my articles on Occupy Wall Street

A reader recently brought to my attention that there’s no landing page that houses all of my publications on Occupy Wall Street. Now there is…

Smucker, Jonathan Matthew. 2014. “Can Prefigurative Politics Replace Political Strategy?Berkeley Journal of Sociology, 58:74–82

——. 2013. “Occupy: A Name Fixed to a Flashpoint.” The Sociological Quarterly 54(2):219–225.

——. 2012. “Radicals and the 99%: Core and Mass Movement.” Pp. 247-253 in We Are Many: Reflections on Strategy from Occupation to Liberation, ed. by K. Khatib, M. Killjoy and M. McGuire. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

——. 2012. “Falling in Love with Ourselves.” n+1 Occupy! (An OWS-Inspired Gazette), September 2012, pp. 28-29.

——. 2012. “A Practical Guide to Co-option.” n+1 Occupy! (An OWS-Inspired Gazette), May 2012, pp. 5-8.

——. 2012[2011]. “The Tactic of Occupation and the Movement of the 99 Percent.” Progressive Planning Magazine, Spring 2012, pp. 6-9.

Yours truly, mic-checking on November 17, 2011.

Yours truly, mic-checking on November 17, 2011.

the life of the group vs. what the group accomplishes

occupy_london_tentThis Monday during Cihan Tuğal’s comparative analysis of revolts in North Africa, Southern Europe, and Turkey—part of the Berkeley Sociology Colloquium Series—he offered this gem about the occupation of Gezi Park:

Even though a non-commodified space monetarily redistributes resources among its participants, it does not result in an egalitarian world beyond the revolt itself. [from my notes of Tuğal’s presentation]

Cihan discussed multiple motivations for several kinds of participants. One key motivation that struck me—which I think relates to the above quote—was pleasure. Many bourgeois participants were motivated negatively by “the impoverishment of social life” caused by increasing commodification and positively by what Cihan described as “pleasure”. All this reminded me of Slavoj Žižek’s warning (to Occupy Wall Street) about “one of the great dangers the protesters face:”

…the danger that they will fall in love with themselves, with the fun they are having in the “occupied” zones. But carnivals come cheap— the true test of their worth is what happens the day after, how our everyday life has changed or is to be changed. This requires difficult and patient work— of which the protests are the beginning, not the end.

And both quotes remind me of a much older text, The Lonely Crowd, in which David Riesman et al discuss what they saw as a newly predominant character structure, embodied in the other-directed individual:

Thus the other-directed child is taught at school to take his place in a society where the concern of the group is less with what it produces than with its internal group relations, its morale.

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You (still) can’t evict an idea.

Wow, the one-year anniversary of the eviction of Liberty Square (aka Zuccotti Park) came and went this week. I’m bad at keeping track of what the date is on any given day — or week! And for the past several weeks I’ve had my head buried in GRE prep and school applications. So I just now realized. It occurred to me while rereading William Gamson’s article The Social Psychology of Collective Action (in Frontiers of Social Movement Theory). This made me think of a major accomplishment of OWS:

When truly hegemonic, the legitimating frame is taken for granted. Would-be challengers face the problem of overcoming a definition of the situation that they themselves may take as part of the natural order.

It is an achievement, then, for a challenger to force the sponsors of a legitimating frame to defend its underlying assumptions. The sheer existence of a symbolic contest is evidence of the breakdown of hegemony and a major accomplishment for a challenger.

OWS—which, to me, includes “spinoff” campaigns like Rolling Jubilee, Occupy Homes, and many others—is itself “evidence of the breakdown of hegemony.” Hegemony, at least concerning the ideological legitimacy of the status quo. As I’ve said elsewhere, “In a very short time span, Occupy Wall Street dramatically shifted the dominant national conversation from a conservative deficit framework to a critique of economic inequality and the political disenfranchisement of most Americans.”

