Posted by: Doug Henwood | October 3, 2011

Ideological notes

I know this will prompt more rebukes for trying to impose an anachronistic old left on the spontaneously new, but someone’s got to do it.

I read this quote in the New York Times the other day. I know that that may not be the go-to medium for reports on Occupy Wall Street, but it’s not unrepresentative of some of the things I’ve seen and heard first hand from that quarter:

“This is not about left versus right,” said the photographer, Christopher Walsh, 25, from Bushwick, Brooklyn. “It’s about hierarchy versus autonomy.”

Autonomy in this context sounds like a hipster version of bourgeois individualism. I’ve also seen a bit of Ron Paul-ish “end the Fed” stuff around OWS, which is a topic in itself, something I’ll take up in the near future. But I don’t want to get that wonky just now. I just want to make a simple point. Occupy Wall Street is hardly about autonomy. It’s about living out solidarity and about attracting people to a movement. They’re living a collectivity, even if they’re not articulating it that way.

I suspect the problem is that three decades of neoliberalism have destroyed any available vocabulary for solidarity. My guess is that most of the people in Zuccotti Park were born after Thatcher and Reagan took office. There’s no such thing as society, as the Lady said. But there is, and we need more of it.

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Responses

  1. At OWS there exists a notable degree of autonomy from the pro-capitalist left such as represented by the Democratic Party, union bureaucracy and leftist celebrities who all did so much disservice to the movement in Wisconsin. That’s undeniably positive to me.

  2. I’d wager that this person was using another sense of the term “autonomy”, one derived from a tradition quite distinct from US-style libertarianism. The contrast with “hierarchy” is the clue, I think. The thinking sounds closer to italo-french extra-parliamentary discourse from the 70s (Toni Negri, Deleuze), where “autonomy” is, among the other things, the freedom for unmediated connection, abstracting from capitalist modes of valorization — precisely to construct collectivities, as you say. Part II of the introduction of this book contins an extended discussion, but the terms at this point are anachronistic and aspatial and will read as communist mumbo-jumbo to most Americans: http://www.scribd.com/doc/54574539/Antonio-Negri-Marx-Beyond-Marx-Lessons-on-the-Grundrisse-1979

  3. Interestingly, the 15M movement in Spain (which I believe was the proximate inspiration for Occupy Wall Street) seems to use more ‘collectivist’ language – see e.g. this description of the Popular Assemblies – http://takethesquare.net/2011/07/31/quick-guide-on-group-dynamics-in-peoples-assemblies/ – which talks approvingly about ‘Collective Thinking’. I wouldn’t worry though. I was struck by how quickly the whole student movement in the UK started using the language of solidarity during the protests last year, and I don’t see why that couldn’t happen in the States.

    And my sense is that the Ron Paul fans and ‘End the Fed’ placards are getting fewer in number down in Liberty Square (I’ve only been there a few times over the last week, so I may be wrong).

  4. nicely said. As far as this:
    “I’ve also seen a bit of Ron Paul-ish “end the Fed” stuff around OWS, which is a topic in itself, something I’ll take up in the near future. ”

    Please do. It is badly needed. Just today I was looking for something on this topic to post to one of the Occupy facebook groups in response to Ron Paul-ish type stuff, and I posted your older “Web of nonsense” piece, but something that directly confronts the current type of rhetoric would be really good.

  5. Doug,

    I do indeed agree with your assessment of remarks like those which you mentioned above and I deeply value your continuing criticism of this emerging movement. However, I feel that you (along with most other commentators) are not seeing what’s really interesting and new about the movement. Again, I support attempts at constructive, immanent criticism, but I think that for such critiques to be genuinely useful they have to start with understanding the unique potential of what’s going on right now.

    Okay, so, what then is the unique potential of this movement? This movement is about more than just getting attention. It’s about directly reclaiming privatized spaces! As I see it, this amounts to a new method of civil disobedience, which I call: living occupation. It’s about living outdoors in order to demonstrate directly just how much space has been privatized–even in so-called “public” places there are laws against erecting temporary sleeping structures, etc. Living outdoors is not simply metaphorical; it’s what oppressed people all over the world have to do. The people who are choosing to live outdoors as a part of this movement are, by that very practice itself, changing the social meaning of space.

    I think I address all of this more eloquently in my post here: http://11again.wordpress.com/2011/09/29/this-struggle-is-global-this-occupation-is-alive/

    Keep up the good work, brother!

  6. I don’t know. There’s no denying that OWS has some wacky individualist politics within it, I saw it too. but capitalism vs. socialism is also about “hierarchy vs. autonomy” in some sense. And autonomy and solidarity aren’t mutually exclusive. I suspect what’s going on here is that in an era where the left has been fully marginalized, a lot of young people grow up associating “left vs. right” with “Democrats vs. Republicans”.

  7. Oh, don’t be so grumpy, Doug. If we’re waiting until there’s a popular movement without a single member who says things we’re not 100% down with to the press, I reckon we’re going to be waiting a long time. Besides, Americans have always obsessed over freedom and autonomy, that’s nothing new. What’s new is the idea that Wall Street is the enemy of that stuff instead of its autonomy.

    If we’re very fortunate, this new movement or something like it will lead to the establishment of the sorts of organizations that have programs and strategies, and then we’ll have to critique them ruthlessly. But isn’t the important thing, now, that people aren’t just passively accepting the rule of money?

  8. For me solidarity is key. There is a strand in thinking (that owes very little to Negri & Hardt btw [1]) that sees politics as the expression of a kind of ethical introspection. This kind of thinking hardly considers solidarity, or rather solidarity is seen from an individual ethical position as something to practice, a ‘nice thing to do’.

