedded in a wide and diverse set of social contexts, in which electoral, party, institutionalized poltics figure heavily?
To the Pennsylvanians: if corbett could have not been elected, perhaps through organizing around voting or if strategic voting weren’t so distasteful to white male anarchos, there might have been fewer fracking permits, fewer ruined watersheds?
Anyway, the Jacobin stiff: What is even stranger about this whole (and again common) argument is the implicit suggestion that celebration, prefiguration, and community are not involved in the creation of a more egalitarian society. I am not arguing for these ideas here, but simply against the factual basis on which tthis line rests, and the fact that it seems to presume to know everything.
Indeed and besides, Jacobin’s own intro about obama signs is precisely the point. movements are not controllled. it may be appropriateion, but there are more people involved in social change than activists and their critics.