I am proud of the past year, grateful for the friends I have made, hopeful for what we—and many more of us—may accomplish in the years to come. Perhaps I am guilty of eternal optimism, but I see OWS as a harbinger of things to come; even bigger and better organized waves of collective action for social and economic justice. Continue reading

Falling in love with ourselves

Also published in Occupy! #5. Occupy! is an OWS-inspired gazette, published by n+1.

In late October of last year my cousin came down to Liberty Square, then home of a thriving Occupy Wall Street, to meet me for a drink. He arrived early so he could check things out for himself. I was eager to hear his impressions.

“What stood out to me,” he told me at a bar around the corner, “was how you all are recreating society—or creating a microcosm of society. It’s all there: a kitchen, a medical tent, a security force, a public library, and a whole alternative decision-making structure. It’s fascinating!”

Much has been made about the prefigurative aspects of Occupy Wall Street and the occupy encampments across the country, when they existed. The camps, for example, served as more than just a protest, more than just a tactic. Participants consciously prefigured the kind of society that they were striving to build. It was indeed a compelling moment for my cousin—or for any stranger—to witness. In the two months of the physical occupation of Liberty Square, newcomers like him could walk in off the street and join our world—could even speak up during a General Assembly meeting if they felt so moved. Everyone’s participation was welcomed. A modified consensus decision-making process is used in the General Assembly and in working group meetings so that decisions have to take into account everyone’s input and ideas, thus prefiguring a kind of direct democracy lacking in the wider world, particularly in the realm of mainstream politics.

“It’s kind of utopian,” my cousin suggested.

“I hope not!” I replied. Continue reading

Radicals and the 99%: Core and Mass Movement

This essay is a chapter in the new book from AK Press We Are Many: Critical Reflections on Movement Strategy from Occupation to Liberation. The book is 450 pages with contributions from 50 authors — most of whom have been active in Occupy Wall Street. Order it here!

Occupy Wall Street audaciously claimed to be a movement of “the 99%,” challenging the extreme consolidation of wealth and political power by the top one percent. Our opponents, however, claim that the 99% movement is little more than a handful of fringe radicals who are out of touch with mainstream America.

They’re not 100% wrong about us being radicals. Radicals played pivotal roles in initiating Occupy Wall Street. And radicals continue to pour an enormous amount of time, energy, creativity, and strategic thinking into this burgeoning movement.

What our opponents are wrong about is the equation of radical with fringe. The word radical literally means going to the root of something. Establishment forces use the label radical interchangeably with the disparaging label extremist—as a means to “otherize” the movement. But clearly the radicals did something right here. We flipped the script by framing the top 1% as the real extremists—as the people who are truly out of touch. By striking at the root of the problem and naming the primary culprit in our economic and democratic crises—by creating a defiant symbol on Wall Street’s doorstep—a new generation of young radicals has struck a chord with mainstream America. A movement that started as an audacious act by a committed core of radicals quickly and dramatically broadened its appeal.

Radicals will likely continue to play a crucial role in this movement. Throughout history the radicals have tended to be among those who give the most of their time and energy to movements for change. They tend to make up a large part of the movement’s core. As such, their contributions are absolutely indispensable.

However, successful movements need a lot more than a radical core. For every core participant who gives nearly everything of herself or himself, a strong movement needs a hundred more people in the next “tier” of participation—folks who are contributing something, while balancing other commitments in their lives. If we are to effectively challenge the most powerful institutions in the world (e.g. capitalism), we will need the active involvement of hundreds of thousands if not millions of people—folks who are willing to give something. If the core fails to involve a big enough next tier of participants, it will certainly fail to maintain effective engagement with the broader society. These “next tier” participants are not even the base, but rather the start of the base needed to accomplish our big-picture aims. Continue reading

We Are Many: #OWS Book Launch in NYC this Saturday (Sept.15)

Next week marks the one-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street — the movement that took New York’s financial district by storm, rapidly swept across the nation, and dramatically shifted the dominant political discourse. AK Press is releasing their new book We Are Many: Reflections on Movement Strategy from Occupation to Liberation just in time for the anniversary — with the official book launch event happening at Bluestockings Books in NYC, this Saturday, September 15, starting at 7:30pm. Click here for details and here to RSVP on Facebook.

