Philosophy and Occupation

Today Dr. J encourages her readers to understand the Occupy Wall Street movement through the lens of Aristotle’s Metaphysics:

The Occupy Movement is like our sense of sight. It’s not (instrumentally) valuable for what it allows us to see, but rather it’s (intrinsically) valuable in that it allows us to see. Like sight, it “brings to light many differences between things”; it is able to “make us know.” And all of us by nature desire knowledge.

In the comments, Chris Long offers a translation correction:

a more literal translation of that first sentence of the Metaphysics is this: “All human beings (anthropoi) by nature stretch themselves out (oregontai) toward knowing.”

There are many passages from Aristotle that I think could apply to the movement (Politics Book 3 jumps out), but I think that Occupy Wall Street has been actively resisting the attempts to conceptualize it in epistemic terms. OWS also seems much less like a kind of knowing and much more like a kind of creating: OWS seems to me to have spent its time making a space where political action is not mediated by the state. But how is this a kind of knowing?

I can readily imagine a deconstruction of this distinction: making is a kind of knowing, knowing is a kind of construction, etc. But the dominant metaphor in the first paragraph of the Metaphysics is still epistemic, and I think that fails to give a good account of what the Occupiers are doing. Rightly or wrongly, the Occupiers don’t care about making unknowns known: they’re not motivated by knowledge in anything like the ordinary sense of “bringing things to light.”

Instead, Occupy seems to be based on what David Graeber has called a “refusal to recognize the legitimacy of existing political institutions” that leads to

“the embrace of prefigurative politics…. [that] experiment with creating the institutions of a new society – not only democratic General Assemblies but kitchens, libraries, clinics, media centres and a host of other institutions, all operating on anarchist principles of mutual aid and self-organisation – a genuine attempt to create the institutions of a new society in the shell of the old.”

Certainly, this kind of experimentation is a model of inquiry, and perhaps it is even the model of inquiry Aristotle ultimately directs us towards (though not, I think, in the Metaphysics.) But as the Calls for Papers on Occupy continue to proliferate, I can’t help but wonder whether Hannah Arendt’s criticism of Plato (and by extension all philosophers) was right: that we seek to institute the “tyranny of reason” as a protection against the “hostility of the polis to philosophy.”

As scholars with political commitments, it is often tempting to think our role is in the vanguard, offering interpretation and guidance to the teeming multitude. But this is ultimately an attempt to exert dominance. As Jacques Lacan put it while addressing the students at the Sorbonne in 1968: “You want a master. You will have him.” Many have interpreted this claim as both a psychoanalytic prediction about the structure of interpersonal relations and as a pragmatic claim: “You need demands and a coherent ideology! I will make your demands and supply the ideological support you are missing!” Certainly that kind of knowing is a kind of doing: one that seeks to preclude the unexpected threat of action by forcing it to submit to the best reasons and evidence.

The epistemic model is a good way of conceiving of most social movements: for instance, the Women’s Suffrage movement, the Civil Rights movement, the Mattachine Society, and the various anti-war movements have all aimed to make something visible and thereby known. They put that injustice on display and allowed the audience to complete the enthymeme and demand rectification themselves. Rectification can come from many different quarters, and so demands are necessarily general or aspirational: social movements of this kind have called on their fellow citizens to vote differently and to shop differently, but they have also called upon Congress to legislate differently and on the Supreme Court to judge differently. In that sense, they all attempted to create a consensus and to open the way to a bipartisan compromise. (The same is true of the socially conservative political movements that oppose abortion or euthanasia, as well as the Tea Party.)

This is clearly the model that Dr. J is applying to the current Occupy Movement:

The reason the Occupy Movement exceeds the designations of “Democrat” and “Republican” is because it has figured itself, first and foremost, as a knowledge-seeking movement. That is to say, a truth-seeking movement. It has aimed, from its beginning, to draw back a veil of lies that has convinced us that some untruths are true, that other truths are unknowable.

But another problem with Dr. J’s claim that Occupy is a non-partisan kind of knowing is that it is beginning to seem that it is not true, in much the same way that it turned out to be false (though Dr. J herself warned me) that the Tea Party was non-partisan. As knowers, it’s important to push back against the claim that Occupy is a representative movement, that it stands for the 99%, even if, as partisans, this is an attractive bit of rhetoric. This is one thing we can know. The USA Today poll conducted November 19th and 20th found that most Americans had no opinion on the protests at all and that opposition to the movement is greater than support. With 59% indifferent/ignorant and 31% opposed, that leaves 10% of the population as supporters. The margin of error is +/- 4%, so somewhere between 6% and 14% of the population are OWS supporters. There’s a long way to go for 99%, and the growth in opposition to a third of the public suggests that some of the ways that OWS has acted or been represented as acting have excited the opposition of partisan conservatives.

But the reason I haven’t been able to blog for four months is because each time I read news on the Occupy movement, I find myself alienated from the particular form of commentary that the blogging life encourages: “X happened: here’s what I think about X.” But I don’t want to think about Occupy. I don’t even want to support them, because I don’t think they want my support, or need it: this is not the kind of movement that depends upon numbers, that demands that citizens stand and be counted. Instead, I want to see what Occupy makes thinkable.

Will Roberts had a comment on a New APPS post that I think is apropos:

When Sorel advocated the proletarian general strike, he relied on the same distinction between engaging in action in order to win a certain concession from one’s opponent and engaging in action that asks nothing of one’s opponent, but seeks instead to radically and immediately alter the field of relations between oneself and one’s opponent. And Sorel — and Benjamin after him — also characterized normal, legal strikes, which make a set of demands, as mercenary or as a variety of extortion. The strikers tell the bosses, you cannot use our labour-power unless you make the following concessions. They want something, and they seek to get the bosses to give it to them by the means allowed within the law.

The general strike, like the occupation, demands nothing. It seeks to break down the existing framework of rules and norms, not for the sake of something the strikers already have in mind, but just in order that something new might emerge. It does not seek to extort concessions, but to abolish established relationships.

Perhaps this is the right approach, and perhaps it is not. For my part, I find the project of the general strike unlikely to be liberating. Instead I prefer to think of the Occupy movement as creating temporary autonomous zones, wards, councils, or soviets where people practice the ancient arts of isonomy. But I may well be wrong. What I think I know is that we will misunderstand the goals of Occupy Wall Street so long as we attempt to grasp what they are doing as a kind of knowing. Rather than try to predict its outcome in advance or to categorize it under some existing conceptual scheme, now seems like a good time to declare a truce with the polis, to wait to see what Occupy can do.





2 responses to “Philosophy and Occupation”

  1. […] there are other versions. Occupy is one. I’m personally a big fan of Elinor Ostrom’s work on common-pool resource management. […]

  2. […] navigate their own metaphysical and normative implications? Why not let social movements articulate their own principles and foundations? Why not teach classics or economics in unconventionally politicized […]

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