    Counter to this, I think the great question of politics is the ‘how’ of solidarity. How to practice solidarity that doesn’t flatten difference (on that this comment on OWS is good http://bit.ly/qttoCn), how to ‘be together’ in a way that is aware of the link between ‘being’ and ‘domination’. I wish these concerns were more obviously articulated, especially since someone living in the colonised world, watching OWS from afar, I don’t trust the Wall Street Occupiers as individuals (as individuals that appear to be predominantly young and white and male and from a coloniser country), but that doesn’t stop me wanting to be in solidarity, to explore how to be together with OWS.

    Negri & Hardt (and their co-thinkers)’s version of autonomy is an argument that solidarity (social cooperation) precedes organisation & hierarchy – they are autonomist in that sense, not in the sense of individualism.

  9. Doug:
    I read that NY Times article in its entirety & the guy making the “hierarchy vs. autonomy” remark was clearly identified as a Libertarian. And the context was that the OWS protests were attracting all kinds, some of whom were more politically engaged & articulate than others. Meantime, I appreciate your commentary…

  10. Just as there is a profound cultural difference in how an American and a Spaniard will give meaning to the term “libertarian”, there may be a generation gap in the understanding of the political meaning of the term “autonomy” at work here.

    To an older, traditionally educated political scientist, the word will be redolent of individualism, often unsocial or anti-social, a continuum that includes everyone from Thoreau to Stirner to Rand.

    OTOH, to a young, post-punk person of an age to have had their political vision shaped by the squatted social centers of Europe, autonomous comes pre-loaded with a collectivist, communitarian ethos, what is autonomous are the collectives, the communities shaped in the squats and social centers.

    Both variants are entirely right, within their own frames of reference. But the likelihood for misunderstanding across that barrier is very high, and entirely understandable.

  11. don’t know what this guy means but one of the first things I was taught by marxists was that autonomy signified something very different from bourgeouis notions of liberty or freedom. it was always the way marxists, heavy users of marx, and socialists distinguished what they were talking about – the kind of society they wanted to see — as opposed to the negative freedom typically embraced by philosophical liberalism.

  12. I hope you do something on the Fed soon. Clearly, “audit the Fed” turned out to be a good thing. Transparency is always helpful. But now that we know the Fed gave away something like $16 Trillion to the banks… what do we do about it? Is “get rid of the Fed” the answer? Most sane people say we need a Central Bank. Is this true? What’s the alternative… giving the Fed’s function over to Congress????? Give it to a bunch of partisans who for the most part have little knowledge about or interest in the complicated matters of fiscal and monetary policy? To Treasury? Hopefully you can shed some light on this for me and others.

    Also, what do you think about the growing idea of the states having their own banks? Sure, North Dakota does it, apparently successfully, but that state has a total population of 600,000 people. Can what works for a small amount of people work in, say, California?

    As for OWS, I think it will change as things progress. Hopefully, groups like MoveOn and the unions won’t try and take it over and turn it into a GOTV endeavor for Dems and Obama. At this juncture, it would seem like a good thing would be for people like you and others to go down there and do a “teach-in” and start educating them about what’s what.

  13. Doug,
    I hear you!
    Can we air lift Adolph Reed to Wall St?

  14. For some reasons reminded of Anonymous plus, perhaps later, older fashioned anarcho-syndicalisms. Now in a liminal moment…

  15. […] Ideological notes […]

  16. Spot on, Doug.

    I observed much of the same last weekend at the protest here in Chicago. Many of the demonstrators seemed far more interested in pulling off their carefully crafted “protest performance” than engaging the people walking by about why they were protesting.

    And don’t even get me started on the V for Vendetta masks.

  17. I have to think that this is too doctrinaire a Left reading here. To my mind, as someone not much older than “autonomy” means ‘ability to organize contingently and quickly across groups’. That might sound like it’s “spontaneous” but it’s more in my understanding a practical logistic theory of solidarity, or an ‘economy of planning’. You show up somewhere, wait for others and then begin coordinating.

    Part of that draft you post a few pages below says something about indigenous rights. I didn’t understand why an event called by Canadian white kids would do that–it’s not like I knew the context. From what I gather the motivation in part was to include a broad group of neglected groups–i.e., American Indians and in theory other first peoples–who have tremendous practical experience in the vagaries of the present state. it might be a roundabout and ineffective way to show solidarity–why not just give them the invite?–but it looks like solidarity none the less.
    Of course there are problems with “autonomy”, like the obvious appeal it has to reactionaries and petty bourgie types and the internal rhyme with “spontaneous creativity”.

    I for one would love if solidarity were to speak its name. I can’t be there though, unless someone wants to underwrite me.

  18. 11again wrote:

    “It’s about directly reclaiming privatized spaces!”

    That’s called “squatting”, and I don’t think that in itself has done much to change matters since humans started thinking about space as private vs. public (especially when lawmakers have well-armed troops at their beck and call).

  19. nerdphetamine may be onto something. Autonomy, maybe, can mean breaking away from the manufactured reality, selves and controversies generated by the corporate mass media. But, in that quoted context, Doug’s right, imho.

  20. What makes this sound like bourgeois individualism? The fact that he is a photographer?

  21. Anarchism (Insurrectionism, Autonomism, anarcho-syndicalism, etc.) is probably the most popular ideology among young radicals in the US and Western Europe… I think you’ll find more self declared 18-30 year old Anarchists than orthodox Marxists in any major US city. I think he was speaking from that tradition. By autonomy he means human life, which is inherently social and collective, freed from hierarchical (master-servant, boss-worker, citizen-sans papiers, rich-poor, etc.) relations and the State.


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