Kate Khatib from AK Press will present the book, followed by comments from some of the book’s contributors, followed by audience questions. I’ll be there, and I have a chapter in the book (Radicals and the 99%, Core and Mass Movement). I’m really looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of the book and checking out my comrades’ contributions.

The book is 450 pages and has 50 authors, including: Michael Andrews, Michael Belt, Nadine Bloch, Rose Bookbinder, Mark Bray, Emily Brissette, George Caffentzis, George Ciccariello-Maher, Annie Cockrell, Joshua Clover, Andy Cornell, Molly Crabapple, CrimethInc., CROATOAN, Paul Dalton, Chris Dixon, John Duda, Brendan M. Dunn, Lisa Fithian, Gabriella, David Graeber, Ryan Harvey, Gabriel Hetland, Marisa Holmes, Mike King, Koala Largess, Yvonne Yen Liu, Josh MacPhee, Manissa M. Maharawal, Yotam Marom, Cindy Milstein, Occupy Research, Joel Olson, Isaac Ontiveros, Morrigan Phillips, Frances Fox Piven, Vijay Prashad, Michael Premo, Max Rameau, RANT, Research & Destroy, Nathan Schneider, Jonathan Matthew Smucker, Some Oakland Antagonists, Lester Spence, Janaina Stronzake, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, Team Colors Collective, Janelle Treibitz, Unwoman, Immanuel Wallerstein, Sophie Whittemore, Kristian Williams, and Jaime Omar Yassin.

The editors are Kate Khatib, Margaret Killjoy, and Mike McGuire. They describe the book as, “messy, chaotic, imperfect, surprising, inspiring, and wonderful, just like the movement it reflects upon.” They did a great job taking this project over the finish line!

I hope to see you at the launch event on Saturday! If you can’t make it, be sure to order your copy from AK Press!

TONIGHT in NYC: “Occupy Their Desire” discussion with Jodi Dean, Not An Alternative, and yours truly

Hey New York City-area friends, tonight I’ll be part of a discussion called Occupy Their Desire at the Austrian Cultural Forum. The panel will include Jodi Dean, the art/activism collective Not An Alternative, and yours truly — followed by a discussion. Here’s the info:

Tuesday, August 21
6:30pm – 8:30pm
Austrian Cultural Forum
11 East 52nd Street
New York, NY

It’s free, but you can make reservations. I hope to see you there.

Here’s the description from Not An Alternative:

Occupy Wall Street occupied mainstream media headlines via a question: what do they want, what are their demands? Philosopher Slavoj Žižek, pushed the question further when he enjoined occupiers not to be afraid to want what they desire — suggesting a gap between conscious want and unconscious desire. In effect, his injunction was for occupiers to occupy their desire; for us to occupy our desire.

Inspired by this, Not An Alternative will host a research discussion that investigates and inquires into the desires expressed by and repressed in Occupy Wall Street. The discussion explores questions such as:

  • How is the expression of desire a necessary element in building a movement?
  • Where has Occupy succeeded and failed in this task?
  • How might we contrast the movement’s expression of desire with that of the 2008 Obama campaign (Hope!), or traditional Left / progressive politics?
  • What role does representation play in the expression of desire — and relatedly, how do the disciplines of art, advertising and psychoanalysis inform this inquiry?

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The Problem of Collective Action in the United States

Picking up from yesterday’s post, the central problem I have attempted to apprehend from so many angles has to do with political behavior — especially collective action in the context of the United States over the past 50 or so years. How and why do people act together collectively to advance or defend their common interests? How and why do people not act together for the same — or even resist collective action that would seem to benefit them?

