Occupy Wall Street and its various offshoots have received a fair share of academic attention. Many scholars have approached it with an initial bout of enthusiasm; since then a more sceptical attitude has taken hold. The latter is often related to the fact that Occupy refused to set out a clear programme for change, that its horizontal outlook and consensus decision-making hid hierarchical tendencies, and that it remained largely ineffective due to its prefigurative logic. Nonetheless it remains true that the movement has been tremendously influential in informing and shifting public discussion around issues of wealth distribution and current forms of governance. My analysis of Occupy, which I recently presented to a conference organised by the International Sociological Association, takes a critical yet sympathetic stance from a different perspective.
Although comparisons with the global justice movement are fruitful there was something distinct about Occupy. The former formulated a voice against the Washington consensus that advocated the free market and neoliberalism. Post-2008 financial crash, this consensus itself is in question. Occupy’s answer was primarily prefigurative, especially through its focus on deliberation in General Assemblies; it put value on extra-parliamentary consensus decision-making; and it sought greater transparency and regulation of financial processes.
And yet the situation faced by Occupy was not that different after all: neoliberalism despite its discrediting also in the pages of business journals and financial newspapers has not been dismissed in practice. Despite the awareness of income inequality, corruption, lack of accountability and other democratic deficits, it remains difficult to think of a way out of the current crisis situation. The Turbulence Collective put it astutely like this
Neoliberalism is dead but it doesn’t seem to realise it. Although the project no longer ‘makes sense’, its logic keeps stumbling on, like a zombie in a 1970s splatter movie: ugly, persistent and dangerous.
This is a situation that some political philosophers have defined as ‘post-politics’ (this unusually lucid Wikipedia entry summarises post-politics well). Writers such as Jacques Rancière or Slavoj Zizek argue that the post-political condition of our age hinders or de-values public and political debate. Instead of agonistic and pluralist discussions over social values, governance or economic affairs, we have the hegemonic dominance of neoliberalism and parliamentary democracy – an ‘end of politics’ scenario. Social movements that seek to question these quasi-consensual arrangements are dismissed or repressed. While there might be ongoing attempts by political elites to increase participation in formal democracies (such as referenda or citizen consultations), this often goes hand in hand with keeping fundamental political questions out of policy-making.
We could understand Occupy as a mobilisation to overcome the end of politics. Activists sought to question the consensual status quo and open up political discussions about democracy and economic management. The recent student occupations at the University of Sussex can be viewed from that perspective, too. Occupy was political in the sense that politics-proper is understood as antagonism and disagreement. It posed a challenge to the technocratic administration of political questions, reacting against the idea that it should be left to experts (economists, elected representatives, bureaucrats) to decide on things that are common to all.
But there is another story that paints the movement as rather complicit with the end of politics. Occupy was decidedly post-ideological. At least at the outset it was unwilling to define itself in traditional left and right terms and its self-depiction as ‘the 99 percent’ stressed consensus over conflict. Occupied squares and parks became publically accessible sites of not only protest but participation. Hence, the slogan ‘this is what democracy looks like’. The ‘human microphones’ and the General Assemblies were part of this deliberative realm. But this focus on deliberation is unsatisfactory. The assumption that if open debate will only go on for long enough human interests must converge is symptomatic of the consensual style of post-politics.
As a tool for movement participation consensus decision-making practices have been powerful. However, consensus also moves the emphasis away from questions of politics towards questions of decision-making; from content to form. Where activists argue that political ideologies are to be transgressed, in the name of ‘we the people’ or ‘the 99 percent’, this could have the effect of banishing partisan and oppositional politics in favour of a post-political response to the existing democratic deficit. In the case of Occupy, democracy then becomes synonymous with transparency and anti-corruption mechanisms. This in turn can leave the door open to conspiracy theorists and others who can appropriate this anti-political perspective for their own, less noble, agendas.
I am grateful to the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice for hosting me as a Visiting Research Fellow during March 2013 and allowing me to think more about the meaning of politics and anti-politics.