I’ve been a little surprised at the critical reactions by some anarchists to Occupy Wall Street and its hundreds of spinoffs. Not that there isn’t room for criticism. There’s plenty: to the extent it has a critique of capital, OWS errs on the side of the populist — parasitic finance, evil capitalists, biased governance; the 99% slogan is problematic not just because it elides difficult issues about difference but because it assumes that structural forces (the police, for example) can be overcome with shame or rational argument; some of its elements are too hasty to call for reregulation and are ripe for co-optation; and this just begins the list.
No, the problem with certain anarchist reactions, besides the fact that they sometimes fail even to make the basic points outlined above, is not criticism in general but the kinds of criticisms, which are primarily ideological and programmatic, and reterritorializing. For instance, this article from the Workers’ Solidarity Movement, which I’ll take as exemplary here, claims that “the [occupy] movement’s unwillingness to attempt to agree on a coherent set of positions” indicates a sort of generalized depoliticization. Perhaps, but isn’t the work of movements precisely to formulate those positions? Entering a struggle with already-formed positions and tactics smacks of vanguardism, with the attendant necessity of adhering to the ideological program. Acts of resistance and refusal are nothing if not the time to experiment with tactics and devise (or at least reformulate) positions and principles.
For WSM, the occupations and assemblies are problematic because they operate from the assumption that “no two people experience oppression in the same way, and thus any attempt to unite people under a political programme inevitably ends up erasing some people’s perspectives,” which in turn “produces a vague and weak politics.” While I agree that so far a sort of happy tolerance and an evasion of disagreement too strongly animate the occupations, there’s something admiral and even novel about this stubborn refusal to eclipse difference in favor of a muscular political agenda. And even though this sometimes makes the events seem like giant self-help sessions, something is being enacted that, at least in the United States, hasn’t been seen in awhile: the act of being together, the reminder that doing politics is possible only in a group, and the enacting of a politics that isn’t only adversarial. Faced with the challenges of doing that work, political programs and demands can wait.
“Bring back the working class!” WSM says: “One of the major victories of neoliberalism is the eradication of the working-class from the popular consciousness. One of the results of this is the prevalence of the idea among certain sections of the left that the working-class is no longer relevant to understanding power in the modern world – an outdated idea clung to by old-left dinosaurs.” Well. OWS’s avoidance of this sort of reterritorialization should be praised, not mocked. Sure, the evasion could be primarily attributed to its incompetence and bland acceptance of everything under the sun, but it’s nonetheless there and it’s why, unlike, say, antiwar protests and syndicalist workplace action, it keeps open the possibility of a movement that encompasses not just wage earners but everyone who is striated by capital, and does so without curing those subjects of their singularity: the unemployed, the unemployable, the incarcerated, the homeless, students, and others.
Some anarchists, like the state-happy Marxists they criticize, assume that people gather for political reasons and then articulate political positions that correspond to the aims of that organization. There is some of that, for sure, but in many ways it also gets the relationship backwards: people organize because they already share political concerns and ideology, even when they are never articulated. What marks the work of political organization is less programs and ideology formation and more resonance and affect, the doing together and the interaction of bodies. If occupy movements have something to recommend them, it’s that they haven’t foreclosed this aspect of politics and have in fact deliberately made it their primary concern.