In my estimation, social movements in the United States do not presently have anywhere close to the capacity needed to mount sustained challenges to the entrenched power structures we are up against, at least when it comes to issues for which change would threaten the current economic order (e.g. progressive taxation, public education, public health care, cutting military spending, public elections, corporate personhood, financial regulation, global warming, and so on). Thus, Occupy Wall Street has been something of a beacon of hope to many. But momentarily seizing the national narrative didn’t send the bankers and Wall Street executives packing. A far more massive movement will be needed if we are to actually challenge the formidable power of capital. Continue reading

Anatomy of populist hegemonic alignment (part 2)

I concluded Part 1 by summarizing three mistakes progressive change agents often make in trying to build a broad alignment: 1) Building from scratch, 2) Purism, and 3) Long lefty laundry lists.

Summarizing the latter, it’s tempting to think that the way to attract a broad base is to name lots and lots of issues (e.g. at a rally or protest) — so that there will be “something for everyone”. Perhaps counter-intuitively, “…the more issues you name explicitly, the less your appeal tends to resonate with any of the constituencies you’re hoping to attract. The more we spell out how each issue is explicitly connected, the less it becomes about a particular issue (i.e. entry/identity point) that any particular person, group, or social bloc is concerned about.” [Long lefty laundry lists].

I concluded by asking, “If it doesn’t work to explicitly spell out how all our issues and all the fragmented aggregations of heterogeneous society are connected—if that only aligns the highly analytical and the fringe radicals, and doesn’t activate broader bases—what about linking these issues and aggregations non-explicitly / ambiguously?”

In this post, I’ll argue that populist alignments in our heterogeneous society depend on this ambiguous linkage, which equally depends on the strategic use of floating signifiers.1 Continue reading

Anatomy of populist hegemonic alignment (part 1)

Building upon the basic idea of hegemonic contestation discussed in my last post, I want to now move into an exploration of the mechanics of this process. Specifically I want to examine a structural pattern found in hegemonic alignments — and, even more specifically, in hegemonic alignments that can also be described as populist.

First, I want to define a few terms for purposes of this post:

A hegemonic alignment is an aligning, however temporary or ephemeral, of different social groups, blocs, identities, aggregations, organizations, etc. into a tenuously unified force that intervenes in social reality (enters a hegemonic contest). The alignment, because of its broad social bases and combined capacity, can pack a much more powerful punch than any of its component parts could on their own. Such an alignment is not necessarily clearly defined, delineated or formally coordinated — usually it is none of these things. In addition to the alignment’s engaging in a hegemonic contest in relation to the remainder of society (i.e. groups outside of the alignment, both opposition and “neutrals”), typically some particular group also exercises a form of hegemony (i.e. predominance, leadership) within the alignment itself.

A populist alignment is a hegemonic alignment that is framed as a challenger/underdog force or movement. Its raison d’etre is to challenge some formidable power, whether it be an oppressive government, corporation, policy, or status quo social system. In other words, elite interests can and do align into hegemonic alignments, but these do not constitute populist alignments.

A faux-populist alignment is a hegemonic alignment dominated by elite interests that styles itself as populist. It accomplishes this most effectively by charming genuinely disenfranchised groups (e.g. poor white people in rural areas) into the alignment. Fascism is the quintessential example of a faux-populist alignment. The so-called “Tea Party” is another example. The use of faux- is admittedly something of a value judgment; both faux-populist alignments and genuine populist alignments have to engage the same mechanics of hegemonic contestation.

A floating signifier (also called an empty signifier) is a catalyzing symbol whose meaning is ambiguous. Floating signifiers are essential for catalyzing broad hegemonic alignments in a heterogeneous society. The signifier frames the alignment itself, and is necessarily ambiguous—its meaning is floating, its content “empty”—as all of the groups that comprise the alignment must see their values and hopes reflected in the symbol. The signifier can be a politician (quintessentially Juan Perón), a group (e.g. public school teachers in Wisconsin), a slogan (e.g. “We are the 99%!”), or a brand (e.g. the “Tea Party”), among other possibilities. (More on floating signifiers here.)

I believe that hegemonic populist alignments are “the only game in town” if we want to accomplish big social, economic and political changes. The powers we are up against—especially when it comes to Wall Street, corporate power, and capitalism—are so entrenched, have so consolidated their control of the economic and political spheres, we have no option except to organize a truly broad-based counter-force.

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