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.

The Rally to Restore Sanity/Fear

GOODSIGNWinMcNamee:GettyIt was a policy wonk’s rally. People who know too much to think activism can be effective in the current media environment. People who spent the last decade protesting the war or Gauntanamo to no avail, only to watch the Tea Party become a major force with minuscule numbers because of a television network’s support.

I think some are confusing the image of the rally described in the news, a hipster’s ironic send-up of political activism, with the event itself. Even the organizers knew that would happen. Perhaps they’ve even made that mistake themselves, because they were on stage. But it is a mistake.

For one thing, most attendees couldn’t even hear or see the stage or the various jumbotrons. So most people who were there ended up spending the rally interacting with the people around them. We’ve grown used to political movements aligning themselves with a visionary voice: Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, Barack Obama. But Jon Stewart isn’t that, and the people who attended the rally were not there primarily to hear his jokes or to listen to the musical acts he booked.

The vast majority of the signs were anti-extremist signs, mostly lampooning the Tea Party. Just as the vast majority of the Tea Party’s signs were against Democrats. I saw one sign I found offensive: “I masturbate to Christine O’Donnell.” Other than that, people with signs were generally proclaiming that they value tolerance and civility. It may have been buried in several layers of irony, but these people were for and against things. Civility *can* be a cause of its own.

It wasn’t all Democrats, though there were quite a number of “Legalize Marijuana” signs. It was a polarized group, though. There were Republicans, but they were Mike Castle Republicans, not Sarah Palin Republicans. (Many still wearing their campaign apparel.) There weren’t any anarchists, at least not in their characteristic “garb” or up to their anti-corporate vandalizing antics.

The one thing a rally can do (that a policy paper or late-night comedy show can’t) is remind people that they’re not alone. Gatherings give us a palpable insight into the power of our ideas, their support among strangers, and the thronging multitudes of others who want what we want.

In my paranoid moments, I sometimes worry that the rise of overly sentimental anti-intellectual demagoguery presages some form of fascism. (I don’t really believe this, any more than Juan Williams believes that all “garbed” Muslims are terrorists. But the gut fears what the gut fears.) After the Rally on Saturday, I can say with greater confidence that the moderates outnumbered the extremists.

It is tempting to reject moderation when one is frustrated by politics, and there is a long tradition of lampooning moderates for being unprincipled or quietist. But I’m with Cass Sunstein, and Halifax, on this one:

Why, after we have played the foole with throwing Whig and Tory at one another, as boys do snowballs, doe we grow angry at a new name, which by its true signification might do as much to put us into our witts, as the others have been to put us out of them? The Innocent Word Trimmer signifieth no more than this, that if men are together in a Boat, and one part of the Company would weigh it down on one side, another would make it lean as much to the contrary, it happneth there is a third Opinion, of those who conceave it would do as well, if the Boat went even, without endangering the Passengers.. . . [T]rue Vertue hath ever been thought a Trimmer, and to have its dwelling in the middle, between the two extreams. — Lord Halifax

The Weak Man Fallacy

Is paranoia and militancy the core of the Tea Party Movement? In the context of my recent foray into the Tea Party movement, I’ve been thinking recently about fallacies and bad critical thinking in the public sphere. My friend Robert Talisse has an article with Scott Aikin that I think all philosophers should read. In it, Talisse and Aikin propose a variant of the “Straw Man fallacy,” the “Weak Man.” The Weak Man fallacy doesn’t misstate a rival’s position like a ‘straw man,’ but instead

chooses the opposition’s weakest (or one of its weakest) arguments or proponents for attack.

Talisse developed an account of this fallacy in an article in Scientific American, “Getting Duped: How the Media Messes with Your Mind“:

Weak man tactics are harder to detect than those of the straw man variety. Because straw man arguments are closely related to an opponent’s true position, a clever listener might be able to spot the truth amid the hyperbole, understatement or other corrupted version of that view. A weak man argument, however, is more opaque because it contains a grain of truth and often bears little similarity to the stronger arguments that should also be presented. Therefore, a listener has to know a lot more about the situation to imagine the information that a speaker or writer has cleverly disregarded.

The problem is that there are always both strong and weak interlocutors in the electorate. There are a lot of crazy, wrong, and stupid people in the United States. Should bloggers and scholars devote their energies to responding to them? Or should they respond to the strongest, smartest, best proponents of a policy with which we disagree? Continue reading The Weak Man Fallacy

The Tea Party Movement

The New York Times’ article on Tea Party ‘founder’ Keli Carender, struck me as an interesting corrective to much of the treatment of the movement as either a Fox News ‘stunt’ or a wing of the Republican Party run by the same old white men with a few token non-males and non-whites. Carendar is apparently a bit of a libertarian:

“Well,” she said, thinking for a long time and then sighing. “Let’s see. Some days I’m very Randian. I feel like there shouldn’t be any of those programs [Medicaid and Medicare] that it should all be charitable organizations. Sometimes I think, well, maybe it really should be just state, and there should be no federal part in it at all. I bounce around in my solutions to the problem.”

Progressives have largely ignored this movement, because of its association with organizations like the John Birch Society and those who deny that Barack Obama is an American citizen. But I’m struck by how much the Tea Party is beginning to coalesce as a a group of bipartisan deficit hawks, fiscal conservatives, and libertarians.

The Tea Party doesn’t have settled leadership or a national platform, and its members have largely rebuffed attempts by some in the old guard of the Republican Party to define it. It also seems significantly younger than the Republican Party. In the same light, it doesn’t seem that all of the people currently flirting with the Tea Party movement would recognize themselves in the image of potentially violent disenfranchisement described by Frank Rich, who identifies an ideological affinity between the Tea Party and Joe Stack, the terrorist who flew a private plane into the IRS building in Austin, TX:

…most Tea Party groups have no affiliation with the G.O.P. despite the party’s ham-handed efforts to co-opt them. The more we learn about the Tea Partiers, the more we can see why. They loathe John McCain and the free-spending, TARP-tainted presidency of George W. Bush. They really do hate all of Washington, and if they hate Obama more than the Republican establishment, it’s only by a hair or two. The distinction between the Tea Party movement and the official G.O.P. is real, and we ignore it at our peril.

Now Rich is convinced that Tea Party members is a nascent hate group, but I’m not persuaded. Certainly there are hate groups out there, and some of them have put out feelers, trying to determine whether the Tea Party might grant them some legitimacy, as it has done for the John Birch Society. But the membership doesn’t know what it is, yet.

Because I teach college students at a pretty expensive private university, I asked this morning if anybody would be willing to talk to me about the Tea Party. I’ve just concluded a discussion with one Tea Partier, not necessarily representative, but very interesting. Continue reading The Tea Party Movement