Political Theorists on OWS (3) ~ Wendy Brown
Theory & Event
Volume 14, Number 4, 2011 Supplement
Occupy Wall Street:
Return of a Repressed Res-Publica
For three decades, American populist politics have been largely reactionary, instigated and instrumentalized by monied interests. What finally triggered this left revolt against neoliberal deregulation and corporately bought democracy? Why didn't it erupt in 2008 when the government bailed out teetering investment banks but not their victims-those holding subprime mortgages or gutted retirement funds? Why not in 2009 when gigantic bonuses were handed around to the very investment bankers who had crashed the system with their derivatives games? Why not in spring 2011 when the Supreme Court overturned limits on corporate contributions to Political Action Committees (permitting corporations to flood the electoral process) and then essentially killed off class-action lawsuits (workers' and consumers' main line of defense against corporate fraud and abuse)? Why not at any point in the last decade as mass access to higher education collapsed, infrastructure rotted, real income for the middle class plummeted, health care costs skyrocketed, while corporations, banks and the wealthy feathered their nests?
The OWS events this fall are the twin gifts of, on the one hand, the inspirational Arab Spring and, on the other, the colossal failure of the Obama presidency to place even a light rein on neoliberal de-regulation or install a modest interval of separation between Wall Street and Washington. If the first was an obvious trigger, the second should not be minimized: Had any of the promised Obama "hope" been substantially realized—early withdrawal from Iraq war, closing Guantanamo, stimulating economic recovery with jobs creation, repealing the Bush tax cuts, tightening regulations on finance capital, expanding access to affordable higher education, reining in health care costs—many Occupy Wall Streeters, especially the young, might have remained wedded to the electoral political process that engaged them so intensely just three years ago.
In addition to the galvanizing effects of the Arab Spring and the Obama Autumn, almost half a decade of recession fueled the fire with staggering unemployment (25% among recent college graduates), deteriorating wages, vanishing pensions, home foreclosures, scandalous rates of poverty and homelessness (1 in 5 children in the US are born into poverty) and accelerated destruction of public goods and services already slimmed by two decades of neoliberal defunding and privatization. Together these effects pooled the predicaments of the poor and the middle class, the young and the old, the working and the under- and unemployed: all are sacrificed as capital is propped, bailed, and continues to feast. Put another way, what makes this era unique is the unprecedented mutual identification among working middle class families carrying under-water mortgages, unemployed youth carrying under-water college loan debt, laid-off factory workers facing contracting unemployment benefits, public workers forced to shoulder ever growing contributions to their own "benefits" or losing long-promised pensions, and skilled and unskilled workers—from pre-school teachers to airline pilots—whose salaries for full-time work cannot lift their families above poverty level.
If neoliberal economic policies eliminating state benefits and public goods while plumping the nests of the rich have paradoxically joined the fates of heretofore diverse and often divided generations, job sectors, races and classes, neoliberal political policies aimed at breaking social solidarities have similarly paved the road for broad-based democratic uprising. Recent years have seen a plethora of state and federal court decisions assaulting the organized power of unions, consumers, welfare recipients, seniors, public sector workers, and the electorate as a whole. From AT&T Mobility v. Concepion (the Supreme Court decision permitting corporations to avoid class action litigation) to State of Wisconsin v. Fitzgerald et al (the Wisconsin court decision upholding a state law gutting the collective bargaining power of public unions), the last decade has seen the steady ratification and implementation of Margaret Thatcher's iteration of the neoliberal political ideal—"there is no such thing as society, only individual men and women ...."1 Yet paradoxically or perhaps (for those who still believe in it) dialectically, this very demolition of organized interest group power—combined with scandalous growth in income inequality, eye-popping wealth at the top and dismantling of public goods—has facilitated a new populist political consciousness. Out of broken traditional solidarities and assaults on democracy itself, a new ethos of the mass is being carved: modestly democratic, probably even more modestly egalitarian, but certainly contoured by more than individual, sectional or partisan interests.2
To put the problem a little differently, partly through these broken solidarities, partly through demonizing the 1%, and partly through explicitly forging this new populist ethos, OWS has managed in spirit, analysis and conduct to substitute justice talk for interest talk. And it has done so when the language of justice seemed nearly extinguished by a neoliberal rationality that refracts all conduct through the metric of human capital self-appreciation.3 "We are the 99%," far from participating in a discourse organized by interest or difference, overtly rejects the seizing of the nation by a plutocracy, by private rather than public interests. If the slogan is sometimes mobilized to cast this seizing as an effect of corruption and greed rather than neoliberal rationality in late capitalism (including the complete imbrication of Euro-Atlantic states with the fates and imperatives of finance capital), this is consequent not only to the wealth extremes the epoch has generated but to the necessary personification and theatricalization of all potent political discourse. (Even the Bolsheviks needed to feature the czars as the enemy!) Yet how difficult it has been for the mainstream media to grasp this new formation as promulgating a vision of justice, as issuing from educated political conviction and not only personal circumstance or individual rancor! It is a sign of our profoundly depoliticized vernacular of citizenship today that the stock interview question of OWS participants, "what brings you here?" is always intended to solicit a story of personal hardship or calamity. From CNN to NPR to the New York Times, the interviewers never know what to do with OWS answers that reference a decent, equitable and sustainable way of collective life, a sense of right and wrong, and an account of what we political theorists quaintly call The Good for the polity.
As splendidly surprising as the OWS movement has been, equally astonishing is the level of national endorsement for it: recent polls indicate that 62% of the country supports the movement and that more than a third of the super-rich (the 1%) are sympathetic.4 Regardless of the strategic challenges ahead for OWS as a movement, these facts alone brighten future prospects for a critical national discourse about democracy and capitalism. Occupy Wall Street has already generated something extraordinary in its successful challenge to the neoliberal image of the nation on the model of the firm, where profit is the only metric, competition the only game, private property the only rule, winners and losers the only outcome, and hierarchy and inequality the only form of organization. In place of that image, OWS has revived the classical image of the nation as res-publica, the nation as a public thing. The struggle ahead? To make the image real.
Wendy Brown is Class of 1936 Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley where she teaches political theory. Her most recent book is Walled States, Waning Sovereignty (Zone 2010). Her political work is currently focused on preserving public higher education in the United States, in particular the University of California. Brown can be reached at email@example.com
1. "Wisconsin Court Reinstates Law on Union Rights," New York Times, June 15, 2011 http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/15/us/politics/15wisconsin.html
2. Sure, the unions showed up qua unions at Zuccotti Square for a few days in early October but to "seize on this "crystallizing moment" in "talking about what's wrong with the system," not to organize labor. "Seeking Energy, Unions Join Protest Against Wall Street," New York Times, October 5, 2011 http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/06/nyregion/major-unions-join-occupy-wall-street-protest.html?pagewanted=all
3. Michel Feher, "Self-Appreciation; Or, the Aspirations of Human Capital," Public Culture 21.1, 2009.
4. "Poll: Most Americans Support Occupy Wall Street," The Atlantic October 19, 2011 http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/10/poll-most-americans-support-occupy-wall-street/246963/ and "Over Third of Millionaires Argue 'Occupy' Protestors Make 'Good and Valid' Point" Huffington Post, November 3, 2011 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/03/occupy-wall-street-poll-millionaires_n_1074551.html
Copyright © 2011 Wendy Brown and The Johns Hopkins University Press